Low-Rolling-Resistance Tires Can Save You Money at the Pump

    Choosing the right tire can improve grip and reduce fuel consumption

    Motion blur shot of car driving fast in a curve Photo: Getty Images

    Shoppers must consider many factors when buying tires: braking performance, wet-weather grip, how long they last, and price. But taking into account a tire’s rolling resistance could save you money at the pump.

    Exactly how much depends on your car and other factors, but CR tests show that it’s possible to save a couple hundred dollars over the service life of a set of tires by choosing a model with low rolling resistance.

    Rolling resistance refers to the energy it takes to rotate the tires, affected by the friction caused when the tire surface meets the road. The Department of Energy estimates that 4 to 11 percent of fuel consumption is due to tire rolling resistance.

    There have been significant strides in tire technology designed to improve fuel economy, driven in part by automakers trying to meet increasingly stringent fuel-economy standards. Consumers also are eager to save at the pump, especially now.

    Industry studies show that a 10 percent drop in rolling resistance equates to about a 1 percent improvement in fuel economy. It might not seem like a big difference, but fuel-economy gains are hard to come by. You can grab that advantage by making an informed tire purchase.

    more on tires and fuel economy

    Consumer Reports rates the rolling resistance of the tires we test. This work is conducted by an outside lab where real-world rolling resistance is simulated on a dynamometer. CR has tested tires when they’re new and also after the tread is shaved down to 4⁄32 inch, which equals the tread depth of a tire that’s near the end of its life.

    Our latest testing of performance all-season tires showed a 34 percent difference in rolling resistance between the best- and worst-performing tires.

    “There are many tires that have excellent grip, long tread life, and low rolling resistance,” says Ryan Pszczolkowski, Consumer Reports’ tire program leader. “These are often the tires that rise to the top of our ratings and can be smart buys. Because there are so many factors for shoppers to consider, it is important to look beyond the Overall Score to understand how a tire performs in the factors that matter most to you.”

    Over 12,000 miles driven, that 34 percent difference in resistance equals about 14 gallons of gas separating the best performer from the worst, based on average fuel economy. It adds up to about $70 per year, or about $360 over the life of a set of tires (62,000 miles for a performance all-season tire, based on CR testing). We based our savings calculation on gas at $5 per gallon.

    Our tests also show that buying a low-rolling-resistance replacement tire doesn’t mean giving up all-weather grip, Pszczolkowski says. Some of the tires with the lowest rolling resistance ranked in the upper half of our overall tire ratings.

    We recommend that tire shoppers prioritize safety factors, such as handling and dry and wet braking, and consider nice-to-have elements, such as rolling resistance and warranty coverage, the tie breakers when the time comes to make a purchase decision.

    Below is the list of performance all-season tires, ranked in order of their rolling resistance. We also show how tire wear affects rolling resistance.

    Performance All-Season-Tire Rolling Resistance

    This bar graph ranks tested tires based on the rolling resistance we measured, and it illustrates how that resistance translates to fuel economy.

    How Wear Affects Tire Performance

    Tires provide the most traction when they are new, thanks to their deep and well-defined treads. With new tires, the rubber grips the dry road tenaciously, water is routed through the side grooves to resist hydroplaning, and they claw through snow. But that’s also when rolling resistance is at its worst.

    This may surprise drivers who replace their worn-out tires for models known to provide excellent rolling resistance. The new tires’ fuel economy may not be as good as the old tires’, but it will improve as the tires wear, Petersen says.

    Of course, once your tire has reached 4⁄32 inch, it’s time to start looking for new tires, regardless of how good your fuel economy has become. And at 2⁄32 inch, it’s absolutely time to replace the tire.

    We test hydroplaning resistance, wet braking, and snow traction at our Auto Test Center in Connecticut. Hydroplaning and wet braking evaluations are conducted on a portion of the track with a controlled water depth.

    For hydroplaning, we measure the speed at which the tires skim on the water surface, signaling a loss of steering control. Wet braking is conducted from 60 mph and simply records the stopping distance. Snow traction is a measure of the distance traveled while accelerating from 5 to 20 mph on moderately packed snow. A tire that requires shorter distance to attain that speed has better snow traction.

    If saving money is your primary goal when you’re shopping for your next set of tires, look beyond the purchase price to consider the long-term costs, reflected in both tread life and rolling resistance. Shoppers might naturally avoid expensive tires, but CR’s tests routinely show that some of the priciest tires deliver both excellent traction and long life, making their true cost of ownership among the lowest.

    How to Test Your Tire's Tread Depth

    Grab a quarter and a penny to measure tread depth. Place the quarter upside down in a tire groove with a treadwear indicator—raised bars within some grooves. They will appear flush with the tread when the tire is worn out. The distance from the quarter’s edge to George Washington’s hairline is about 4⁄32 inch. If you can see all of Washington’s head exposed, it’s time to start shopping for new tires—you at least still have some grip left.

    If there is some space exposed above George’s head, check the tire with a penny. Using the same technique, insert that penny into the same groove, and point Lincoln’s head down. If you can see the top of Abe’s head over the tread, the tire should be replaced immediately. Many states have made it illegal to use tires with a tread that shallow.

    Check tire tread depth with a quarter
    A quarter is the only tool you need to measure tread depth.

    Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

    Jeff S. Bartlett

    A New England native, I have piloted a wide variety of vehicles, from a Segway to an aircraft carrier. All told, I have driven thousands of vehicles—many on race tracks across the globe. Today, that experience and passion are harnessed at the CR Auto Test Center to empower consumers. And if some tires must be sacrificed in the pursuit of truth, so be it. Follow me on Twitter (@JeffSBartlett).