2010 Spring Auto Guide
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Higher-mileage tires: What you should know

As summer driving season approaches, tire manufacturers have started actively advertising their latest generation of better mileage tires.

But do these tires deliver what they promise? What are they really like when the rubber meets the road?

What makes better mileage tires unique?

"Fuel-efficient tires are radial tires that have become lean-and-mean, or, in this case, lean-and-green," says John Rastetter, director of information services at TireRack.com. "They incorporate advanced silica and rubber compounds that generate less heat and use less energy. They also utilize advanced manufacturing techniques that minimize weight without sacrificing strength and they maintain both wet- and dry-traction while reducing rolling resistance without sacrificing tread wear."

Successive technological advances have made today's fuel-saving car tires much better than those developed 15 years ago, says Rastetter. These new production methods, in turn, have allowed tire makers to better disperse silica and other materials within the tire's compound, allowing for improved handling and rolling resistance.

The latest generation of fuel-saving tires tested by TireRack, for example, exhibited few of the wet-traction/wet-handling performance issues that were once so noticeable on comparable tires in 1995. Concerns related to premature tread wear also appear to have been successfully addressed: Most of today's better mileage tires now claim to last 50,000 to 90,000 miles.

Finding the right ones remains a challenge

Unfortunately, fuel-saving tires -- unlike snow tires -- don't have any readily identifiable markers or government-endorsed labeling that would help you distinguish them from common radials.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, is expected to introduce new standards for rolling resistance this spring, but Rastetter says even if that happens it will take manufacturers about two years to get all tires labeled. What's more, he says, is that the California Energy Commission is drawing up its own rules.

Consumers considering a future purchase of higher mileage car tires should get recommendations from qualified professionals at local tire centers, and research tires at websites that focus on hybrid vehicles or "hypermiling" for details on performance, handling and overall fuel savings.

"You really have to do that research on a tire-by-tire basis because some tires on the market will still have issues with wet-traction, braking, handling, and hard ride," says Pat Goss, master technician of "MotorWeek" on the PBS network.

Costs vs. benefits

"These tires can be a bit more expensive than regular tires," says Rastetter, "but that expense can recouped over the life of the tire by giving you 2 percent to 4 percent better fuel economy over 60,000 miles."

In tests conducted on identical models of Toyota Prius -- an already highly fuel-efficient car -- TireRack found that the latest generation of better mileage tires improved fuel economy 2 to 4 miles per gallon.

But tires alone aren't magic-bullets: Even a 25 percent reduction in rolling resistance might yield the consumer about a 1 percent boost in fuel economy.

"We find that with the people we'd changed over, the average improvement is between two- to three-tenths of a mile per gallon," says Goss.

Better mileage tires alone don't guarantee better fuel economy

"Hopefully, heightening the awareness of the tire will get consumers to take better care of them, regardless whether or not they ever purchase fuel-efficient tires in the future," says Matt Edmonds, vice president of Tire Rack. "Alignment and tire inflation are two things that greatly impact on fuel-economy, yet this maintenance is often neglected by drivers. And vehicles whose tires are under inflated by 20 percent use 10 percent more gas."

Goss agrees: "And if you are going to be sloppy with tire maintenance, fuel-efficient tires aren't going to help you, because they only work when they are properly inflated and maintained."

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