What the best tires have
- A good warranty. Tires can include two different types of warranties: protection against tire defects (which is standard) and a tread warranty. Treadwear warranties will vary depending on the tire class, with five or six years, and 70,000 miles or more typical among better all-season choices. Summer tires wear faster -- and our Best Reviewed choice includes three-year, 30,000 mile coverage. When it comes to the highest performance tires, expect a workmanship warranty (which can be voided if the tire is abused or used competitively) and no treadwear warranty at all.
- Good road manners. Different classes of tires will perform differently, but at the very least, good performance on dry roads is a minimum requirement. Most tires, even better-rated performance tires, will also handle wet roads without too much drama, while top all seasons will handle light to moderate ice and snow (though snow tires are a better bet where winters get serious). Comfort and road noise should also be good with tires designed to be used primarily as family cars, though both go down -- sometimes markedly -- with tires designed primarily for performance and speed.
- Good grip. The best tires will grip well in most conditions, and provide good lateral stability for cornering.
- Low rolling resistance. If the maximum fuel efficiency is a top priority, look for a tire with low rolling resistance, which cuts down a bit on traction, but boosts your miles per gallon.
Know before you go
What's your driving style? Getting the right tire for you requires more thought than just picking a top-rated model. For a well-matched tire, consider how you typically drive and what your priorities are for comfort, handling and traction.
- All-season tires are the most comfortable style, with well-balanced tread patterns that can manage rain and light snow. Their advantages include a long tread life and lower price.
- Run-flat tires are becoming increasingly popular for the safety-conscious driver. If your car is equipped with run-flat tires as original equipment (something that's happening a little more often), replacing them with run-flats is almost a necessity as you will not have access to a spare.
- Summer tires provide sportier performance and appearance than all seasons. However, they tend to have shorter tread life and should not be used if ice or snow are on the roads.
- Performance tires are designed to provide maximum dry road (and track) performance for driving enthusiasts with sports cars and exotics. Wet weather performance lags other types of tires and tread life is short (most have no tread wear warranty at all).
Traction versus treadwear. Tire manufacturers use different combinations of materials, depending on whether they are striving for longevity or traction. Softer compounds (common in summer and performance tires) provide extra grip for faster speeds and better cornering, with lower treadwear grades. Hard compound tires, like most all-season tires, are more durable. They typically have treadwear grades above 500 and can log more miles than soft compound tires.
Understanding UTQG specs. Many tires have a UTQG (short for Uniform Tire Quality Grade Standards) -- a rating that estimates how long a tire will last, how well it will perform on wet pavement and how fast it can go. Experts say this number can be misleading, however, since each tire manufacturer provides the data for its own tires and no third party measures UTQG.
Boosting miles per gallon. More and more tire manufacturers are producing "eco" and "green" models of tires. This type of tire features a low rolling resistance (a measurement of the amount of energy it takes for the tire to turn) and can help increase your fuel economy. Tires sometimes sacrifice a little traction to reduce fuel consumption, according to professional tire reviews. Experts also say that it's best to focus on safety, handling and comfort as a priority when selecting tires, considering rolling resistance only as tie-breaker.
Know the code. Every tire made since 1991 is stamped with a service description code that denotes its speed rating and load carrying ability. Load indexes for passenger cars range from 70 (739 pounds) to 126 (3,748 pounds), while speed ratings range from L (75 mph) to Z (in excess of 186 mph). See this TireRack.com article for more information.
Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it
There seems to be a tire retailer on every corner -- not to mention gas stations, muffler shops and large retailers such as Walmart -- but it's becoming easier than ever to buy tires online. Even Amazon.com carries many brands of tires, often at very low prices. However, if you buy online, you still have to factor in installation costs, including disposal fees for your current tires, if applicable, plus shipping costs. TireRack.com has an extensive network of partners that will accept shipment of your tires and install them; or you can designate the installer of your choice and have them shipped there, or transport them yourself. Amazon.com also now offers professional local installation services.