Tire Buying Guides
Tires have been around as long as there have been vehicles to put them on, so it’s no surprise that tires have had to evolve to keep up with advances in car and truck design as well as driving styles and the needs of drivers. Tire types can be confusing to figure out if you’re new to them, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
What Are the Types of Passenger Tires?
So what kind of car do you drive? A sedan, coupe, minivan, crossover, or SUV? What are road conditions and weather like for you? How many miles do you put on your vehicle each year? Do you do a lot of straight-line interstate driving, or do you sometimes like to push the envelope of your vehicle’s handling and cornering?
These are all factors that can be plugged into your decision-making when it’s time to shop for passenger tires. Let’s break it down a little.
Summer tires are usually similar in design to ultra-high-performance tires. Summer tires are designed for sharp, responsive handling, and braking traction, with a tread pattern and contact patch that delivers grip in wet or dry weather. Summer tires typically use a rubber compound that’s softer and “stickier” for better adhesion to the road in warm weather conditions. That softer tread has a couple of drawbacks, though, starting with the fact that summer tires usually are not covered by a limited manufacturer tread life warranty. Additionally, the pliable tread compound of summer tires will stiffen and lose its grip in colder weather, so these tires should not be used when daily temperatures are below 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like the name suggests, winter tires are purpose-built for traction in snow, slush, ice, and freezing rain. Winter tires have come a long way since the heavy, clunky, noisy “snow tires” or “mud grips” that were on the back wheels of a 1970s Buick wagon, though. Modern winter tires are designed with a variety of advanced tread formulations that stay flexible on subfreezing days (think about the traction of a rubber boot vs the traction of a hockey puck). They’re designed with a more-aggressive version of an all-season tread pattern, with a dense sipe pattern that provides thousands of extra biting edges to dig into snow and slush for extra traction. What are sipes, you wonder? Sipes are hair-thin slits that are incorporated in a tire’s tread to boost grip; you can amaze your friends at trivia night by citing a man named John Sipe. Sipe worked in a slaughterhouse (or possibly on the deck of a ship) and in the 1920s, decided that cutting slits in the rubber soles of his boots would keep him from sliding around so much on slippery surfaces.
Modern winter tires are also computer-tuned to keep road noise low, and are designed for handling, braking, steering response and general road manners that rival the best all-season and touring tires. Some winter tires are pre-drilled for easy installation of metal or plastic studs that can enhance traction in really severe ice and snow (check state laws to see if studded tires are legal where you live). The downside of winter tires is the opposite of that of summer tires: winter tires use a tread formulation that wears quickly on warmer days, and shouldn’t be used when daily temperatures are above about 40 degrees and most snow/slush is gone off of the roads.
All-season tires are far and away the most popular passenger car tires in the United States. You can think of all-season tires as “jack of all trades, master of none” but that’s not really fair. All-season tires are a do-it-all solution for most drivers. They’re engineered for long, even wear, year-round traction, even in light snow or mud, competent, predictable handling, a quiet, comfortable ride, and good road feel. That’s why they’re the most common type of tire you’ll see on sedans, minivans, and crossover. All-season tires are available at every price point for every budget, and some are covered by treadwear warranties as generous as 80 or 90,000 miles.
UHP stands for Ultra High Performance, in case you were wondering. UHP tires are designed to deliver the same kind of sharp handling and braking performance as summer tires, making them a great option for sports sedans, coupes, and sports cars. The big difference, though, is that UHP tires are available with different tread compounds; some UHP tires are actually good for year-round use and not just for warmer weather. For both summer and UHP tires, their tread designs and overall construction are inspired by racing-tire experience as they deliver tenacious traction, responsive steering and braking, and great high-speed stability (usually denoted by a higher speed rating as well).
So we have summer tires and UHP tires – where does that leave performance tires? You can think of a performance tire as a compromise between all-season and UHP tires. Performance tires are designed with a shorter, stiffer sidewall (also known as low-profile), shallower tread depth, and a specialty (sometimes stiffer) tread formulation that enhances grip, especially at slower speeds. Performance tires can enhance traction year-round for a slight edge in handling and braking over their all-season counterparts. The downside is that the stiffer tread formulation might lose grip in colder weather or in heavy rain.
Touring tires are designed for the long haul. If you’ve got an SUV or minivan that’s on the interstate for hours and hours, you’d like a tire that has a comfortable ride, good straight-line stability, consistent traction, and low road noise. That’s what touring tires are designed for, and you can think of them as essentially all-season tires that aim for a higher degree of ride comfort, road manners, and handling.
