Many elements affect the performance and safety of your vehicle, but none are more important than your tires.
They have a huge impact on acceleration, steering, and braking, and they've got to maintain control whether it's blisteringly hot, pouring with rain, or freezing cold.
As a result, modern car and truck tires have become extremely high-tech equipment.
Tire manufacturers produce a bewildering range, each promising to be the optimum solution for your vehicle.
But with so many available, how do you choose? What are the individual elements that make the best car tire, or the best truck or SUV tire?
BestReviews took to the road to find answers!
We carried out our own testing, we consulted with experts, and we reviewed the feedback of thousands of owners. The resulting report is a comprehensive look at what it takes to be among the best tires available today.
It's also completely independent. We don't accept manufacturer's samples, so our analysis is always free of bias. We buy what we test, from the same stores you would, so you can be sure of getting the same results we did.
The product list above includes the top picks from our research.
The following report explains tire construction and specifications in detail, and will help you make the right buying decision for your vehicle.
The air-filled, or pneumatic, tire was patented in 1847 by Scotsman Robert William Thompson, but he couldn't make them cheaply enough to be commercially viable. In 1887 John Boyd Dunlop developed a different version with no knowledge of the original. His were successful, and changed the world.
Dunlop's tire was a simple tube made from sheet rubber, and was first used on bicycles. Today's car tires might still be air-filled rubber – but they are a vastly different, and surprisingly complex product.
More than 200 materials are used in the creation of a modern pneumatic tire. Natural and synthetic rubbers are bonded in a multi-layered product that has steel, textiles and host of different chemicals used in its composition.
The result is a tire that is immensely resistant to lateral movement, yet has sufficient flexibility to absorb energy that would otherwise tear it off the wheel. Tread compounds and patterns provide astonishing grip in a tremendous variety of weather conditions. When the rain starts to pour, they are capable of dispersing more than three gallons of water per second. It's amazing that this level of advanced technology is so affordable.
There are three generally available types of tires:
All-Season (or All-Weather)
Changing tires between summer and winter has long been popular, if a little inconvenient. There are good reasons.
Summer tires are harder and more durable. Winter tires don't get as warm, so the rubber has to be softer to give sufficient grip. Treads are also different to disperse water and cut through snow.
All-season tires have suffered from being viewed as something of a compromise. An adequate "jack of all trades" solution, but not as good in either season. With improved tire technology – both in terms of compound and tread patterns – this is no longer the case.
In areas that suffer extremes of temperature, changing from summer to winter tires can still be a very good idea. However, in more moderate regions, good quality all-weather tires do an excellent year-round job.
If you occasionally encounter snow and ice, you might consider tire chains – a popular, and more convenient alternative.
The tire codes marked on your sidewall are packed with information. They might look complicated at first, but the format is common. You'll see something like: P 195/60 R16 88T.
P means passenger vehicle. On pickups and SUVs it can be LT for light truck. Other letters apply to trailers and commercial vehicles, but aren't found on car tires.
165 tells you the tire width in millimeters.
65 tells you aspect ratio, which is the ratio of tire height to width of tread. Aspect ratios of 50 and under are considered “low profile.” These shorter sidewall/wider tread combinations provide better grip and more precise cornering. The downside is that they are more prone to blow-outs or wheel damage in potholes or over curbs – there's less rubber to absorb impacts. Ride quality is usually harsher, too. Probably not an issue on city streets, but could be on country roads.
R stands for radial.
16 tells you the wheel diameter in inches.
88 is the load rating (or load Index). This is a measure of the maximum weight each tire can carry. 88 is equivalent to 1,235 pounds. Multiply that by four and you have a set of tires designed to carry a car not exceeding 4,940 pounds. Charts are available online if you'd like to investigate further, but sticking to what's marked is recommended.
T is the speed rating. This indicates the maximum speed the tire is capable of running "under optimal conditions." All kinds of things can affect this – not least the posted speed limit! The T rating is equal to 118 mph. Other common speed ratings include S for 112 mph, H for 130, and V for 149.
Unless you have specific advice from a professional, or the maker of your car, the safest, and usually most economical option when changing tires is to replace like with like.
A common assumption is that a higher speed rating means better tire performance. It does not. While it's true that H-, V-, and W-rated tires have been constructed to handle the extreme demands of sports cars and luxury sedans, that doesn't mean they'll make the average family car handle better.
Fitting W-rated tires to an ordinary car instead of T-rated ones will only result in a bigger bill!
So what should you look for? For most people there are two important considerations, tread style and tread life.
