We show the difference between tire types, then steer you in the right direction
Buying car tires is easy. It’s finding the right ones for your car that can be difficult.
Get it wrong, and you can hobble your car’s performance and its ability to tackle any type of weather.
Since car tires usually need to be replaced every three or four years, here’s a refresher course on how to make sure you’re getting the right ones.
Most car tires fall into three main types: all-season, summer, and winter. Most people buy all-season tires because it’s easier and cheaper than buying one set for the winter and another for summer.
All-season car tires deliver a good, well-rounded performance but are never outstanding in any way. Summer tires deliver on handling and dry/wet braking, but they have dismal snow traction. By contrast, winter tires have outstanding snow traction but just fair braking ability on cleared roads.
Within each car tire category, there is a range of performance, as our tests routinely remind us. To see the basic differences in tire types, look at the chart below.
As you can see, no single tire type is outstanding in all conditions.
So how do you find the best tires for your car? Follow these three steps:
What Size Do You Need?
First, consult your owner’s manual or the placard on the driver’s side door jamb to find the recommended tire measurements. The label will look something like this: P215/60R16 94T.
The first part of the label—P215/60R16—refers to the tire’s various size measurements such as width and diameter. The 94 indicates the load index, which is how much weight each tire can support. Finally, the T is the speed rating, which is the tire’s maximum speed in relation to the load index.
You should match the tire’s size measurements, but you have some flexibility to go higher with the load index and speed rating.
What Type of Tire Do You Need?
Many retail websites will give you a listing of all tires available in your size. But in many cases, you’ll need to dig deeper to match the speed rating. The list below can help ID your tire type.
- 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 rating on many newer cars, especially those with enthusiast appeal or upgraded wheels. They tend to have better cornering grip than S- and 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. One clue to tell them apart: A summer tire would not have an M&S (Mud & Snow) designation on the sidewall.
- 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. A tip is that many all-terrain tires will have “A/T” or “All Terrain” right in the model name.
- Winter/snow tires are easily 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 winter tires in sets of four to optimize braking and handling.
What Are Your Priorities in Selecting a Tire?
Our research shows that people often choose a direct replacement tire when the car is still relatively new. But as the car ages, consumers become more inclined to switch to another model based on performance or price.
If you’re looking to make a switch, be sure to check our extensive tire ratings, especially if you’re seeking a model with maximum tread life and all-weather grip.
Check under the hood to prevent problems
A belt or hose failure can cause an overheated engine, loss of power steering, and loss of the electrical charging system. If a hose leaks coolant or the belt turning the water pump snaps, the cooling system is inoperable. If the engine overheats, it can suffer serious internal damage that requires expensive repairs and can ruin a summer vacation.
Overheating can occur anytime, but usually happens in the summer. Underhood temperatures are much higher, and heat can trigger or accelerate deterioration of rubber compounds.
Coolant and Heater Hoses
Hoses are the cooling system’s weakest structural component. They are made of flexible rubber compounds to absorb vibrations between the engine and radiator, or, in the case of heater hoses, the engine and body’s firewall. Designed to hold coolant under pressure, hoses are also subjected to fluctuating extremes of heat and cold, dirt, oils, and sludge. Atmospheric ozone also attacks rubber compounds.
The most damaging cause of hose failure—electrochemical degradation (ECD)—isn’t easy to detect. According to engineers for the Gates Corporation, a parts maker, ECD attacks hoses from the inside, causing tiny cracks. Acids and contaminants in the coolant can then weaken the yarn material that reinforces the hose. Eventually, pinholes can develop or the weakened hose may rupture from heat, pressure, or constant flexing.
Some easy, basic maintenance can help prevent coolant hose failure:
- Check the white coolant-recovery tank often to ensure proper fluid level. Marks on the tank indicate the proper level for when the engine is cold or hot. If the tank is low after repeated fillings, suspect a leak. Also check for white, light green, blue, or pink coolant tracks in the engine bay, which is residue left from leaking coolant.
- When the engine is cool, squeeze the hoses with your thumb and forefinger near the clamps, where ECD most often occurs. Feel for soft or mushy spots. A good hose will have a firm yet pliant feel.
- Inspect for cracks, nicks, bulges usually while hot), or a collapsed section in the hose and oil contamination, or fraying near the connection points.
- Look for parallel cracks around bends (caused by ozone), a hardened glassy surface (heat damage), or abrasive damage (hose is rubbing).
- Flush and replace the coolant according to the owner’s manual. Clean coolant is less likely to support ECD.
- Never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot, as the hot coolent will be under pressure. Also, be aware that an electric cooling fan can come on at any time.
