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Tire buying guide -- how to choose the right tires for your performance car

Updated on May 10, 2010

Tires

Tires are an often overlooked but extremely important part of your car. They are designed to be consumable, meaning tires are intended to be replaced when they wear out. Badly worn tires can adversely affect the handling characteristics of your vehicle, making it dangerous and unpredictable. Keeping your tires fresh, in good condition, and properly inflated is just as important as changing your engine oil! But when it's time to go buy new tires, there are so many options! And how do you know which tires fit? What type of tire is the best? This guide will answer those questions and more.

Vredestin Ultrac Sessanta tires -- a little known but very high quality Dutch performance tire brand
Vredestin Ultrac Sessanta tires -- a little known but very high quality Dutch performance tire brand

How to tell if you need new tires

A good rule of thumb for knowing when your tire are in need of replacement, other than the obvious falling apart or going completely flat, is the "penny rule." You simply take a penny, place it upside-down at the bottom of your tire's tread, and if you can see the top of Lincoln's head poking above the tire tread you need to get new tires. Most tires nowadays also have wear bars, which are colored lines that show up when a tire is worn out. Some of them even make an annoying noise when you drive on tires that are worn to a certain point!

BF Goodrich g-Force drag radials

BF Goodrich g-Force drag radials are a very popular choice for drag racers who want a tire that has the grippy qualities of slicks but need something DOT-approved for road driving.
BF Goodrich g-Force drag radials are a very popular choice for drag racers who want a tire that has the grippy qualities of slicks but need something DOT-approved for road driving.

Tires for your performance car

High performance vehicles demand high performance parts to operate the way they were intended to, and tires are probably THE most important part of your vehicle's performance. Horsepower and torque is fine, but what good is it if you can't put it to the ground? When choosing tires for your hot hatch, muscle car, sports car, off-road rig, or even your highway cruiser or grocery getter, it is important to match your tires to your needs and requirements to get the most out of your vehicle.

Tire sizes -- how to read those confusing numbers

The first thing you need to know when you go out to buy tires is the size you need. Tire sizes can be intimidating at first glance -- they are usually printed on the sidewall of tires as a series of letters, numbers, and sometimes slashes. If you have aftermarket wheels or intend to use a lower/higher profile or width of tire, it is especially important to know how to read tire sizes! Most tire shops will have a database of factory tire sizes for various cars, trucks, and SUVs, but the only way to know for sure what tires you need is to match the tire size to your wheels.

Tire size format

Tire sizes are usually displayed in a format like this:

P225/50/R16

The P simply means the tire is classified as a "passenger" tire. This letter will nearly always be a P for anything normal consumers like us buy.

The 225 is the width of the tire, measured in millimeters. This should be matched properly to your wheel width, which is inconveniently measured in inches. An exact match is not always necessary -- a wheel width of 7" for example can take either a 215 or a 225 tire. In general you want the tire to be relatively flush with the wheel and not bulge or stretch too much.

R16 is sometimes displayed as just a number. The "R" stands for radial, but since nearly all tires are radial some sizes are listed without the R. This number is the inner diameter of the tire in inches, which should correspond to the diameter of your wheels. This number should be an exact match for proper tire sizing!

Tire size quick reference

A nice illustrated guide to reading a tire sidewall
A nice illustrated guide to reading a tire sidewall

Load, speed, and other ratings

Most tires will also have another number and letter to the right of the size. This is your load and speed rating:

The number is the load index, which is a number that represents a range of loads the tire is designed to carry. The higher the number, the more weight a tire can support.

The speed rating is designated as a letter, which tells you what kind of sustained speeds a tire is designed to operate at. Going faster than the speed rating of your tires allows is extremely dangerous, so make sure you have the right type of tires before making a trip to the racetrack! Speed rating is also sometimes marked before the "R" in tire size. The chart below, from Dunlop, displays the different speed ratings and their respective maximum operating speeds.

Tires will also usually have treadwear, traction, and temperature ratings. These generally vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so beware! A Yokohama tire with a treadwear rating of 400 may not actually last as long as a tire with the same treadwear rating made by Goodyear. These ratings are best used to compare different types of tires within a manufacturer's lineup.

Speed rating chart

Speed rating chart, courtesy of Dunlop.
Speed rating chart, courtesy of Dunlop.

Tire warehouse

A shot of one of Toyo's tire warehouses.
A shot of one of Toyo's tire warehouses.

Tire type

Now that you know what tire size and ratings fit your car, it's time to decide on what type of tire you want. Manufacturers have their own terminology, but the basic categories of tire are summer, all-season, and light truck.

Summer tires are generally high-performance tires designed for only limited use in water. This means that driving in the rain with summer tires is best avoided if at all possible! Driving in snow or ice with summer tires is a no-go. High performance summer tires generally have a lower treadwear rating, so they will not last as long. However, their grip levels are excellent on dry pavement and most of them are Z rated or higher for high-speed use.