In theory, best grip is provided by a tire with no tread at all. That's why race cars run on “slicks.”
That’s not very practical for road use, though. The trick is balancing the right amount of rubber with the right amount of “cuts,” or grooves.
The grooves running around your tire are designed to improve grip in wet conditions by slicing through water. The angled slots, called sipes, push this water sideways, away from the tread. The two combine to create as dry an area as possible between tire and road surface. They also offer better grip in light snow.
Chunkier treads are better at dissipating water – off-road tires are an extreme example – but it's a compromise. The more slots there are, the less rubber is in contact with the road in the dry. On hot days, you want as much rubber on the road as possible.
Complex tread patterns also tend to be noisier.
Overly patterned or deep treads don't seem to gain any real advantage in the majority of driving conditions. If you feel you need extra tread depth regularly, you probably live in an area that warrants summer and winter tires, rather than getting one kind to do both jobs.
Tire manufacturers usually quote a mileage expectancy. Lots of things will affect this, but it's fairly accurate, and valuable for comparison purposes.
You'll also want to consider how and where you drive most of the time:
Do you live in a mountainous area with lots of twists and turns?
Do you mostly travel on freeways?
Do you do lots of stop-start city driving?
Softer compounds offer increased grip, and better braking, but as a result they wear out more quickly. High mileage tires are harder, but are an economical option for those who spend much of their time traveling the long, straight highways that crisscross the country.
You'll also want to check manufacturer's warranty – it’s always a good guide to their confidence in the product.
To some extent the price you pay will be governed by the size and style of your vehicle. Replacements for a Dodge Ram or Chevy Corvette are always going to be more expensive than those for a Ford Focus or Honda Civic.
Nevertheless, you should find plenty of choices. We've focused on all-season tires, because for most people they offer the best balance between performance and economy. You'll probably pay between $50 and $90 per tire.
While there's no doubt you'll probably pay a small premium for “big brand” tires, there's also an argument that these manufacturers provide excellent value and have built a reputation for supplying a superior product. There's not much rubber connecting your car to the road – you want it to be the best you can afford.
Size and pressure information for the tires on your vehicle will be in your owner’s manual, but are often conveniently located on a panel on the driver's side door or door frame.
Manufacturers choose sizes and tire specifications carefully, to give best all-around performance in a wide variety of conditions. While you might choose a different brand, fitting different sizes or profiles can have a negative impact on overall performance.
Never try to save money by replacing an LT tire with a P version — even if all the other details are the same — as they do not have the same structural integrity. Tires that don't have this information are Euro-spec, and should be replaced by similar models.
Think carefully before changing wheel or tire sizes. It can affect handling, fuel consumption, and the accuracy of your speedometer.
Q: Can I change just one tire?
A: It is never a good idea to change a single tire. The other tire on that axle will have a different circumference, upsetting the balance. It will disturb handling and braking because one side of your car will have more grip than the other. It's always a good idea to change all four tires at the same time, but at a minimum change both on the same axle.
If you are experiencing particularly uneven wear, there could be an underlying problem. Unless you race round an oval on the weekends, your tire wear should be about the same all around, or a little more on the driven wheels. If it's not, you should check for a wheel bearing, tie rod, or suspension issue.
Q: Are run flat tires a good idea?
A: That's a tough question. Being able to continue driving after a puncture is a lot easier than having to stop and change a tire, but it's not as straight-forward as that. There are two types of run-flat. Self-supporting tires have stronger sidewalls than normal, so if air is lost, they still support the car. However, they're not suitable for all wheels. Self-sealing versions have a liquid content that seals the puncture — though there is a limit to how big the hole can be.
There are some other negatives:
Both handle tread punctures well, but not sidewall damage.
You must not continue to drive on them. Most manufacturers tell you they're good for 50 miles, at 50 mph. Then you need to get the puncture fixed, or the tire replaced.
It's a complex question and technology is changing all the time. Automakers like run-flats because they free up space – there's no need for a fifth wheel. In general, our advice is that if they're fitted as standard, that's what you should use. Otherwise, you may find the cost prohibitive. For a few bucks, you can get a can of tire sealant. Add a 12 volt tire pump and you have a similar solution for a fraction of the price.
Q: How important is tire pressure?
A: More important than many people think. Under inflation is the main cause of blowouts. It's also responsible for higher tire wear, increased fuel consumption, handling problems, and poor braking. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tells us low tire pressure causes thousands of injuries every year.
Prevention is easy. All you need is a good tire gauge, and five minutes. Unless you've regularly been driving over rough terrain, or done very high mileage, checking them once a month is fine.