Buy tires with confidence, illustrated by a car driving in the snow
Illustration: Guy Shield

In a perfect world, tire purchases would be planned ahead of time, so you could research the best deals for a safe, high-performing product. This is especially true when winter approaches, the time of year you’re more likely to need extra grip to battle heavy rain, snow, and icy roads.

But what if you get a flat that requires you to quickly replace one tire, and the other three are just fine? Or your mechanic surprises you with the news that your tires are worn and need to be replaced soon—maybe even right now?

Buying under those conditions can be stressful, confusing, and expensive. That’s why it’s best to arm yourself ahead of time with expert insights drawn from CR’s extensive tire testing program. Here, we provide answers to tricky but common questions about buying tires. And the results from our latest tire retailer survey can show you the best places to shop, based on CR member experiences at a wide range of stores.

What If You Need to Replace Only a Single Tire?

For a tire that’s damaged beyond a simple repair, you may be able to get away with replacing just that one if the other three show only light treadwear.

More on Tires

If the other tire on the same axle shows significant wear, we suggest you buy at least two new, matched tires. You’ll want to put this new pair on the rear to ensure vehicle stability.

For an all-wheel-drive vehicle, you may have to replace all four tires because the AWD components can be particularly sensitive to a mismatch. Following this advice will ensure balanced handling and traction at all corners. Plus, replacing all four tires means you’re free to consider a different model with higher performance and longer tread life. (More than 60 percent of CR members surveyed changed the brand and/or model with their most recent tire purchase.) It also could result in a better overall deal from the tire retailer.

Here’s a clever maneuver when buying just one tire: You can have the tread of the new tire shaved down by a machine to match the depth of the other three. This service costs $25 to $35 per tire through Tire Rack, an online retailer.

Can You Mix and Match Tire Brands on the Same Car?

We don’t recommend doing this. Certainly never mix tire types, such as all-season and winter/snow, because it could be unsafe. If you decide to buy just one or two tires, stick with the brand and model already on the car. Of course, you want the same size, load index (how much weight each tire can support), and speed rating, too. This ensures that the vehicle dynamics are not upset by varying performance, which might pose a safety risk.

How Much Can You Trust Treadwear Predictions?

The answer: It’s very complicated. A treadwear rating (known as Uniform Tire Quality Grading, or UTQG) is a comparative rating. The higher the number, the longer the tread life. For example, a tire graded 400 would wear four times as long as one graded 100. Manufacturers assign the grades for their own tires. The treadwear ratings, along with those for temperature and traction, are on the sidewall. Even so, there’s no cited mileage that’s easy for shoppers to understand.

Treadwear warranties, which offer insurance based on miles used, do provide some guidance for shoppers. But it can still be largely an apples-to-oranges comparison from brand to brand. Real-world tread life depends on multiple factors, such as vehicle, driving style, geography, tire pressure, road surface, temperatures, and wheel alignment.

To remove all this guesswork, CR predicts how long tires will last based on 16,000 or 20,000 miles of on-the-road testing and precise measurements. We conduct our extensive treadwear testing the same way within each category for a powerful apples-to-apples comparison across models. That provides a straight­forward alternative to the UTQG ratings or mileages listed in warranties.

To get the most tread life from your tires, check the pressure monthly. And consult the owner’s manual for the proper schedule to rotate the tires and perform wheel alignments. Cut corners and you could lose life from the tires.

Should You Buy All-Season or Winter/Snow Tires?

Most new cars come with all-season tires, a type engineered to provide good, year-round performance.

Winter/snow tires, designated by a mountain/snowflake symbol on the sidewall, are specially crafted to provide optimum traction in cold temperatures and have tread designed specifically for gripping snow. They are ideal for those who must travel through harsh, snowy conditions. But they typically have a shorter tread life, and their grip on cleared roads is typically not as good as that of all-season tires. Winter/snow tires should be installed as a set of four just for the rough winter months, and traditional all-seasons used for the rest of the year.

A subcategory of tires called all-weather provides the balanced performance of all-seasons, but with enhanced winter grip. They also have the mountain/snowflake symbol denoting winter grip, yet they have the benefit of not needing to be changed seasonally. The all-weather tires we tested are footnoted in the ratings.

Is It Worth It to Get a Road-Hazard Warranty?

Road-hazard warranties cover part or all of the expense of replacing a tire damaged while in use. Many major tire retailers offer coverage either free or for a fee (an average of about $17 per tire, according to our survey). Some tire manufacturers also offer hazard warranties. (In our survey, more members got a road-hazard warranty free with the purchase of their tires than paid for it.) Road-hazard protection can come in handy, especially if you have a history of getting flats. Seek this as a perk from your tire retailer, but avoid paying extra unless you get a great deal.

It should be noted that almost all tires carry some form of basic warranty from the manufacturer for defects. They’re also referred to as materials and workmanship warranties. The coverage is typically limited to a specific time period or level of wear.

Does a Car Really Need a Four-Wheel Alignment?

Yes. An alignment, which promotes even treadwear, is key to making your tires last. This should be done when you buy a set of tires, and in accordance with the maintenance schedule in your car owner’s manual. Some tire retailers offer this as a free service.

Know Your Tire Types

All-season tires are the most common type. They’re used on cars, minivans, SUVs, and trucks. They’re designed to handle most conditions, including dry and wet pavement and light to moderate snow.

Performance All-Season
Performance all-season tires provide year-round grip tuned for enthusiastic driving. They are a step up from regular all-season tires, placing more emphasis on handling.

Ultra-High-Performance All-Season
These tires are commonly fit to upscale sedans or sporty vehicles. These tires are a significant step up from performance all-season tires, delivering higher levels of dry and wet grip and handling, but they give up some winter traction and their tread life is shorter than that of performance all-season tires.

All-Season Truck
These are designed to handle the service demands of SUVs and light-duty pickups. They are well-suited for most conditions, including dry and wet pavement and light to moderate snow.

Tires in this category have a tread designed for better grip on snow and ice than what all-season tires provide, and many have a softer rubber compound that remains flexible in extremely cold temperatures. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the December 2019 issue of Consumer Reports.

Tire Testing on Ice

Tires play a big role in how your car performs in winter weather. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports’ experts demonstrate to host Jack Rico how CR tests tires for icy conditions.