When to Replace Your Tires

How to determine whether the tires on your car, SUV, or truck need to be replaced—before they fail

Tire with quarter tread measurement Photo: iStock

You’re driving at 65 mph with the kids in the back and the rain pouring down when a deer dashes across the highway. You nail the brakes and . . . what happens next may hinge on how worn your tires are. And now isn’t the time to realize you need new ones.

Too many drivers don’t think about their tires until they have to swerve or brake suddenly, or they have a flat—often with serious consequences. About 9 percent of vehicle crashes are tire-related, according to estimates from a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But many could be prevented just with proper tire maintenance.

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So it’s important to inspect your tires every month for wear. To gauge tread depth, all you need is a quarter. Put George Washington’s head into one of the big grooves. If the top of his head is flush with the tread, you have about 4⁄32 inch of tread left, meaning you have some grip remaining for rainy or snowy conditions. That’s the time when you should start shopping for new tires. If you can see space above Washington’s head, you may need to replace your tires immediately.

There are lots of good tire choices, but the right one depends on your car, where you live, and your driving needs and style.

The CR Testing Difference

Consumer Reports tests more than 40 tire models every year—for cars, SUVs, and trucks—putting them through their paces in up to 12 tests, mostly on our test track in Connecticut.

Some of these tests tell us how well tires grip, brake, and handle; how they perform on snowy or wet roads; and how resistant they are to rolling, which affects fuel mileage.

We also evaluate tread life by driving thousands of miles on a road course in western Texas and use that information, along with the price we paid for the tire, to estimate the cost per 100 miles.

The cheapest tire isn’t always the best value. A significant factor in getting a good idea of the true cost over a tire’s life span is how long it will last before wearing out.

If it's time to replace your tires, check our extensive tire ratings before you buy.

Be an Informed Buyer

Before you start shopping, it’s good to know some tire basics.

Tires carry a speed rating, usually from S (112 mph) to Y (186 mph), with some winter tires having a lower speed rating. That indicates the tire’s maximum speed when carrying a load. Higher speed-rated tires tend to have better grip and handling but wear out sooner, generally making them more expensive.

Tires come in a variety of sizes, so it’s important that you get the right one for your car.

On the side of each tire are numbers like this: 215/60R16. The 215 refers to the cross section width, the widest distance from one sidewall to the other when mounted on the wheel; 60 is the ratio of sidewall height to tire width; and 16 is the size of the wheel in inches. Most cars also list this on the driver’s doorjamb.

Online retailers usually offer some of the lowest prices. But you may have to pay for shipping the tires to you, plus installation and balancing costs.

Local car dealers and tire retailers may match those prices or give you a deal on installation. Keep an eye out for promotions, too, including manufacturer rebates and sales.

Last, note that price varies by size as much as by brand and model. Expect to pay more for larger tires.

Tire Value: Why Type Matters

  • Each tire type has strengths and limitations.
  • All-season tires are made to perform well in a wide range of conditions and achieve a long tread life.
  • Performance all-season tires tend to grip better and provide better handling—but sometimes at the expense of longevity.
  • UHP all-season and UHP summer tires deliver the ultimate in road holding but have an even shorter tread life.
  • The general rule is that higher-performance tires cost more and wear faster, leading to a greater cost per mile, as shown below.
  • But it’s usually best to stick with the type of tire that came on your car when you bought it. Downgrading to another tire type to save money could hurt your car’s braking and handling performance. The figures below are averages for the category, which includes all tested tires, not just those on the facing page.
Year Costs Per 100 Miles for Different Tire Types

Need new car, SUV, or truck tires?

Check our tire buying guide and ratings.


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Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the April 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Jon Linkov

I owe my career to two fateful events: my father buying a 1965 Corvette and my purchase of an Audi A4 rather than a Chevy Tahoe. The Corvette jump-started my love of cars, and the Audi led me to automotive journalism, track days, and amateur car repair. In my free time I cycle as much as possible, no matter the season.