All-season tires are the broadest of the categories -- some of these can be high performance like summer tires, but all all-season tires have to meet requirements that allow them to operate under wet and icy conditions to a certain extent. Most people that drive their vehicle every day, year round, should look for all-season tires. They come in a variety of treadwear and speed ratings, and some of the better ones grip nearly as well as summer tires.

Light truck tires are just what they sound like. Most of these are available in larger sizes with higher load ratings for towing and hauling heavy loads. These are generally all-season and some of them are specially designed for off-road use in a variety of terrains.

There are also more specialized tire types, such as snow tires with extra-soft tire compounds for use in the winter, slicks for the ultimate in grip in race conditions, and drag radials for those who need all the traction they can get but still drive on public roads. In general these are available in more limited sizes and cost a bit more than mass-produced tires, but can give you extra, specialized performance.

Tire pressure

An illustration of tires with different pressures. From left to right: under inflated properly inflated, and over inflated tires.
An illustration of tires with different pressures. From left to right: under inflated properly inflated, and over inflated tires.

Keep your tires properly inflated

Tire pressure is something that is overlooked by too many people on the roads. Maintaining proper tire pressure is vital to the longevity and performance of your tires. The maximum pressure of a tire is always printed on its sidewall, and this number should not be exceeded. You should always inflate your tires to the manufacturer's recommended pressure for normal driving, but to squeeze some extra performance out of your tires you can adjust the pressure up or down a little bit too.

Lowering tire pressure will allow the tire to conform more to the ground and spread out a bit, increasing grip. This is why drag cars have such large tires at lower pressures -- the sidewall can flex during hard acceleration and provide extra grip. Be careful though, if you lower your tire pressure too much your vehicle will get worse gas mileage and have sloppy handling. The worst case scenario is that your tires have such low pressure that the tire bead unseats from the wheel surface all the air escapes!

Higher tire pressures will expand the tires out more, bulging them like a bicycle or motorcycle's (but not nearly as much). You can get some extra gas mileage by upping your pressure a couple of psi because your contact patch decreases, reducing the friction between your tires and the road. Make sure your pressure doesn't go above the maximum pressure listed on the sidewall though!

Tread compound and design

Tire compounds and tread patterns are usually of little concern to the average tire buyer, but for those looking for performance they can give you a bit more bang for your buck if you know the basics.

A softer tire compound generally wears down faster, but gives better grip. Researching different manufactuers' materials used for their tires and listening to the experience of other performance tire users is the best way to decide which ones are best.

I personally run BF Goodrich g-Force Sport summer tires on my vehicle for normal road use because it has a decent treadwear rating, a speed rating of Z, and good predictable grip characteristics for a non-race tire at a very reasonable price. Being a college student, I can usually avoid driving in the rain by using other modes of transportation when it is wet, but driving slowly with these tires in damp conditions is not too much of a problem. Finding the right balance between price, grip, and treadwear is the most important thing to me when choosing a street tire and so far the g-force is my favorite.

Tread patterns are somewhat important to performance, but most of them are designed to work the same way. The tread channels water and debris from the inside to the outside of the tires so you can keep a good contact patch with the road at all times. The most important thing about tread patterns is that some of them are directional, meaning they cannot be rotated diagonally to even out wear like non-directional tires. Directional tread patterns should in theory have slightly better channeling properties.

I am not a tread pattern expert though, and honestly the difference is hard to tell. The thing most buyers will look for in a tread pattern is appearance. The Goodyear F1 is a great performing tire, but I suspect its aggressive v-shaped tread pattern also attracts buyers to a certain extent. Prettier tires will help enhance the look of your car when it's sitting in the parking lot, but it is up to you if a nicer look is worth paying extra or losing a bit of performance for.

But which tires are the best?

Even after all this information, you're probably still wondering, "which tires are the best?" The answer varies depending on your needs, and the only real way to find out is to try tires out yourself. However, this is an expensive and time-consuming process (if you use the tires to their full extent before getting new ones), and you need tires now!

Luckily, there are a number of good resources out there. Believe it or not, performance enthusiasts actually review and discuss tires on the internet quite often. A great resource is www.tirerack.com, a tire retailer that has a great selection and an extensive review database for all sorts of tires. They can also ship tires to local shops for installation, mounting, and balancing, and sell aftermarkte wheels, brakes, suspension components, and other related products too.

A lot of magazines also test tires, such as Consumer Reports. However, in my opinion, the best way to find out what tires are good for you is to ask around and see what other people have had success with. The guy behind the counter at your local tire shop sells tons of tires and will know what to recommend based on your requirements too.

