Are Cheap Tires Safe Enough to be Worth the Savings?
A car without tires is just a tiny toilet-less house. But having tires is a trade-off. Sure, they make your car not be useless, but they can also get expensive to repair and replace.
You’re going to want to find cheap tires, but how can you be certain they’re safe? Other than the brakes, the tires are probably the part of the car you’d least like to have fail on you.
That’s why we talked to the experts to make sure you can safely burn rubber without burning too much cash.
Are your tires tired?
Before we get into how you should replace your tires, it’s important to know when you should replace your tires. Obviously, you’ll need to replace or repair any tires that get a flat or a blowout, but they’ll also need to be replaced after enough regular wear and tear.
The experts at RepairPal came up with a handy guide to tell you when you should replace your tires:
“Tires are considered legally worn out when the tread depth reaches 2/32 of an inch. Sure, you can purchase an inexpensive tread depth gauge to help you measure your tires, but there are also two easy ways to inspect your tread depth.
“First, most tires have ‘wear bars’ on them. These bars are spaced periodically into the grooves of the tire. They are raised to 2/32" so that when the bars become level with the remaining tread, you know it's time to replace your tires.
“Second, you can use a regular United States penny to get an idea of how much tread you have left. First, take a penny and pinch Lincoln's body between your fingers. Find a spot on the tire where the tread seems the lowest and put Lincoln's head down into the groove. If any part of Lincoln's head is obscured by the tread, you're okay. If you can see the top of Lincoln's hair, or where it says ‘In God We Trust,’ it's time for you to get new tires.”
Additionally, they suggested a time-based consideration: “You should also replace tires when they approach five years old. As tires age, they become susceptible to dry rot and cracking, which increases their risk for failure.”
Now that you know when to replace your tires, can you get safe tires on the cheap? Well, as Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.com, explained, first, you have to specify exactly what safe means:
“What is a ‘safe’ tire? If we are analyzing new tire choices for your car or truck, it might be easier to first define what is an ‘unsafe’ tire. An unsafe tire is NOT properly sized or rated to adequately support your vehicle for the loads and speeds of which it is capable. Buying smaller tires to save money is never recommended.
“Tires must be able to support a vehicle’s gross weight, defined as the weight of the vehicle itself plus the maximum weight of its cargo capacity. A two-seat convertible with a small trunk has a much smaller carrying capacity than a seven-passenger minivan with room for three suitcases in its storage area. All vehicle manufacturers specify the minimum load that each tire must be rated to carry.
“So, at a minimum, a ‘safe’ tire is the same size as the original factory tire and meets the same load and speed requirements. Where does the owner find this information? It is molded into the sidewall of the tire. The size is a series of alpha-numeric characters, like this example: 215/50R17.
"Rather than define each of those characters, we will again emphasize: the new tires should be exactly the same size. Do not let the tire store salesperson tell you that he has ‘205/50R17’ in stock, and that size is ‘close enough.’ It’s not."
Let’s hit the road!
So now that we know what it means to have a safe tire, we can finally determine whether you can get them for a discount.
Reina believes you can make some price comparisons as long as you’re keeping an eye on the specs: “If the goal is to purchase the least-expensive tires without sacrificing safety, then as long as the size, load, and speed ratings meet factory specs, you can shop based on price. Also, remember that a cheaper tire may not last as long, so the buying decision should also consider how long you plan to keep the car.
“If you drive 12,000 miles/year, and you purchase a ‘cheap’ set of 4 tires for $400, which wear out in 20,000 miles, those tires cost you 2 cents per mile and will need replacing in 1 2/3 years. If you purchase a ‘less cheap’ set for $600, and they last for 40,000 miles, they cost you 1.5 cents per mile (25% better), and you will drive on them for 3 1/3 years (twice as long). Do the math before you buy.”
Other experts were even more cautious about going the cheap route. “If you do not have money to buy good quality car tires, and you have no choice to go cheap, then go cheap, but I guarantee you will regret your decision after a short time,” warned Jill Trotta, director of the automotive group at RepairPal.
“Cheaper tires are made with more inexpensive materials that can affect the braking distance, the handling, and the overall longevity. Tires are the one thing that you shouldn't skimp on; they are the cushion between you and the road. Do your research and know what you are buying before you install it on your vehicle. There are some off brands that will come at a lesser cost than the major brands but overall investing money in your tires is something you won't regret.”
Car Coach Lauren Fix offered some tips to help you comparison shop: “ Look for deals online. There are incentives for buying 4 tires. Online sellers like tirerack.com can ship tires to your mechanic or to certified shops. Compare prices and make a deal for the proper size, load rating and type of tire.”
Like our other experts, however, she warned against being too reckless: “Each tire type offers a grading on the sidewall. The Uniform Tire Quality Grading, commonly abbreviated as UTQG, is the term encompassing a set of standards for passenger car tires that measures a tire's treadwear, temperature resistance, and traction. Buying cheaper tires is not a wise idea. You get what you pay for. There are ONLY four things that touch the ground no matter what vehicle you drive – that’s your tires! This is NOT an area to cut corners.”
As long as you’re careful and have the time, you can try and compare your options when it comes to tires. But at the end of the day, the cheapest tires right now may end up more expensive in the long run, especially if they increase your risk of an accident.
Lauren Fix (@laurenfix) lives life in the fast lane–literally. When this automotive expert, author, spokesperson, keynote speaker, TV personality, ASE certified technician, race car driver, wife, and mother of two roars past, head’s turn. Lauren Fix is an award-winning author of three automotive books, was the National Automotive Correspondent for Time Warner Cable and has appeared on Oprah, TODAY, 20/20, Regis & Kelly, The View, CNBC, CNN, FOX News, HLN and MSNBC, to name a few. Whether she’s perfecting her new line of automotive products, sharing her CAR SMARTS®, reporting live from one of the world’s top auto shows, test driving the latest hot ride, or debating an industry crisis in front of multiple cameras, Lauren Fix is never finished reinventing the wheel.
Jill Trotta (@RepairPal_Jill) is an automotive professional with over 25 years of professional experience. ASE Certified technician and consultant. She is currently working on the Automotive Professional Team at RepairPal. They do the hard work of identifying technically qualified, customer friendly auto shops and presenting them to consumers. They are working to develop transparency in the Automotive Industry. They also have a very accurate automotive repair price estimator that is available to shops and consumers.