It can be argued that the single most significant purchase you can make with respect to a vehicle is tires.
The typical passenger vehicle rolls off the assembly line with tires that meet a set of specifications laid out by the manufacturer. Tire companies often develop specific tires to meet these requirements.
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But that means that standard equipment tires are a compromise. The hard tread necessary for long life will not provide the same traction as a softer compound. The tight tread pattern necessary for low noise levels may not be great at biting through and dispelling water. Supple sidewalls that absorb bumps and prevent squeaks and rattles comes at the expense of sharp steering response and handling. In short, the demands of the manufacturer are not always the same as the driver/owner.
And let us not forget that cost is a major issue - manufacturers are buying hundreds of thousands, if not millions of tires so the unit cost is a big factor. You can bet they don't err on the high side.
When it comes time to replace tires, you can increase the safety of your vehicle by purchasing better tires. Don't think of it as an opportunity to save money, think of it as a chance to make driving safer for yourself and your loved ones.
So now what to buy? There are a myriad of choices out there, a bewildering variety of tires - snow, all-season, all-terrain, winter, touring, etc.
First of all, buy tires in sets of four. Just as you wouldn't leave the house with two different shoes on, try to ensure each of the four points where your vehicle touches the road has the same amount of grip.
Next, generally speaking, you need two sets of tires - one for three-quarters of the year and one for winter.
And try to stay with the size of wheel and tire that came with your vehicle. You can change if necessary to find winter tires to fit or for performance or appearance sake but do so only with the advice and input of a qualified tire professional and within the bounds of what is known in the industry as plus or minus sizing.
All-season tires are the industry norm. I like to think of them as three-season or compromise tires because they really do not adapt well to cold temperatures and the grip deteriorates remarkably once the thermometer drops below 7 to 10 Celsius. It is for this very reason the new generation of winter tires have become so effective: the ability to remain supple and provide grip in cold conditions.
So, we have all-season tires for most of the year. But there are also summer-only high-performance and touring tires, all from dozens of manufacturers with prices spread across a wide range. You can spend less than $50 or more than $800 for a single tire.
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Here's a general description of non-winter passenger vehicle tires:
There is a decent spread ranging from tires designed for the ultimate in grip on dry pavement that are all but useless on wet surfaces to those that offer a blend of wet and dry performance.
Generally speaking, performance tires are for summer - warm-weather use only and are developed for vehicles with suspension systems designed for aggressive or performance driving. This comes at the expense of wear, noise and comfort.
These are designed to offer exceptional handling, steering response and braking on wet or dry surfaces - in warm weather. They should not be used in winter, or once the temperature drops below 10 C. They offer a better, quieter ride than performance tires.
This is where the vast majority of the tire market lies. It is also where there is more choice and confusion for the average consumer. All-season tires range from high-performance at the top to dependability and reasonable grip at the other extreme.
This is a perfect example of where you get what you pay for. All of them can deal with light snow, but none are designed for extreme cold. The higher-performance all-seasons place emphasis on handling and high-speed capability at the expense of wear and noise.
Winter tires - identified by a snowflake within a mountain symbol on the sidewall - have all but replaced the "snow" tire as it used to be called.
Snow tires had open aggressive treads designed to bite into and throw off snow. The more summer-like tread of a winter tire is designed and compounded to remain supple in cold conditions and provide leech-like grip on ice.
Winter tires come in a variety of designations, including performance versions that provide added grip on wet and dry roads in exchange for some traction on ice and snow.
These tires come in stud-less or stud-able designs. Studs are best only in extreme conditions such as hard-packed snow or ice. Performance drops off sharply on other surfaces, especially wet or dry roads. Most of the new generation of winter tires provide superior traction in the majority of conditions.
Most minivans, SUVs and crossovers require tires designed for light trucks. They run the same gamut as passenger-car tires but have different load ratings due to their size, weight and carrying capacity.
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