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Smart Buying

Get Quality Tires for the Best Price

We've got tips to ease the burden of finding the right rubber to keep your ride safe.

Buying new tires can be a tiresome task. Tires are pricey and, being universally black and round, hard to tell apart. Plus, you can’t really try them out yourself. It makes mattress shopping seem transparent.

At the same time, tires are the most important factor in how your car rides, brakes, and handles curves on slippery roads. Over the life of your car, assuming your drivetrain holds up, new tires may well cost more than any repair you make.

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You could just throw up your hands and get a new set of whichever tires your car came with. If you’ve been happy with them, well, okay. But they may not be your best bet, either for price or quality.

Tread carefully. When you stick a penny head-down in a groove in each tire, part of Abe’s head should always be covered. The penny test proves that the tire has at least 2/32 inch of tread, the legal minimum in most states. But when you’re flirting with that level, your tire’s ability to cope with rain—not to mention snow—is dramatically reduced. Use a quarter instead. If George’s pate has some coverage, that’s 4/32 inch, a safer margin. It also gives you more time to think about your next set of tires.

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You’ll want your tires to last a long time, but don’t get too hung up on claims of longevity. It’s hard to judge, even though the government has a metric called the UTQGS, which includes an estimate of how long you can expect the tire to last. Tire testers have found it unreliable, and the government is working on a replacement standard (for the time being, look for a number higher than 400). Most tires come with a tread life warranty (60,000 miles is typical), but good luck cashing in on it. For one thing, you’ll have to wait until the tire’s tread is down to that sketchy 2/32 inch before you can even file a claim.

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It’s worth your while to spend some time at TireRack.com, which is loaded with tutorials that will help you decode the alphanumerical soup of tire sizing, learn about which brands and models fit your car, and reflect on the more subjective topic of your driving style. Because no single tire can be best at all things (dry grip, wet grip, snow grip, tire life, quietness, price), you’ll need to make some compromises. The combination of Tire Rack’s testing and user-generated reviews will help you make the choice that’s best for you. Consumer Reports also tests tires and publishes reviews.

Get the lowest price. You can buy new tires from national and regional chains, big-box stores, car dealerships, and mom-and-pop independents. You could also order your rubber online from Tire Rack or Discount Tire Direct, both of which have been doing business by mail order since even before Al Gore invented the Internet. Manufacturers such as Goodyear and Michelin are experimenting with selling directly to the consumer.

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No store or site always has the lowest price, so do some research. For example, I recently shopped for a set of Goodyear Assurance Comfortred tires for my Volkswagen Passat. The price ranged from $94 per tire direct from Goodyear to $120 from Mr. Tire, a regional chain. But Mr. Tire’s price included installation.

Start with the online tire stores to find good options, but use the competitive marketplace to your advantage. Check the regional chains, and consider taking your research to your local garage, too—it may match or come close to prices you find online. And remember that if you buy tires online, shipping may be extra, and a local shop will charge for installation. If your preference is for a tire from one of the top-line brands, such as Michelin, Goodyear or Bridgestone, keep an eye on promotions from Costco and Sam’s Club; the savings you realize on such a big-ticket item could cover an annual membership fee.

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