Tires are the single most important safety feature on your car. They are the only thing that connects the car to the road, and life-saving technologies like antilock brakes and electronic stability control cannot do their job if the tires don't have a good grip on the pavement. And yet tires are one of the least-understood components of our cars -- mostly because there are so many different kinds and so little information about them.
No one tire is best, as everyone's needs are different. This list of simple do's and don'ts will help you make informed decisions when it comes time to buy new tires.
DON'T spend too little on your tires.
Cheap, poorly-designed tires can make for longer stopping distances and less control in an emergency maneuver. All tires have traction ratings (AA, A, B or C) stamped right on the tire itself -- buy tires with an A or AA rating.
DON'T spend too much on your tires.
As with most things, a name brand on a tire costs more. Well-known name brands do tend to provide a consistently high level of quality, but there are lesser-known tire manufacturers that produce excellent products at lower prices. Recommendations from a tire dealer you trust or from a site like Tire Rack (www.tirerack.com) are a great way to find good tires.
DON'T assume OEM is best.
OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) tires are the ones fitted to your car at the factory, but buying the same type of tire as a replacement isn't always the best choice. Manufacturers look for a tire that will provide acceptable performance in all conditions from Arizona summers to Vermont winters. They may choose a tire that emphasizes comfort over handling or handling over tread life. As a consumer, you can do better by shopping around. Replacement OEM tires for my wife's car were around $130 apiece; I found a tire better suited to our hot and dry California weather that cost significantly less. Not only did they improve the way the car drove, they saved me quite a bit of money.
DO pick the right tire dealer.
When the time comes to shop for tires, many people go to the dealership or their local mechanic -- but these businesses often carry a limited number of brands or tire models. A full-service tire dealer will carry a wide range of brand names and will be familiar with local weather and road conditions. Talk to your dealer about the type of driving you do and get her recommendations. If you're comfortable buying tires online, Tire Rack (www.tirerack.com) has an excellent interactive system that will help you find a tire well suited to your needs.
DO have realistic expectations.
Tires, like most things in life, are a trade-off. Performance tires tend to wear out faster, while tires that give a more comfortable ride may be less agile in the corners. Talk to your tire dealer about the possible trade-offs of any tires you are considering.
DO buy two sets of tires.
Most cars come with all-season tires. Imagine using the same pair of shoes for jogging, hiking, tramping through snow, and ballet dancing, and you'll understand the problem inherent with all-season tires.
If you live where it snows, buy a set of proper snow tires (also known as winter tires) and use them in the winter. All-season tires are designed to handle all weather conditions, but they aren't optimized for any particular one. Snow tires are designed for one thing and one thing only: Keeping your car going where you point it when temperatures are low and the roads are covered in snow and ice. By using snow tires in the winter, you can opt for a "summer" tire better suited to your tastes -- be that a quieter, more comfortable ride, better handling, improved rain performance or longer tread-life.
DO buy four tires at once.
New tires generally grip the road better than tires that have some miles on them. It's best to replace all four tires at once, but if you must replace them in pairs, put the new tires on the back (regardless of whether the car is front- or rear-wheel-drive). This will help the car retain its stability and predictability in a panic swerve. (Older tires on the rear will make the car more likely to spin out.)
Rotating the tires every 5,000 to 7,000 miles will ensure that they wear at the same rate, allowing you to get the most return on your investment and ensure that all four tires will be ready for replacement at the same time.
NEVER replace a single tire -- if a tire is damaged and cannot be repaired, replace it as well as its mate on the other side of the car.
DON'T ignore your new tires.
Tires are NOT maintenance free items! Tires lose about 1 psi of pressure per month and another 1 psi for every 10 degree drop in temperature. If you buy new tires in August, by January they could have lost as much as 20% of their inflation pressure. Underinflated tires decrease gas mileage and are more likely to suffer a blowout -- and with modern tires, you can't tell the pressure is low just by looking. Check your inflation pressures and inspect your tires monthly as outlined in our Tire Safety Tips. -- Aaron Gold