Tires Q&A: Can I replace one or two tires at a time on my car?

Consumer Reports News: November 20, 2009 11:54 AM

Consumers Union held their annual open-house tour on Saturday, October 17 at the company headquarters in Yonkers, New York. Visitors got a chance to tour various stations to hear how Consumer Reports tests different products. It’s always a nice opportunity to talk about how we test tires at this event and as in past years there were a lot of interested visitors looking for more information on tires, particularly on how to buy.

Question: By far, the most common question asked this year was: “Is it OK to purchase just two tires at time?”

Answer: A simple question, indeed, and the simple answer is yes you can in most cases--but there are many considerations.

Most importantly, CR recommends rotating tires routinely following the guidelines spelled out in your vehicle’s owner’s manual, typically every 6,000 to 8,000 miles. The owner’s manual will have a rotation pattern to follow as well. Following the routine rotations will optimize a tire’s tread life and will wear all four tires evenly. Bottom line: when it comes time to replacing the worn-out tires, buy four new ones.

Many drivers may not rotate tires at all or not on a routine schedule. Owners of front-wheel drive vehicles will likely be replacing the front tires two to three times more often than the rear tires --since the front tires are doing most of the work by driving the wheels, doing most of the braking, and steering the car. The rear tires have a much easier life, being generally lightly loaded and free-rolling. In this common scenario, where only two tires are worn out and need replacing, CR recommends at least purchasing new tires of like brand and model as those already on the car, despite the best practice of purchasing a full set of four new tires. Mixing tire brands or even different models may cause handling instability. And when replacing only two, we recommend installing the new tires in the rear and placing the (older but still decent) rear tires in the front. This may help prevent a spinout or oversteer condition on slick roads. Both these recommendations apply to rear-wheel drive vehicles as well.

Finally, if you own an all-wheel drive vehicle, the first step before buying a new tire or pair of tires (short of installing four new ones) is to read the vehicle’s owner’s manual. Many makes of all-wheel drive vehicles will stipulate that all four tires must be of the same size, brand, model, and state of wear. Any deviation could result in an all-wheel drive system failure due to the stress placed on it from rotating dissimilar overall diameter tires.

Now wasn’t that simple?

To see full details on all tire models we tested, check out our Ratings and recommendations (available to subscribers). In addition to our updated Ratings, all site visitors can access our free buying advice for tips on getting started, types of tires we test, features that are important in making a tire purchase, and general tire care. Also, be sure to check out our TireTalk forum to interact with our tire engineers and other drivers.

Gene Petersen 

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