Choosing an All-Season Tire
Sometimes the allure of an expensive, prestige product is hard to ignore, especially if there’s a perceived safety issue involved. High-performance tires costing $250 or more may be just the thing for speed demons with a penchant for high-powered sports cars. But for commuting to work, chauffeuring kids around town, or taking a bucket-list road trip, a budget-priced option can save money without sacrificing riding comfort, handling, or reliability. Our research shows that consumers and experts give high marks to tires with starting prices under $80 apiece.
Tire brands range from familiar names like Michelin, Bridgestone, Goodyear, BF Goodrich, Continental, and Pirelli to lesser-known monikers like General, Cooper, Hankook, Yokohama, and Kumho. In addition to high-performance, all-terrain, and, of course, winter tires, most manufacturers produce an all-season “touring” tire in various sizes meant for the standard array of passenger cars: subcompacts, sedans, minivans, hybrids, and so on.
We focused on these all-season tires and identified four top picks. The best cheap tires are the General Tire Altimax RT43 (starting at $56) and the Michelin Defender (starting at $69), both of which rack up strong endorsements for critical markers of quality -- handling, longevity, reliability, comfort, and value -- from experts who test the tires and from consumers who drive with them. Rolling up close behind are the Yokohama Avid Ascend (starting at $77) and Cooper CS5 Grand Touring (starting at $75), which also fare well in reviews for the same set of attributes. Consumers might want to think twice about Nankang CX668 touring tires (starting at $43), due to concerns about a limited treadwear warranty, a paucity of reviews, and scant online information about the brand.
Size.Starting prices reflect the smallest tire size for each line. Manufacturers specify the required size for each car, and there's no room to fudge; tire size affects the vehicle's suspension and handling. Before shopping for new tires, find your car's tire placard -- it should be located on the driver’s-side doorframe or doorjamb. An example of tire size is 175/70R13: 175 indicates the width, in millimeters, across the widest part of the tire; 70 is the ratio of sidewall height to tire width; R denotes radial construction (which rules the road these days); and 13 is the wheel’s diameter in inches. Consumers shopping in store should match this number with the information on the sidewall of the tire they’re buying.
All-Season vs. Winter Tires.All-season tires are a compromise classification developed to indicate reliable handling all year long, including in light to moderate snow. They are ubiquitous due to their ease of use and general dependability, although they are never as good as dedicated winter tires in snowy conditions. Winter tires are specifically equipped to provide better traction and steering on roads slick with snow and ice. They may not be necessary except for drivers living in regions that experience extreme winter weather.
There is no single right tire for any car. The car itself certainly matters -- at the very least, it determines tire size. Beyond that, drivers have room to maneuver. Factors to consider include the way you drive and how much, the type of roads regularly traversed, and where the vehicle lives. Someone residing in the Southwest, for example, who uses a car sporadically and only for short runs, might be less concerned about treadwear longevity and wet weather traction than, say, someone living where rain storms are frequent and miles of highway driving are the norm.
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All-Season Tire Reviews: What We Considered
Tires look pretty much the same from the outside, regardless of brand, and it can be hard to tell one tire from another. Differences are hidden behind the rubber in the tires’ construction and in the invisible compounds used to build them. Tread patterns and other external markers are unique to each model, as well, but most drivers would be hard-pressed to distinguish even these features. Marketing for nearly every all-season tire lays claim to the same performance qualities: tight grip on wet, dry, and light to moderately snowy surfaces; excellent water evacuation to resist hydroplaning; responsive and confident handling; and quiet riding comfort. Some, such as the Yokohama Avid Ascend and Michelin Defender, also boast lower rolling resistance in the service of better fuel economy.
To zero in on the best inexpensive all-season tires for everyday driving, we turned to expert and consumer reviews online. Sites that proved most helpful include Consumer Reports, Tire Rack, and Motor Trend, which all test the tires, and Amazon, Walmart, Sears, Tire Rack, 1010Tires.com, SimpleTire, and manufacturers’ websites, where scores of consumers have posted their assessments. To account for drivers whose experience and subsequent judgments might have been skewed due to poor maintenance or driver error, we paid particular attention to review sites that display an average score for the tire across multiple categories, including overall satisfaction, handling, braking, noise, and comfort. The tires on our list earn high marks for those performance variables and, not incidentally, for value.
A good marker of buyer satisfaction is repeat purchases. We read many all-season tire reviews for the models on our list from drivers who replaced worn tires with the same model or an updated version. Many also report buying a set for every car in the family. Reviewers tell of replacing more costly tires with these budget-friendly models and happily discovering that they outperform the pricey competition, not to mention the original equipment found on new cars.
Speed Rating.A tire’s speed rating reflects the maximum number of miles per hour it can handle without loss of performance. Tires are rated for speed according to a letter system. For example, L signifies a maximum speed of 75 mph -- most applicable to light trucks and off-road vehicles -- and as the alphabet goes on, the maximum speed threshold increases, with Y indicating a tolerance for 186 mph -- a fit for ultra-high-end sports cars. (Oddly, the maximum speed for H-rated tires, 130 mph, places that letter between U and V.)
