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Tires Q&A: Tire rotation economics--Is it just cost?

Consumer Reports News: December 29, 2009 05:08 AM

In our ongoing series of Q&A blog columns, we will highlight common and interesting questions posted to our Car forums, with answers from our automotive experts.

Question: Consumer Reports recommends rotating your car’s tires routinely to get the most life out of them, but is it economical to do so if you must pay a mechanic to do the rotation?

Answer: It’s an interesting and an obvious question to ask. Some people rotate their own tires, but many consumers may elect to have their mechanic or tire dealer do it. You may indeed have to pay $20 or more to have the tires rotated, though some tire retailers will do it for free if you bought the tires at their store. Some service garages will change them at much lower cost coupled with an oil change, etc. But assuming you are paying $20 per rotation, is it worth the cost to do it or just replace one or two tires at a time as they wear out?

I did some lengthy calculations based on the following assumptions: Let’s say your car is a front-wheel drive model like most vehicles are. Typically, the front tires will wear about three times faster than the rears. The front tires do most of the work; they drive the car, do the cornering and most of the braking, and carry more weight. If you don’t rotate the tires, it’s likely you’ll be replacing the fronts every 20,000 miles while the rear tires may last 60,000 miles on a set of all-season tires. At 120,000 miles--a typical life of a one-owner car--that would mean you replaced twelve tires at a cost of $1,200 assuming replacement tires cost $100 each (the average price for the 16-inch all season tires from our most recent tests).

Now if you had rotated the tires routinely every 8,000 miles at a cost of $20 per rotation, all four tires may have lasted 40,000 miles before replacement was needed. That would have resulted in purchasing just eight tires by 120,000 miles, but with the added cost of fourteen rotations. In total, the cost of tires and rotations would be $1,080. With my scenario, it’s cheaper to rotate tires routinely--even at a cost of $20 per rotation. But you could argue that I loaded the deck here. It may have easily cost more to rotate tires depending on how often you rotate, tire wear performance, and the actual cost to rotate tires. Conversely, tire prices may be either lower or higher depending on the size and model you choose. I agree on both accounts, but there are other good reasons to rotate tires beside cost. Four evenly worn tires help provide optimum performance in terms of grip, ride, and handling. A four tire replacement also eliminates the possibility of ending up with a mix-match of tire models if you buy just two at a time and can’t get a match for the other pair. Our advice: consider value, but don’t discount performance.

Gene Petersen 

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