Finding the proper tires for your vehicle can be challenging. The first step is choosing the correct tire for your driving environment.
Most car tires fall into three main categories: all-season, summer, or winter.
- All-season tires come in S- and T-speed ratings. Known for good all-weather grip and long mileage, these are commonly fit to mainstream cars and SUVs.
- Performance all-season tires come in H- and V-speed ratings on many newer cars, especially those with enthusiast appeal or upgraded wheels. They tend to have better cornering grip than S- or T-speed rated all-season tires, but performance tires may not wear as long.
- Ultra-high-performance all-season and summer tires typically come in ZR-, W-, and Y- speed ratings for sports cars and performance sedans. Differentiating between all-season and summer tires can be challenging and may require going to a manufacturer's website to find out the details.
- All-season and all-terrain truck tires naturally come in large sizes and are designed for the hauling and towing duties of light-duty pickups and SUVs. All-terrain tires generally have a more aggressive tread pattern to aid off-road traction. Most all-terrain tires will have "A/T" or "All Terrain" right in the model name.
- Winter/snow tires are clearly identified by a mountain and snowflake symbol displayed on the sidewall of the tire. Plus, the tread looks busier than all-season tires with lots of slits, known as sipes. When shopping, be sure to buy all four winter tires to properly optimize braking and handling.
Where you live and drive is important in selecting the correct tires. For example, if you live in a state that experiences snow, winter tires with their softer rubber designed to grip on slippery surfaces will give you more traction in the snow. If you live in a southern state, winter tires wouldn’t make sense, but summer tires (made of tougher, more rigid rubber) tend to last longer in the hot weather.
The most popular tires are all-season, which perform well in most driving situations, though not as well as winter or summer based on their specific needs. It’s important to understand that winter-specific tires outperform all-season tires in snowy and icy conditions. They'll give you better traction, more stability in turns, and better stopping power. Continuing advances in tire technology allow winter tires to perform better than the traditional snow tires you may remember from a couple decades ago. They work better in snow, ice, slush, and mud, and on cold pavement. Most manufacturers now use rubber compounds that include silica. Tread designs are also far more aggressive to provide better acceleration and shorter stopping distances. Winter tires have more sipes (cuts) in the tread, than all-season tires, so they can push more water off the road. Jagged sipes provide more surface area and cut into snow and slush better than straight sipes. Many people choose to swap out winter tires for all-season, depending on the season.
Choosing the correct tire size
Once you settle on the type of tire you want, you will need to know the size. To figure this out, check on the sidewall of a tire for the following information:
- Tire specs – Size, construction, and speed rating. The speed rating is the approximate speed a tire can safely maintain over time. The higher the rating (A is the lowest and Y is the highest), the better the handling and control. However, a higher speed rating may result in a shorter tread life. Check with your owner's manual for the proper speed-rated tire for your model.
- Uniform tire quality grading (UTQG) – The testing method used to grade a tire’s tread wear, traction, and temperature.
- Icons – Features a tire’s unique benefits. For example, “M+S” means the tire meets the Rubber Manufacturers Association standards for mud and snow.
How do you extend the life of your new tires?
In addition to driving responsibly, there are other ways you can prolong tire life:
- Check tire pressure regularly. Find your optimal operating tire inflation pressure in the owner’s manual and on a sticker located on the inside of the driver’s door.
- Rotate tires regularly to help equalize tread wear.
- Check wheel alignment. It is typically recommended to get a 4-wheel alignment after getting new tires to ensure proper wear.