Why the Tires Are So Important When Buying a Car

Tires can have an impact on cost and convenience

2021 Genesis GV80 Photo: Genesis

As technology advances, you have many things to consider when outfitting your next car, including the tires. Whether you’re buying a new or used vehicle, it’s important to understand what tires it comes with, their replacement costs, and potential convenience factors. 

Tires can be easily overlooked and taken for granted during the excitement of buying a car. But they’re an important factor and one that can often be changed. Tire size and model are frequently associated with trim levels or specific option packages. Choosing a car version for its appearance alone could have other consequences.

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For example, tires wrapped around large wheels might look cool, but they can be expensive to replace and could reduce ride comfort. In general, smaller wheels with tires that have a tall sidewall may be cheaper—and more practical.

The key is to know what you’re getting into. The information below can help ensure that you get the right tires when buying a car.

Tire and Loading Information sticker

Photo: Jeff Bartlett/Consumer Reports Photo: Jeff Bartlett/Consumer Reports

Tire Size and Replacement Costs

You’ll find the size on the tire sidewall or on a placard on the driver’s-side doorjamb. When considering any car for sale, check online to see how easy it is to replace the tires and how much it will cost for a new set. There could be a more economical tire choice available, perhaps by choosing a car with a different trim level or avoiding an optional package.

A luxury or sport package could cost more up front and increase lifetime maintenance costs because the tires might be more expensive to replace. Plus, higher-performance tires may need to be replaced more often than standard tires from wear and from damage. (Short sidewalls are more susceptible to pothole and other damage.)

With sporty cars, check that the front and rear tires are the same size. Some high-performance models use different sizes to optimize handling, but that can have an impact on tire longevity and even warranty coverage because of the inability to periodically rotate the tires forward and back.

Because of the practical limitation on rotating these tires, some tire manufacturers may reduce the tread mileage warranty.

Beyond that, chances are these are high-performance tires that may carry significant replacement costs. For some cars, that’s simply part of the ownership experience. Again, the key is to simply be aware of maintenance challenges going into the vehicle purchase.

2021 Kia Telluride Nightfall Edition Black

Photo: Kia Photo: Kia

What Type of Tires?

Most new cars today come with all-season tires, but some sports cars and even SUVs—Land Rovers, for example—come with summer tires. These performance tires blend high levels of dry and wet grip to complement the vehicle’s abilities, but they’re engineered for use only in warm weather. Summer tire grip falls off when the mercury falls below 40° F, and the tires’ snow traction is dismal even if the vehicle has all-wheel drive. If you live in the snow belt, ask for all-season tires. Ultra-high-performance all-season tires provide a good compromise if you want year-round grip for your sporty car. 

Does This Car Have a Spare Tire?

There’s nothing like having a spare tire to get back on the road, whether you change it on your own or have a roadside assistance service provider do it for you.

But as automakers ditch spare tires to save weight for better fuel economy, full-sized spare tires are a rarity, and even small temporary spare tires are on the decline. Over the past five years, about 10 percent of the cars tested by Consumer Reports came with a full-sized spare. More than half, about 60 percent, came with a temporary (aka space saver) spare tire, and the rest were equipped with sealant kits, run flats, or none at all.

In place of a traditional spare, many cars are being sold with sealant and an inflator kit to temporarily fix a flat. Some cars come with run-flat tires that allow limited mobility when deflated.

Neither spare-tire alternative is perfect. Sealant kits are good only to plug a simple tread puncture and can’t repair large holes or sidewall damage.

Run-flat tires are a better approach because they provide a means to drive limited distances—typically 50 miles—to get home or to a service station. Given the range limitation, though, having a problem with run-flats in a remote rural area can be a concern.

When buying a car, check to see whether it comes with a spare tire. Depending on your comfort level with where you travel, it may be worth seeking a spare-tire kit (a mounted tire, trunk-mounting hardware, a jack, and a jack handle) from your dealership. Many models that now come from the factory without a spare tire have space for one. 

However the vehicle is equipped, it’s important to know how to address a flat tire before it happens. 

What Is Acoustic Foam, and What Does It Do?

Luxury cars or SUVs might have “acoustic foam” in the tires. This rubberlike material sits inside the tire and reduces the noise being transmitted from the road (called “cavity noise”). When it comes time to replace the tires, mechanics should check to see whether they have the foam. If they do, you should buy a direct replacement to ensure no change in sound. (Tires with acoustic foam can be identified by the name on the sidewall. For instance, Continental models are named ContiSilent, and Michelin identifies its tires with Acoustic.) 

Shopping for New Tires?

See our tire ratings and buying guide.

Gene Petersen