Snow. Touring. All-terrain. Do you know the different types of tires available, and which are the best match for your vehicle? While all-season tires may seem like an easy default, there are other types that can help your car function at its highest performance and keep you safe on the road.
When shopping for tires, you should become familiar with the meaning behind some of the key letters and numbers molded onto the tire’s exterior sidewall.1 For example:
- Tire type: P at the beginning of the tire size means it’s made to the standards of a passenger vehicle. LT is for light trucks.
- Tire width: The three digits following the tire type letter represent the width in millimeters.
- Load index: Found in both pounds and kilograms, this is the maximum load the tire can support when fully inflated. Always choose a load index that is equal to or higher than what originally came with your car.
- UTQG: Uniform Tire Quality Grade Standards, a rating system provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to help customers buy tires based on relative traction (scores range from AA as best, C worst) and temperature resistance (A is best, C is worst).2
On a dry summer day or damp winter night, all-season tires provide versatile traction for most weather conditions, making them a practical option for most sedans. However, they are not meant for superior performance, as they don’t meet the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA) standards for handling icy grounds and heavy blizzards. Their treadware warranty can range from none or 40,000 to 100,000 miles.3
Tip: When researching all-season tires, check out ones with low-rolling resistance for better fuel economy – you could save $78 a year.4
If you commute on highways often or are taking a long trip, touring tires may be a better option for you. Like all-season tires, they function best in moderate temperatures and weather, but feature a low profile and wider tread. Touring tires are known for a quiet, smooth ride and responsive handling.5
Snow tires, used in the winter, are essential for extremely snowy or icy road conditions. On the outer sidewall, look for the three-peak mountain/snowflake symbol, an official USTMA mark. This icon confirms the tires meet the stringent industry requirements for severe snow and winter traction typically under 45 degrees Fahrenheit.6 When picking your snow tire style, studless are preferable because they grip the road without damaging any surfaces.
Regardless of style, snow tires are made with specially formulated tread rubber that stays flexible at low temperatures. This soft compound wears down quickly in the heat, so it’s best not to use these tires the remainder of the year.
If you have a sport utility vehicle (SUV) and spend some time driving on unpaved roads, this durable tire is your best bet. Interlocking, open tread blocks with deep grooves and ridges allow the rubber to grip in any direction on gravel and dirt. As the name suggests, an all-terrain tire’s capabilities off the road also apply on smooth pavement. Trade-offs may be a louder vehicle performance than other styles, as well as shorter tread life and lower fuel efficiency.7
These special-purpose, smaller-diameter tires are only meant to be used if you find yourself with a flat tire and need to temporarily replace it. To save space and weight in your trunk, spares are light with shallow treads and come in folding designs in addition to full-size. You should switch out the spare as soon as possible for a replacement for the damaged tire.8
It’s important to remember that all-wheel and four-wheel drive is not a sufficient substitute for specialized tires. While these drivetrain systems offer excellent traction during acceleration, your success in slowing down, turning or braking is all thanks to properly performing tires. In fact, it’s only when their rubber literally hits the road that your car is able to stop.
Lastly, whichever type of tire you choose, make sure that all four tires on the vehicle are the same. A unified set of tires with the same tread pattern helps ensure the best handling, control and safety.9