For our three-part series on tires, this report covers all-season and three-season tires for passenger cars and minivans. We also have a separate report on SUV and truck tires, and a report on snow tires that includes winter tires for all vehicle types.
ConsumerReports.org conducts more comprehensive, rigorous tire tests than any other reviewer we found. Not content to blindly believe the tread-wear ratings manufacturers list on tires' sidewalls, ConsumerReports.org performs accelerated wear tests on 96 tire models -- all-season, performance all-season, and ultra-high-performance summer and all-season -- to see how fast they really wear out. Road tests determine how well the tires handle on wet and dry surfaces (and wintry roads, for all-season tires), and testers judge the tires' ride comfort and noise. ConsumerReports.org evaluates one more thing that most reviewers don't: rolling resistance. Tires with low rolling resistance get better gas mileage.
Sports car drivers might find ConsumerReports.org's approach a little too sensible, though. If you really want to know which tire won't let you down when pushed to the absolute limit, Car and Driver's most recent test judges four extreme-performance summer tires on the basis of ability alone. The test is just as painstakingly designed and executed as ConsumerReports.org's tests, but the drivers are racing experts -- and they don't take points off for practicalities such as tread life and gas mileage.
A Canadian nonprofit group, the Automobile Protection Association (APA), performs unbiased tests as well. The APA rates 39 all-season, performance and high-performance tires. We also found recent road-test comparisons at Popular Mechanics, About.com and TireRack.com, a retail site.
"All-season" is often a misnomer, as tire experts and consumers find when they try to drive the tires on snow and ice. Few all-season tires really perform well in winter-driving tests. Some perform worse than most in tests on ice and snow, including the otherwise highly rated Yokohama Avid TRZ (*Est. $95) and General Altimax RT (*Est. $90). Both win recent all-season tire shootouts at TireRack.com -- but the experts there test only on wet and dry pavement. When another testing organization throws snow and ice into the mix, the Yokohama and General score only "fair." Owners agree: In TireRack.com's customer surveys, both tires disappoint on ice and deep snow.
Several owners posting to TireRack.com's forum report they got the Bridgestone Potenza RE92 (*Est. $200) as original equipment on various Japanese import sedans (most recently, the Lexus IS with all-wheel drive) and were very disappointed in its performance on snow and ice. "Had someone cause me to stop on a dime and I slid with ABS pulsing faster than my heart rate in LIGHT SNOW!" writes one Lexus driver from Chicago.
Although most cars come factory-equipped with all-season tires, and 83 percent of the replacement tires sold are all-seasons, they can't match winter tires' grip on snow and ice, conclude editors at ConsumerReports.org, Car and Driver and TireRack.com. Canada's APA says all-season tires are the least expensive option, and "may provide adequate performance in winter when they are new." A few all-season tires perform very well in tests on ice and snow, including our Best Reviewed budget tire -- the Hankook Optimo H727 (*Est. $90).
Standard all-season tires strike a good balance between performance, ride quality, tread life and price. High-performance all-season tires provide better handling and grip, without giving up too much comfort and wear. Summer tires grip wet and dry roads tenaciously, but they cannot be driven in snow or ice, and they usually wear out quickly. For more help deciphering tire types and sizes, see our What to Look For section.
Price estimates throughout this report are usually based on a 215/60R16 tire size, a popular size appropriate for midsized cars. For ultra-high-performance tires, we use a larger tire size of P235/55R17 (or similar), appropriate for cars like the Ford Mustang GT, as the basis for estimates.