There are several different types of tires that can fall under the catch-all of competition tires. Think about all the autosports categories of drag racing, rally, autocross, oval track, drifting, dirt track, and stock-car racing categories like Sedan Stock, Street Stock, and Super SuperStock. Long answer made short: every type of competition you can think of has its own dedicated type of competition tire. Some are street-legal to drive to the track and back, while others are not DOT-approved and should only be used on race day. Racing slicks for drag racing, rally tires, autocross tires (some with radial design, others bias-ply) – they’re all different and they all have specific applications for different kinds of motorsports.
What Are the Types of Truck Tires?
You’d have a hard time not noticing the number of pickup trucks on the road today. For many families, a full-size Ford F-150 or RAM 1500 has taken the place of a minivan, station wagon, or SUV. Today’s trucks are far more refined and civilized than a pickup truck from a generation ago, and their practicality and comfort make them a great option for millions of people. With so many trucks, so many truck designs, and so many different kinds of needs and expectations from drivers, it’s not surprising that there are several different types of truck tires to choose from.
Many of today’s trucks are equipped with a four-wheel-drive drivetrain, and even that is far advanced from decades ago when a driver might have to manually engage 4WD to get through rough terrain, or even get out and turn a knob on the front hubs that would lock the front differential into 4WD mode. For a modern truck with 4WD, all-terrain tires can be a great choice. A modern all-terrain tire offers about the same kind of ride quality, handling, and noise level you’d expect from an all-season tire on a sedan, but with a more aggressive tread pattern and deeper grooves for traction on loose dirt, gravel, sand, mud, snow, and slush. That can be accomplished a number of ways and tire manufacturers have all kinds of innovative designs for the tread and shoulders of all-terrain tires that help enhance grip and wear properties. Most all-terrain tires also are designed with reinforced sidewalls and belt/cord packages that lend extra durability so the tire can stand up to rough use and resist damage or failure.
Mud-terrain tires are designed for rough use and extreme conditions. Many mud-terrain tires are also oversized and designed to work on pickup trucks and SUVs with lift kits for extra ground clearance. Mud-terrain tires use a similar tread design to that of all-terrain tires, but with extra-deep tread grooves and aggressive tread blocks, often with notches at the shoulder that boost lateral grip to get out of deep mud more easily. These tires might also be capable of “aired-down” operation, which is when the tire is deflated down to half of their usual air pressure or less so they can easily conform over rocks and obstacles for rock-crawling. Mud-terrain tires often have a high tread-to-void ratio so they can easily self-clean mud, gravel, and debris from the tread grooves so there’s always a clean section of tread to dig in as the tire spins. Mud-terrain tires are usually designed for extra durability as well, with layers of fabric reinforcement plies, an enhanced steel belt package, and reinforced sidewalls to resist punctures and scuffs from rocks, stumps, and other hazards.
When it comes to highway tires for light trucks, you can be forgiven if you think of them as the light truck tire equivalent of all-season tires for cars. Highway tires for trucks have the same targets of a quiet, comfortable ride, long, even wear, good handling, and year-round traction, but with tougher construction and a boost in load capacity. If you’ve got a pickup truck and frequently use it for heavy loads or towing, you might want to check the specs of highway tires carefully before you buy; some are up to the job, while others are designed more for everyday driving and not so much for work and hauling.
Which Tire Type is Right for You?
This question is what it all really comes down to, isn’t it?
The answer will all hinge on:
- Your driving style
- Your needs
- Your vehicle
- The weather patterns where you live
- Your budget
With the information we’ve laid out above, that should be enough for you to be able to make an informed decision when it’s time to buy tires. All-season tires, winter tires, summer tires, touring tires, and the different varieties of light truck tires all have specific design details that make them the best at the job they’re designed for. Now you can take the bullet points we just mentioned, do some shopping and make your own choice as to which type of tire will be the best fit.
When it comes to long wear, tires are a “you get what you pay for” proposition. It’s not unusual to see all-season passenger car tires that are covered by a treadwear warranty of anywhere from 60 to 90,000 miles, but then again wear will also depend on things like your driving style, your vehicle and whether you are diligent about tire maintenance such as tire rotation, proper inflation, wheel alignment, inspections, and so on.
As a general rule, premium all-season and touring tires are the ones that will have the most attention paid to keeping road noise to a minimum. Again, this is often dependent on the type of tire you can afford. Keeping road noise low is a science to itself; the tread design, air cavity, and casing all figure into the acoustics of highway noise. Some tires are computer-tuned so that frequencies actually cancel each other out, and many also prevent the resonance that can allow the tire’s air cavity to set up vibrations that translate as noise.
Ready to find the perfect tires?