Help me choose tires for my car
November 19, 2007 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I think I should replace my car's tires. I'm bewildered by the vast amount of tires available and want some help narrowing it down. Also, I'm on a budget.

I drive a 1992 Toyota Camry that's been very well-maintained. I think the tires are only maybe 3 years old but I have driven the car across the country and back a couple of times since then so they may be worn. I can't really tell how worn they are by looking at them. The main reason I want to replace them is to have better grip when driving in snow. Snow is uncommon here in Vancouver but I drive to Whistler every few weeks in the winter; the highway there is well-maintained but has a lot of hills and turns which can be treacherous if there's snow on the ground. I carry snow chains in case the weather is severe, but with even a little snow or slush on the ground I found last year that I was wishing for more grip.

Now, that said, I don't drive this car very often. I would rather not buy snow tires, because I encounter snow rarely, and also I would have nowhere to store my current tires. I was thinking of looking for a decent set of all-season tires which I could use year-round.

First of all, is that reasonable?

Second, I would love to buy the safest, best tires in existence but I doubt I can afford them. But if I buy tires that are really cheap, maybe they're also poor quality. How can I judge, other than relying on a salesman? What can I expect to pay?

Third, anyone know a good place in Vancouver where I can get this done?
posted by PercussivePaul to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For all of these things, I think you want to look at Tire Rack. You can filter by tires that will only fit your car, then sort them by price, then read reviews and ratings to see how they do in different driving conditions. When you order, they'll cost you 1/3 less than you would pay at a tire install shop, and they ship directly to a local installer who will do the job for $15 per tire or so. I've done this twice, and saved $200+ each time. It sounds complex but it isn't really, and the savings is well worth it.
posted by autojack at 7:10 PM on November 19, 2007

Response by poster: autojack, that site looks great except it's based in US and I'm in Canada; it says shipments may be delayed by customs. I will look into that a little further. Thanks.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:22 PM on November 19, 2007

More about wheels and tires than you can possibly need to know, in case you want to understand where your money is going. You can judge a tire by its looks, and learn a lot about a car by understanding the wear patterns of your tires. But if you're not about to spend the 15 minutes a week checking your tire pressures and examining your tires generally takes, it's not likely you'll learn enough about tires to judge, any way.

Tire Rack is a U.S. company, and while they'll ship to Canada, getting warranty adjustments on U.S. tires shipped into Canada can be problematic. Personally, I think you'll be better off in the long run buying a set of mid-line name brand all weather tires from a retailer like O.K. Tire Stores. You should get new valve stems and lifetime balance/rotation service with the tires. You may be offered various additional "road hazard warranties" which are generally fairly high cost insurance programs covering tire replacement, over and above the manufacturer's warranties. For the kinds of driving you do, I doubt such offers are worth their cost to you.

December is traditionally a slow season in the tire business, as people often postpone tire purchase, if they can, in favor of using money for holiday expenses. Careful seasonal shopping for deals can net you significant savings in the next month.
posted by paulsc at 7:30 PM on November 19, 2007

It sounds like you aren't even sure whether you need new tires, so I would look into that first. Most newish tires are good for 50,000 km at least.

Having said that, the road to Whistler is a freaking nightmare and heavy rain is as bad as now, or almost so.

I put fairly cheap Cooper's on my '93 toyota last year for 60 bucks each, and they seem just fine to me.

Also, a lot of "generic" tires are made by name manufacturers, a little poking around will reveal who really makes them, FWIW.
posted by Rumple at 7:30 PM on November 19, 2007

I too am from Vancouver. I ordered the tires from and had them shipped to an installer in Washington (tirerack posts installers prices etc and you can ship tires to any of their installers). Great choice, I think. I probably saved $50/tire.
posted by Country Dick Montana at 8:16 PM on November 19, 2007

I'd recommend the Tire Rack just for narrowing down your options and learning more about tire owners' actual ratings of various tires' performance. You don't have to buy your tires there—just research them there in advance.

Also, for all-season tires, I definitely do not recommend the Goodyear Regatta 2s. I had them on my car for maybe six days one rainy week this fall and returned them after I found myself spinning out when starting from a stop at completely flat intersections. A friend of mine who has the same car as mine has experienced the same problem—but unfortunately, he kept the tires to spare his wife's feelings (she'd done the exact same thing I did, i.e. going to Dobbs and asking what they'd recommend for her/our car) and is now stuck with them.

My personal all-season tire recommendation? Goodyear TripleTreds. Yeah, you'll pay $70 more for a set of them than for a set of Regatta 2s, but it's well worth it—check them out on the Tire Rack to see their excellent ratings in all weather categories. (These are what I replaced the Regatta 2s with.)
posted by limeonaire at 8:22 PM on November 19, 2007

If you could pick up another set of rims at a wrecker or in the classifieds, and then get some Michelin snows mounted at Costco, they'll cost you nothing from then on to change over, rotate, and balance any time you want. Run the snows in the winter, and the ones you have now might last another summer. Costco tire service is excellent. They use high-end torque wrenches, and double check every bolt. Do you know how many people are killed on the road to Whistler? What's your life worth? Nothing handles better than four snow tires.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:03 PM on November 19, 2007

I second costco; it is pretty cheap, and the tires they have are usually well-rated ones. It also solves the problem of having too many choices, since they typically only have a few options (sometimes only one in the store) for any particular car, so it's easy to not worry about all the other things you could be buying. You do have to get a membership, but for me this worked out to still being a little cheaper than the other options I looked at.
posted by advil at 9:19 PM on November 19, 2007

I second the Goodyear Assurance TripleTreds. When I got a set a few years ago, the kid that checked me out at the store told me they were so good I would start looking for standing water to hit with them. Sadly, he proved to be right. They are unbelievable in wet conditions. When I got a new car I considered scrapping the Bridgestone tires that came with it and replacing them with TripleTreds. I decided not to, but the thought still pops into my head every time it rains.