A higher speed rating generally suggests better handling, but high-performance tires (rated V, W, Y, or Z) manage higher speeds at the cost of less effective performance in wintry conditions. We narrowed our search to tires with a speed rating of T, which have a maximum sustained speed of 118 mph and are meant for family cars and vans. Tires with a T rating should provide a good balance between speed and road grip. Two of our top choices, the General Tire Altimax RT43 and Yokohama Avid Ascend, also come in sizes that sport higher speed ratings of H or V.
The speed rating appears on the tire’s sidewall following the tire size and the load index, the maximum weight the tire can take; for example, 185/60R15 84T, where 185/60R15 is the size, 84 is the load index, and T is the speed rating. (The load index generally ranges between 70 and 126 for passenger cars. It signifies weights starting at 739 pounds and topping out at 3,748 pounds.)
UTQG.Another combination of numbers and letters found on a tire’s sidewall is the Uniform Tire Quality Grading System (UTQG), established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to help consumers evaluate tires. The system comprises three measures of tire quality: treadwear, with a baseline of 100; traction, with a scale of AA, A, B, or C; and temperature resistance, with a scale of A, B, or C.
The grades, embossed on the tire’s sidewall, are determined by the manufacturer based on specific test criteria. Critics of the system argue it lacks precision and fails to provide consumers with meaningful information. Still, UTQG ratings can be helpful when comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of different all-season tires from the same manufacturer. For example, the useful life of a tire with a rating of 400 theoretically should be twice as long as a tire with a rating of 200. All our preferred tires boast a treadwear rating of at least 600 and traction and temperature ratings of A or B. The Hankook Optimo H724 (starting at $45) initially stood out for its low price tag and above-average reviews, but it has a treadwear rating of only 500.
Treadwear.Elevation and climate affect a tire's life expectancy, as do the speed rating, individual driving style (do you corner aggressively or take it slow and steady?), and maintenance (are those tires properly inflated and rotated/aligned on schedule?). Regardless, drivers rightly expect tires to last for thousands and thousands of trouble-free miles. In general, tread life for standard, all-season tires ranges between 40,000 and 100,000 miles.
Manufacturers provide a limited treadwear warranty for each of their tires, which is a rough estimate of how many miles a tire can roll under optimal conditions before the tread wears down. Replacements may be offered, on a pro-rated basis, if the tread has worn down to 2/32 of an inch prior to reaching the warrantied mileage -- but only if the driver can prove the tires have been maintained according to manufacturer guidelines.
Few reviews of the best cheap all-season tires complain about tread wearing out long before its “due date.” We found a smattering of negative reports here and there, but durability seems to be among these tires’ strong suits.
The best cheap all-season tires on our list come with a limited treadwear warranty of at least 75,000 miles (although the H- and V-rated versions of the General Tire Altimax RT43 are warrantied to only 65,000 miles). Experts commend Goodyear Assurance All-Season radials (starting at $75) for their traction and value pricing, but the 65,000-mile treadwear warranty is low compared with our top picks.
Pay attention to the tire's estimated tread life, because a slightly pricier model could yield savings by lasting longer than the cheaper alternative. For example, the Nankang CX668 is cheap enough, with a starting price of $43, but the treadwear warranty is just 40,000 miles. The Michelin Defender boasts a 90,000-mile treadwear warranty -- the best of any tire we researched and more than twice as long as the discount tire, yet the starting price ($69) is much less than twice as high. A Motor Trend report says they may be the only replacement tires your car ever needs.
Traction.How well a tire grips the road is largely a function of the tread. And tread ultimately affects driver confidence and vehicle performance. Manufacturers of the tires we researched stress the uniqueness of each model’s tread pattern and other design and technological innovations aimed at maintaining maximal contact with the road.
Scores of reviews indicate that our top picks provide traction that drivers can count on. One review of the General Tire Altimax RT43 on Walmart.com claims the tires “stick like geckos’ feet on wet ice” and another driver tells of feeling very comfortable on mountain roads packed with snow. The Cooper CS5 Grand Touring radial tire was developed with heightened attention to the type of emergency maneuvers the average driver might have to make, according to Motor Trend, and rises to that standard. In tests on a dry and wet track, the experts determined that the Cooper CS5 outperformed a competitor in road grip, cornering, and “communicating” with the driver.
The Yokohama Avid Ascent likewise racks up impressive scores in expert tests and with drivers for dry and wet traction, especially in snowy conditions. And while the vast majority of reviewers report peace of mind when driving in good or inclement weather with Michelin Defender tires, a few mention poor traction on icy snow; one review reports difficulty maneuvering through a 200-foot-long snow-covered driveway. Another cheap all-season tire that popped up on our radar is the Kumho Solus TA11 (starting at $47), but it falters a bit on traction and overall performance, particularly in the winter and on wet roads.