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    • basthebest profile image

      Sebastian Lesec 3 years ago from Santa Barbara

      Good article with lots of useful information for sure. One thing to note though, you mentioned "Summer tires are generally high-performance tires designed for only limited use in water. This means that driving in the rain with summer tires is best avoided if at all possible!" - This is not always the case and just depends on the circumferential and lateral grooves in the tire that evacuate water out. Most summer tires (not slick track tires) will have plenty of grooves to provide good wet traction and prevent hydroplaning.

    • GFfriday profile image

      Robert W Shaw 4 years ago from Collegeville, Pennsylvania

      Wow, nice write up.

    • profile image

      car-advice-for-you 4 years ago

    • jaydawg808 profile image

      jaydawg808 4 years ago

      Interesting & useful hub. Voted up.

    • profile image

      mike 4 years ago

      Some of your facts are backwards. Winter tires wear a lot faster due to their soft rubber compound. And summer tires do excellent t in rain, they are made to. They do better in rain then all season tires because the rubber used is made specifically for temps above freezing. If anyone would take the time and read another source you will find that a lot of these facts are wrong.

    • profile image

      Enifah 4 years ago

      Think it covers most of the technical areas in breif

    • profile image

      winterreifen 5 years ago

      i found your site through search, yours site is a nice and excellent website.. contents are nice.. will grow higher in future

      http://winterreifen.ms/

    • profile image

      UsedCarsLouisvilleGuy99 5 years ago

      A lot of people I talk to are clueless to what kind of tires they need. I like to help them with that because I wouldn't want to make a sell at the expense of the safety of the customer. Visit me at: http://www.autosaleslouisville.com

    • UsedCarsGuy29 profile image

      UsedCarsGuy29 5 years ago

      I agree with you Buy Here please contact me at: http://www.usedcarslouisvillekentucky.com

    • profile image

      Buy Here Pay Here Louisville Guy 12 5 years ago

      I found this to be very informative but it was a bit lengthy . It would have helped me so much more if the main points were concise and to the point . Any one wanting to learn more about tires should contact me at http://www.buyherepayherelouisville.com .

    • profile image

      UsedCarsLouisvilleGuy99 5 years ago

      I heard that the low pro tires are no good in winter weather. Is this true?

    • profile image

      tires for 2003 alero 6 years ago

      Looking to get all season tires for a 2003 alero. Live in ND so would like to have a softer tire for more traction. Any suggestions?? Tire size is P225/50R16

    • profile image

      metaxeirismena aytokinhta 6 years ago

      very informative hub,since i don't have any idea on this i usually go to automobile shop and ask them.Thanks for giving an idea.at least i could decided a good quality of tires in my metaxeirismena aytokinhta.

    • profile image

      Tires Free Shipping 6 years ago

      Thank you for an informative guide

    • profile image

      gogusluk 6 years ago

      Thanks for the information ;)

    • profile image

      göğüs büyütücü 6 years ago

      Thanks for the information ;)

    • profile image

      vibratör 6 years ago

      thanks, I agree on the safety thing

    • profile image

      Louis 6 years ago

      It's funny that you mention those Tires as your favorite (The person who wrote the guide)cause I'm actually selling a pair of BF Goodrich G-Force Sport tires size 225/50/15 91V. They're Brand new, never driven on, with original tags. I'm asking $180 for the pair so you'd be saving a good amount on these. If you're in the LA area or if you don't mind paying for shipping (or anyone else interested) shoot me an email here: louiscristofani@gmail.com and I'll send you some pics.

    • profile image

      cabledup 6 years ago

      great info, thanks for that. As a phone technician I'm on the road all day, in all kinds of weather. The tyre shops here in Australia have a limited range on the shelf, I need my Kumho's imported :P but they are awesome!

    • profile image

      Mohammed Hossny 6 years ago

      Very informative. It was really helpful.

    • profile image

      Air Jordan Fusion 7 years ago

      Thanks, I agree on the safety thing. Tires are probably the most overlooked maintainence item for cars. The wear is gradual so some people don't even notice before it's too late!

    • profile image

      John 7 years ago

      Thanks for the information, I needed this info!

    • profile image

      VivekSri 7 years ago

      not at all a tiring hub! good work again... thanks for sharing. take care.

    • KeithAwen profile image

      KeithAwen 7 years ago

      That's a pretty thorough article on buying tires. Thanks for saving me the research time.

    • hsofyan profile image

      hsofyan 8 years ago from Indonesia

      Useful hub.

      Tire is an important component that is often ignored. Using tires that are not appropriate, can be harmful.

      Thanks for sharing..

    • rtrdpenguin profile image
      Author

      rtrdpenguin 8 years ago from NC

      Thanks, I agree on the safety thing. Tires are probably the most overlooked maintainence item for cars. The wear is gradual so some people don't even notice before it's too late!

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      I am so happy to see this hub. As a professional in the motor industry for many years, I recognise the importance of good safe tyres. You have covered the subject thoroughly and I would recommend others to read. Safety is a whole car thing, and tyre safety is very important to know about as if your car has low grip on the road you are in danger. Great hub!