Take care of your tires and they’ll take care of you.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Did you know the average tire completes 800 rotations for every mile of travel? Multiply that by the amount of miles you drive every year and that rubber is spending a lot of time rolling on the pavement.
With all that wear going on, it's paramount to keep your tires in good shape. A few simple steps can keep you and your family safe and extend the life of your tires.
Regularly take a look at your tires' sidewalls. While a small indentation is usually nothing to worry about, a bubble should have you reaching for your spare.
Protrusions are the result of damage to the underlying structure of the tire. This usually happens if you hit a pothole, curb or some other road hazard. Low-profile tires with short sidewalls are more susceptible to this kind of damage, but it can happen to larger-sidewall tires as well.
If you find a bubble in your sidewall, it can't be repaired. While you might be able to drive on it for a short time, your chances of a blowout are much greater, and it's best to just replace the tire altogether.
If you find that a tire is slowly losing air, you probably have a slow leak caused by a puncture. Usually you've run over a nail or a screw and it's still embedded in your tread. You don't need to jack up the car or remove the tire to inspect it; just have someone slowly drive forward while you look at the tread. It's helpful to run your hand over the tread, as well, as objects can often blend in with the tire.
There are plenty of tire plug kits available, and it's not that hard to do on your own, but that's a temporary solution at best. Your best bet is to not touch the foreign object and head to your local tire shop. They can dismount the tire and inspect it from the inside, then fill the void with rubber and seal it properly. If you've punctured a run-flat tire, you most likely will need to buy a new one.
Most new cars come with a tire-pressure monitoring system that alerts you if a tire's pressure is too low or too high, but you don't have to rely on electronics to get this information. Recommended pressures can be found on a placard on the driver's side door jamb. There may be different recommendations for the front and rear, depending on your car.
You should also regularly check your tire pressures yourself; I like to use a digital gauge while checking mine. Simply unscrew the valve stem cap and press the end of the gauge on to the stem. The seal should be air-tight. If you hear any air escaping, press down harder until it quiets down.
Keep in mind that under-inflated tires can wreak havoc on your gas mileage, while over-inflated tires can cause premature tire wear and a loss of traction.
Penny for your tread?
Of course, over time, the tread on all tires wears away. But how do you check for safe tread levels? Many people use a penny to measure tread depth and check their tires' wear. Insert a penny upside down into the tread. If you can see all of Lincoln's head, your tread is at or less than 2/32 of an inch, and the tires should be replaced.
Matt Edmonds, vice president of Tire Rack, America's largest supplier of tires, advocates getting George Washington in on the act as well, and try the aforementioned test with a quarter.
"If you can see all of Washington's head you have less than 4/32 of tread depth. We have found in that last bit of depth there is substantial difference of your tires' ability to perform in wet conditions. So if you're heading into a wet season or winter, you definitely want to have more than 4/32s. The penny indicates they are worn out, the quarter indicates they aren't going to perform as well when you need them the most, and you should start to prepare yourself to make a purchase of a new set of tires."
Rotate right 'round
Rotating your tires can prolong their life by keeping the wear rates as equal as possible and can also keep handling and traction levels constant. But it's often not as simple as swapping the fronts for the rears. Instead, consider the drive type (front-, rear- or all-wheel drive), tread type (directional or symmetric) and tire size.
Front-wheel-drive cars route the engine's power to the front wheels; this is the most common drive type for new cars today.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
use rear-wheel drive, while all-wheel drive is very common in most
Directional tires feature a V-shaped tread designed primarily to resist hydroplaning. If you see an arrow on your sidewall, you have directional tires. Symmetrical tires have the same tread across the tire.
You can find your tire size on the sidewall. It will look something like 275/45R21. Most cars have the same size tires front and rear, but some sports cars use staggered tires, with a wider tire in the rear.
Now that you have this information, here's a handy chart:
If you have a full-size, symmetrical spare, you should get it into the act, too. Place it in the rear right location at every rotation. Remember, this should only be done with a full-size spare. If your spare says "for temporary use," keep it packed away.
So, what if your tires wear out prematurely? Manufacturer's tires usually have tread-life warranties that range in duration from four to six years and can be as low as 30,000 miles or as high as 100,000 miles. However, be prepared to show written proof of your original purchase and proper rotation schedule. And don't expect a set of brand new tires completely free. If your tires have a 100,000-mile warranty and you only get 90,000 miles out of them, you'll get a 10-percent discount on the full price of the exact same brand and size of tires.
Also keep in mind that the warranty does not kick in until tread is worn down to 2/32 of an inch. Essentially you're risking loss of traction and a possible accident just to get a few bucks off your next set of tires.
Often times installers will have a road hazard protection guarantee. Tire Rack, for example, will reimburse drivers 100-percent of the cost of a replacement tire for the first two years or until the tread reaches 2/32s. Pep Boys, meanwhile, extends a road hazard warranty for the full period of the tire's mileage rating, but replacement cost is prorated. If you've used 50 percent of the tread, you get a 50-percent reimbursement. Heck, even Costco gets into the warranty game with five years of road hazard protection.
Again, be prepared to show proof of proper tire care and original receipts to get the payout in any road hazard warranty program.
Finally, there are steps you can take as a driver to extend the life of your tires. The more sick burnouts you do, the quicker those tires will lose their tread. If you try to impersonate Ken Block and slide around every corner, same thing. You want that rubber on your tires, people, not on the pavement.
Take care on poorly maintained roads and watch for potholes. If you're the kind of person who uses their driveway for DIY projects, be sure to sweep up any stray nails or screws.
Remember, your tires are the only parts on your car that actually touch the ground, so it's imperative to keep them in good shape. When properly maintained, there is no reason your tires shouldn't last for the life of the manufacturer warranty.