Now that you know whether you need new tires, you should also consider how many you need to buy. Many people will want to save as much money as possible and buy only one tire, if that’s all that’s needed. It’s smarter to buy your tires at least in sets of 2 (both front tires or both rear tires) if your car is front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, though buying a full set is still preferred, to ensure equal grip and longevity at each corner of the car. All-wheel drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles will need to have all four tires replaced at the same time due to mechanical requirements.
Generally speaking, especially if your car was built sometime in the last 10 years, the best move you can make for tires is to buy exactly what was equipped on the car from the factory. If your car was built in the last 3 years or so, there’s a good chance that the tires you’re replacing are the tires that came from the factory—so just get those. If not, tire stores can often look up the recommended tire.
The factory-recommended tire isn’t just a generic pick—it’s the tire that the car company used to develop your car’s suspension, ride quality, and quietness. Often, car makers and tire makers work together to build a tire with specific features—this is very common in luxury and performance cars, but also with hybrids, sedans, pickups, and other types of car. Getting a new set of the tires your car was designed to use is the easy, smart choice for getting the most out of your car—but it’s not usually the cheapest route.
There are, after all, any number of discount tire brands that proclaim seemingly infinite durability, brilliant grip in all conditions, and all for about half the price of the factory recommended tires. With very, very few exceptions, those tires are exactly what they seem to be: cheap. These tire companies aren’t performing magic: construction quality, balance, tread design, rubber compound, and durability all suffer to cut costs.
That’s not to say you can’t get a perfectly serviceable, comfortable, safe tire at the lower end of the price spectrum—you most certainly can. But if you opt to put cheap tires on your car, expect to lose some of the handling precision, grip (both on dry pavement and in slippery conditions), and expect to gain some noise from the tread pattern.
For pickups that see off-road use, you might be inclined to slap on a set of mud-terrain tires just because they look so awesome. While that’s a fine decision (just be sure they’re rated for highway use—not all mud-rated tires are), just know that you’ll likely see worse fuel mileage, have a lot more noise in the cab, and likely wear them out sooner than smoother treaded highway tires. A good compromise is the all-terrain tire, which gets you much of the rugged look (and off-road performance) of mud terrains, but with a more highway friendly, smoother tread design.
Those who own sports cars and sport sedans may want to upgrade from the factory tire to a tire with more dry-pavement grip, even if it comes at the cost of winter or rain performance, ride quality, or noise. Those looking at maximum performance summer tires should expect to see much quicker wear, as tires in this performance category often last 10,000 miles or less—but then, that’s why they are so much stickier. It’s a trade-off. These high-performance tires also typically lack the run-flat protection of factory-specified modern sport/luxury vehicles—so be sure to keep a can of Fix-A-Flat handy, or have a spare tire and wheel on board.
Whatever sort of tire you’re looking to buy, you’ll also need to choose the size. Those sticking with the exact factory recommended tire can skip this choice—it’s chosen for you—but those looking to do something a little different will have the option of going slight wider or taller (or narrower or shorter), even while keeping the same wheels you currently have. It’s safe to go up or down a small range in tire size while using the original wheels, but for larger changes, you’ll want to upgrade to new wheels, too. A good tire shop will advise you what’s safe and what isn’t.
If you’d like to go to a larger overall wheel diameter while you’re buying new tires, you’ll need to make sure they fit within your car’s wheel wells first. If you’re buying them through a tire and wheel shop, they’ll be able to tell you what will fit. If you’re buying them yourself, you might want to check out an online configurator like the ones at Tire Rack or Discount Tire, which will show you both stock-similar and upgrade options that are guaranteed to fit your car.
For most people, the best bet for new tires is to set up an appointment with a trusted tire shop, tell the people there what you want and need, and follow their advice. Just remember: the tire is the only part of your car that’s actually in contact with the road, and therefore the first line of defense in keeping you and your family safe. It’s not a place to cut corners, so opt for the highest quality tires you can afford.
automotive freelance journalist