One thing to keep in mind about All season tires that I found out the hard way is that they may provide sufficient traction for most normal winter driving if the roads are relatively clear, but most are not rated for operating below about -30C. I had a Goodyear Eagle pretty much shatter on me at -40C when I hit a little bump in the road.
posted by Yorrick at 9:54 PM on November 19, 2007

Nthing Costco. You will save far more than the cost of membership on the tires. Plus you can buy giant jars of mayonnaise for the remainder of the year.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:16 AM on November 20, 2007

Okay, first, do you need new tires? That's pretty easy to determine. Imagine a tire, in your head. The flattish area with grooves on it, the part that actually touches the road, is called the "tread". The individual little shapes that are formed by the grooves are called "tread blocks", and the measure of the depth of those grooves is called the "tread depth". Pretty simple, eh? In a perfect world, or with a perfectly-maintained car and tire, the tread depth should be uniform all the way across and around the tire.

You can actually stick a small ruler down in between the tread blocks and into a groove and measure the height of the blocks. When these blocks are less than about 2mm tall, it's time to replace the tire. Since most people don't actually take the time to measure their tread depth, tire manufacturers build something called "wear indicators" or "wear bars" into the tread. Generally, at the bottom of major (large) grooves, there will be little ribs, or bumps, that protrude toward the tread blocks a little bit more than the other groove areas do. If your tread gets worn down so that the tops of the tread are even with these wear bars, you need to replace your tires immediately.

So if you do, in fact, need to buy tires, what do you buy? There are three things to keep in mind - size, speed rating, and intended use. These things are regulated across the industry, and tires sold will conform uniformly to these ratings.

Size is easy - it's determined by the size of your rim and for 99% of the population will never change. The numbers are written on the sidewall of your existing tire, a label on the inside edge of the driver's door jamb, and in the owner's manual for the car. For you, it looks like 185/65R15, or perhaps even 165/60R14, but definitely with the structure XXX/YYRZZ. XXX is the width of the tire tread in millimetres. YY is a ratio, in percent, of the sidewall height to the tread width. ZZ is the diameter, in inches, of the wheel rim the tire is intended to fit. (The "R" means it's a radial tire, and every tire you buy will have that designation.)

So, a 185/65R15 tire has a tread width of 185mm, a sidewall height of (185 * .65) = 120mm, and will fit on a 15-inch wheel.

The second issue is speed rating. A tire is rated to be able to travel at a given maximum speed for at least one half-hour without failure. H rated tires can travel at 130 MPH, for example. Since speed rating is generally also loosely related to dry-weather grip for reasons I won't detail, it's recommended that you not buy a tire with a speed rating any lower than your original (came-with-the-car) tires. If you don't know, or can't find out, buy a tire with a speed rating that allows your car's maximum speed on a test track - for you, I'd estimate that to be about 110-120 MPH, so I would recommend an S-rated tire.

The last thing to consider is the tire's intended use. For your purposes, tires basically come in three general types - Summer, All-Season, and Snow. Summer tires are just that - large tread blocks designed to move water and grip well when the road is dry, but will not perform well in the snow. Snow tires are, again, designed to do just that - to drive in snow, at the expense of regular traction (and snow tires feel "squirmy" or weird on dry highways). All-season tires are a compromise between the two.

Since you don't want to buy a seperate set of snow tires and wheels just for your short jaunts, I would recommend that you get some all-seasons. You'll be sacrificing something in driving performance during the summer - namely, grip, the loss of which will be felt during hard cornering and braking - but the loss won't be tremendous. You will still need to drive with care when you do encounter snow, however! Keep chains with you, drive slowly, etc.

So now that you know your tire size and type, how do you determine which brand to buy? The differentiating qualities are grip, noise, and evenness of wear. Grip can be loosely assessed by checking the treadwear rating, and lower is generally better, but the others are subjective. Customer reviews can be of some limited use here. At the end of the day, a great choice is the original brand. If Toyota originally put an all-season Michelin on your car, you can do worse than to make the same choice. Like I've said before, though - the tire industry is fairly well-regulated, and while there are some brands that are better than others, price indexes pretty well to quality, and the major brands (Michelin, Nitto, Continental, Goodyear, etc) are all pretty reliable.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 6:43 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Nthing Costco. You will save far more than the cost of membership on the tires. Plus you can buy giant jars of mayonnaise for the remainder of the year.

...and crush them under your new tires.
posted by notyou at 7:06 AM on November 20, 2007

weapons-grade pandemonium is right. Nothing is better than driving on four snows, and using them in winter will make your other tires last considerably longer.

Snow tires are not a "luxury" for someone who does long-distance winter driving. Economize somewhere else.
posted by Kwantsar at 8:37 AM on November 20, 2007

Response by poster: Kwantsar, weapons:
I am open to what you're saying; concern for my safety is the whole reason I'm considering buying new tires. However, it's not exactly long-distance winter driving. The road to Whistler is about 2 hours drive, but the first hour and a bit is at sea level and never snowy. Only for the last 40 minutes does the road climb in elevation. It is always well-plowed; only twice in about ten trips last season was the road not bare. Both of those times I made it fine on my current tires (but I had to be very careful). Given that I have chains with me if things get really bad, am I really taking that much of a risk with good all-season tires?
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:27 AM on November 20, 2007

If you're a competent and prudent driver, no. I spent all last winter driving through Chicago, Maine and Toronto snows on rental-car all-seasons and was just fine.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 2:16 PM on November 20, 2007

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