Photo (cc) by Kevin Briody
For many years, whenever my car needed work, I went to a mechanic named Harry. He owned a one-man shop about 30 minutes from where I lived, but it was worth the drive because he was not only affordable and honest, he also gave me great auto advice.
His mantra still sticks with me, even though I moved away more than a decade ago and haven’t seen him since: “Tires matter most.”
Harry himself drove a mildly beat-up mid-’80s Ford Thunderbird. He only cared about two parts of his car: The driver’s seat and the tires. He bought a used after-market bucket seat that didn’t match the rest of the interior because, he said, “The price was right, and my butt doesn’t care about color – it cares about comfort.”
And he bought high-quality tires because, “No one gets this: The tires are the only part of your car that actually touches the road – at least, if you’re doing it right.”
1. Not all tire manufacturers are the same
Last month, J.D. Power and Associates released its Original Equipment Tire Customer Satisfaction study. While J.D. Power is best known for its annual Vehicle Dependability Study, it spends the rest of the year measuring customers’ attitudes on dozens of other products – in this case, the tires that come with your new car. Hence, the first lesson…
Don’t know the difference between Goodrich and Goodyear? Then you might want to know who won the J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey. Out of 1,000 possible points, “Michelin ranks highest in three of the four segments: luxury (777), passenger car (726) and truck/utility (740). Pirelli ranks highest in the performance sport segment with an index score of 788.”
Look for the best deals these two manufacturers have to offer in their highest-rated specialties. There’s no guarantee you’ll be as pleased as the 27,000 customers J.D. Power surveyed, but as Michelin itself likes to boast, it has “more awards than any other tire manufacturer since the study launched in 1989.”
But this isn’t a commercial for Michelin. In fact, my pickup truck rides on Firestone Destination LEs. Why? Because I always get a good deal from my local Firestone dealer (including coupons!) and these tires have always served me well. But if I simply went online, I’d get conflicting opinons. Here’s one site with the first comment calling the Destination LEs “terrible,” the second “no complaints,” and the third “great.”
So if you’ve had good luck with one brand, consider sticking with them.
2. Check for recalls
Before you decide if you need new tires, see if the ones you already own are defective. When cars are recalled, it makes big headlines. (Who can forget Toyota’s troubles a few years ago?) But tire recalls can pass you by. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has an interactive recall page – you can click “Tires” and search by brand name. The site is updated every night. If you have recalled tires, contact the manufacturer directly. The government says, “The manufacturer is then required to remedy the problem at no charge to the owner.”
3. Make sure you really need new tires
How can you tell? First, just look at them. Is the tread worn? Perform the penny test – place a penny between the treads, with Lincoln’s head facing down. If you can see the top of his head, time for new tires. Also look for cracks and punctures. (For some reason, my pickup truck seems to attract nails and screws.)
Finally, if your tires are old, you should replace them – because rubber breaks down over time. How old? Says Firestone: “Vehicle manufacturers generally recommend you replace your tires at six years. Most tire manufacturers recommend you replace your tires at 10 years. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations on your specific tires.”
4. Pick the right tire
There are all-season tires and all-terrain tires, ultra-performance and run-flats. How to choose? Consumer Reports has a handy and painless Tire Buying Guide that defines the basic types. But your owner’s manual has the specs for your vehicle.
Want to know what all those letters and numbers mean on the sidewalls of your tires? The NHTSA has this handy Tire Rating Lookup that explains it all and offers a search tool for more than 2,400 lines of tires – although when I used it recently, many of those searches came up with “no results.”
Finally, before you buy, search the database of customer complaints filed with the NHTSA. These tires aren’t necessarily recalled, but you can learn what customers reported (and regretted) about their purchases.
5. Buy the right tires at the right price
While some forward-thinking folks shop online for tires, I’m a traditionalist. I want to buy local so I have someone to look in the eye should something go wrong. But I definitely shop online. I’ve used Tire Rack and DiscountTires.com to find the right tires and get a baseline price – which lets me know if I’m being quoted a good price locally.
Then I call my local Goodyear dealer and my local Tire Kingdom. Yeah, I could just search their websites, but I’ve found local managers have the authority to cut deals. They’ll volunteer information on a sale that starts in a few days, or a coupon I might have missed.
One word of warning: Wherever you go for new tires, buy only tires. Many of these places seem to use tires as a break-even proposition to sell you on larger repairs or lifetime rotating and balancing contracts you don’t need. My rule: If they tell me my car is falling apart and needs these expensive services, I bring it back to the same shop a couple of weeks later just for an oil change. Every time, what I’m told I need is a lot less than it was when I came for just the tires.
6. Don’t buy used tires
I made this mistake once. While Consumer Reports frets about their safety, I was more upset about their value. I paid a mere $50 for a pair of tires, but they quickly started riding rough. Within a few months, I was so concerned, I brought them to a mechanic – which is how I met Harry. “You’re an idiot,” he told me. (He never was good at dealing with customers.)
There’s no way to tell if used tires were in good shape or bad in their previous life. So while you may get enough miles out of them to actually save some money, it’s a lottery-like gamble. And you could be risking your life. As Harry said, the tires are the only part of your car that touches the road.
For more on tires, check out How Winter Tires Offer Both Safety and Savings.