The upper radiator hose fails more often than any other hose, followed by the water pump bypass hose (if your vehicle is so equipped), and the outlet heater hose from the engine to the heater core. Experts recommend, however, that all hoses be replaced at least every four years or when one fails. Always use replacement hoses designed to fight ECD. Trademarks will vary among hose manufacturers. (Gates uses “ECR” for Electro-Chemical Resistant). Look for a “Type EC” label on the hose or its packaging. That is a Society of Automotive Engineers standard signifying “electrochemical.” Most vehicles built after 1993 come with ECD-resistant hoses.
Many of the same elements that attack hoses also attack belts—heat, oil, ozone, and abrasion. Almost all cars and trucks built today have a single multi-grooved serpentine belt that drives the alternator, water pump, power-steering pump, and air-conditioning compressor. Older vehicles may have separate V-belts that drive the accessories. The Car Care Council says chances of a V-belt failure rise dramatically after four years or 36,000 miles, while the critical point for a serpentine belt is 50,000 miles. Any belt should be changed when it shows signs of excessive wear. But many new composite belts don’t show signs of wear until the failure occurs.
Here are tips for inspecting belts:
- Look for cracks, fraying, or splits on the top cover.
- Look for signs of glazing on the belt’s sides. Glazed or slick belts can slip, overheat or crack.
- Twist a serpentine belt to look for separating layers, cracks, or missing chunks of the grooves on the underside.
Replacement belts should be identical in length, width, and number of grooves to the factory belt. Serpentine belts are usually kept tight with an automatic tensioner. Signs of a belt-tension problem include a high-pitched whine or chirping sound and vibration noises. Without proper tension, belts will slip and generate heat or fail to turn the accessories.
If in doubt, check with a qualified technician about any cooling problems, and always consult your owner’s manual for routine maintenance procedures.
LOVE YOUR CAR?
Simple tasks that can make your car last longer.
1) Check the Engine Oil
Do it regularly—monthly for a vehicle in good condition; more often if you notice an oil leak or find you need to add oil routinely. The car should be parked on level ground so you can get an accurate dipstick reading. Don’t overfill. And if you do have a leak, find and fix it soon.
2) Check Tire Air Pressure
Once a month and before any extended road trips, use an accurate tire-pressure gauge to check the inflation pressure in each tire, including the spare. Do this when the tires are cold (before the vehicle has been driven or after no more than a couple of miles of driving). Use the inflation pressure recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer, not the maximum pressure embossed on the tire’s sidewall. The recommended pressure is usually found on a placard on a front doorjamb, in the glove compartment, or in the owner’s manual. Also be sure to inspect tires for abnormal or uneven wear, cuts, and any sidewall bulges you can see
3) Wash the Car
Try to wash the car every week, if you can. Wash the body and, if necessary, hose out the fender wells and undercarriage to remove dirt and road salt. It’s time to wax the finish when water beads become larger than a
4) Other Checks at Each Oil Change
For normal driving, many automakers recommend changing the engine oil and filter every 7,500 miles or six months, whichever comes first. This is sufficient for the majority of motorists. For “severe” driving—with frequent, very cold starts and short trips, dusty conditions, or trailer towing—the change interval should be shortened to every 3,000 miles or three months. (Check your owner’s manual for the specific intervals recommended for your vehicle.) Special engines such as diesels and turbocharged engines may need more-frequent oil changes.
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Check your car’s lights and wipers, as the chance of an accident increases if you can’t see or be seen. It’s more important that your car’s lights and wipers are working properly so you can be seen by others. From the driver’s seat you may not notice a light that is not working, so inspect all of your car’s lights and replace those that are out. Also, inspect and replace wiper blades so you can see clearly when wet weather hits.
Lights are normal wear items that require periodic inspection and replacement. The lighting system provides nighttime visibility, signals and alerts other drivers and supplies light for viewing instruments and the car’s interior. In addition to replacing dimming, rapidly blinking and non-functioning lights, the following tips can help keep you safe:
1. If there is any doubt on whether or not your headlights should be on, turn them on. Lights not only help you see better in early twilight, they also make it easier for other drivers to see you.
2. Keep headlights, tail lights and signal lights clean. External dirt and garbage can dim operational lights from being seen by others.
3. Make sure that your headlights are properly aimed. Misaimed headlights blind other drivers and reduce your ability to see the road.
4. Don’t overdrive your headlights; you should be able to stop inside the illuminated area, otherwise you are creating a blind crash area in front of your car.
The wiper system keeps excessive water, snow and dirt from building up on the windshield, maintaining clear visibility. Many factors can accelerate the replacement interval of wipers, including operating conditions, frequency of use, material and type of wipers and sunny weather. In fact, wiper blades can deteriorate faster and need more frequent replacement.