When you buy a car, you'll likely remember to weigh its mileage, miles-per-gallon, and what type of fuel it takes. But don't forget to examine the tires.
Shopping for a deal on a new car is no longer just about the purchase price and gas mileage. A growing number of cars are outfitted with performance tires — and in many cases that means cheaper tire options are off the table.
To avoid that expensive surprise when you go to replace your tires, include wheels among the important features that you look at before buying a car. Here’s how:
Check tire needs before buying a car
Tires are easy to overlook when you’re buying a car, but tires are not all equal.
One of the main differences is indicated by a “speed rating” — sometimes called “performance rating.” While each letter rating corresponds to a top speed the tires can handle, experts point out that a high speed rating often indicates a better-performing tire too.
Consumer Reports groups all-season tires into three main categories:
- Standard: Also referred to as “passenger tires,” this range includes the “S” and “T” speed ratings of 112 mph and 118 mph, respectively. They feature the longest tread wear, with some models offering warranties on as much as 100,000 miles of driving. They’re no-frills, which makes them ideal for drivers who just want a year-round tire that provides a comfortable ride and not much more.
- Performance: A step up from the standard category, these are found on many new cars. With speed ratings of “H” and “V,” these tires handle up to 130 and 149 mph, respectively, while providing improved handling and grip. Tread-wear warranties typically run up to 60,000 miles of driving in this category.
- Ultra-performance: This tier is what you’ll find on performance cars. With speed ratings of “ZR” (more than 149 mph), “W” (168 mph) and “Y” (186 mph), they’ll provide the best handling. Expect the quickest tread wear of all three categories, and warranties typically do not cover more than 40,000 miles.
To determine the type of tire, take a look at the lettering on the sidewall. You’ll see a lot of letters and numbers, but what you’re searching for is the tire’s speed rating. Look for a letter following the two- or three-digit load rating. You can see how it looks in this Bridgestone article’s illustration.
To find what type comes standard on the make and model of a car, TireRack.com allows you to find the original tires that came on it. After selecting the make and model, select “View Original Equipment Tires” — which should produce results showing the factory-issued tires with the corresponding speed rating.
And, while you’re reading the tires, here’s another tip from CR:
Look at the sidewall of a tire for a designation beginning with DOT (for Department of Transportation). The last four digits of the designation indicate the week and year of manufacture. For example, 3313 means the tire was made during the 33rd week of 2013. Don’t purchase tires that are more than a few years old.
Is downgrading from high-performance an option?
If your current car or one you’re considering comes equipped with high-performance tires, whether you can swap them out for standard tires is a tricky question.
Consumer Reports does not recommend buying a lower speed-rated tire than what’s specified by your vehicle’s manufacturer. Tire dealers may feel the same way and even refuse to install standard tires on a car that calls for performance models. It’s possible that cheaper tires aren’t even made to the specifications required by the auto manufacturer, leaving you with only the expensive options.
For high-performance sports cars and luxury vehicles, such as BMW or Mercedes-Benz, you’re likely locked into high-performance tires. These cars are built for higher-caliber tires, so to maintain vehicle performance, downgrading likely isn’t recommended or even an option.
If you drive a family sedan that came equipped with performance tires, you might be able to downgrade to standard tires without sacrificing much performance and handling. Before doing so, consult your owner’s manual and the tire information placard on your car to see what’s recommended by the manufacturer. For additional advice, check with a trusted tire dealer before you buy. Even if you can’t find a standard tire that works, you may be able to choose a cheaper performance tire that’s a good middle ground between low price and performance.
Compare cost and mileage together
How much more will you pay for high-performance tires? That depends on the car. But you can compare the cost of different tires based on price and tread mileage.
High-performance tires are available at lower prices than standard options in some cases, but remember that high-performance tires will typically need to be replaced sooner. To account for this, examine both the price and the expected tread mileage of each tire.
For an example, let’s look at options for the 2013 Hyundai Elantra. On TireRack.com, you can buy a set of four Bridgestone Insignia SE200 passenger tires for $408 and get a 65,000-mile tread-life warranty. Or you can buy four Hankook Ventus V4 ES H105 ultra-high performance tires for $348 — which are only under warranty for 50,000 miles.
Breaking these prices down, the Bridgestone passenger tires cost only $6.28 per 1,000 warranty miles, while the ultra-high performance Hankook tires cost $6.96 per 1,000 miles, making the passenger tires the cheaper option.
Tires are not necessarily the sexiest feature on a car. If you’re like many of us when shopping for a car, you are probably more focused on other features, like safety features, gas mileage, legroom — even color. But if you pay attention to tires upfront, you can save yourself unpleasant surprises and significant expense.
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Kari Huus contributed to this report.