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Truck & SUV Tire Buying Guide

Use this tire buying guide to learn how to buy truck and SUV tires

tire buying guideFamily Handyman

Replacement light truck (LT) tires are expensive, so it pays to shop several tire stores and online sellers for a good deal.

Photo: Getty Images/SHAUNL

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Tire Buying Guide Introduction

If you’re not sure whether your vehicle has LT tires, just look for “LT” in the size mark on the tire. “LT” on the decal located in the driver’s door area or in the glove box will tell you whether it should have them.

In some cases, you can save money and even improve the ride quality by switching from an LT-rated tire to a passenger (P-Metric) tire. But don’t make that decision on your ownyou need a tire expert to help you buy a replacement tire with the right size and load rating.

We contacted several tire experts to learn when it’s OK to deviate from the vehicle manufacturers’ LT tire recommendations. We also picked up the best tire-buying tips for truck and SUV owners and learned about the latest innovations in tread design and rubber composition. If you’re in the market for truck or SUV tires, this tire buying guide story is a must-read before you walk in the door of a local shop or begin searching online.

Tire Buying Guide: Buy tires for the harshest conditions

Prepare for the worst

Before you walk into a tire shop or visit an online store, think about the heaviest loads and worst road conditions your tires will encounter over their expected life. The tires’ load rating should match your heaviest anticipated load, not your average load. Plus, the tread design should be matched to the worst roads you might drive on. If they’re muddy, snow covered, gravel or sand, you need a more aggressive tread and a rubber compound that provides more traction and is more resistant to gouging.

If you’re unsure about the minimum tire load rating or payload or passenger limits for your vehicle, check the tire sticker on the driver’s door pillar (or in the glove box for vehicles made before 2006). Then present your expected load and road condition factors to the tire salesperson before talk about size or price.

Tire Buying Guide: Avoid the trendy looks if you don’t need them

Not all trucks are for off-roading

The “off-road” look is the hottest trend in truck tires these days. They look tough, with beefy, aggressive and exaggerated tread blocks. But despite their cool appearance, they most likely will have poor “road manners,” meaning they provide a stiff ride, poor comfort and equally poor handling. And they’re very noisy at highway speeds.

The next hottest trend is retrofitting trucks and SUVs with extra-large wheels and low-profile tires (less sidewall distance between the wheel and the tread). Like off-road tires, this combination provides a harsh ride. Plus, the larger wheels decrease braking ability, slow acceleration, cause faster suspension wear and can decrease overall stability. And, since there’s less rubber between the tread and the wheel, the wheels experience more damage when they hit potholes.

Tire Buying Guide: Know when to buy new tires

Measure your tread with a gauge

Wipe road dirt off a section of tread. Then plunge the depth gauge into the tread at each edge and in the middle. The lowest reading is the measurement that determines tread depth.

Any tire expert will tell you your truck or SUV tires need replacing once the wear bars are level with the tread. At that point, the tread is at the legal limit of 1/16 in. deep. But your tires’ traction and stopping ability decrease dramatically long before that point.

Tests conducted by Tirerack.com and one other consumer testing organization prove that trying to squeeze the last bit of life out of your tires simply isn’t worth it. Their stopping tests show that tires with a 1/8-in. tread depth (twice the legal limit) take 125 ft. more to stop on wet pavement than new tires. If you think that’s shocking, ponder this: The tires with 1/16-in. tread took 250 ft. more than new tires. The truck with the 1/16-in. tread was still traveling at 45 mph after the truck with 1/8-in. tread had come to a complete stop. (Check out the video.)

So even if your tire’s tread is above the wear bars, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. And regardless of the amount of remaining tread, you must replace your tires as soon as you detect cracks in the tread or sidewall areas.

What you get when you pay more

Some truck and SUV tires cost substantially more than others, and it’s reasonable to wonder what you get for the extra dough. The answer is-plenty! Premium tires are made with better and more expensive raw materials to improve traction, prolong tread life, increase durability and provide better handling and a smoother ride. Their tougher sidewalls prevent sidewall damage when driving over curbs and rocks.

Some premium designs include raised stone ejectors to prevent stones from embedding in the tire and causing flats. Other features include raised bars to eject mud, interlocking tread blocks to increase traction on dry pavement, serrated shoulders to enhance maneuverability in sand and snow, and threedimensional sipes to provide more biting edges to increase traction in snow.

Tire Buying Guide: Should you buy the extras?

Some tire shops sell lifetime rotation and balancing packages and an additional road hazard warranty. Buying both packages can add nearly $40 to the cost of each tire. But regular tire rotation and rebalancing are critical to squeezing the most life out of your tires. So we think it’s worth the money.

The decision to buy road hazard insurance depends on how and where you drive your truck. It really comes into play when you get tire punctures or damage outside the legal repair areas-for example, in the tire shoulder or sidewall. It’s not legal for repair shops to repair that type of damage, so you’re forced to buy a new tire.

Consider buying this insurance if you drive in construction zones, over curbs and rocks, or if you regularly drive on bad roads or often encounter deep potholes. That’s when road hazard insurance makes the most sense.

Tire Buying Guide: Making the switch to passenger tires

Truck tires or passenger tires?

Switching from truck to passenger tires can save you money, but probably not as much as you think. That’s because you can’t just install passenger tires that are the same size and load rating as your present truck tires. The load ratings for passenger tires apply only when they’re installed on a passenger car. Trucks and SUVs have a higher center of gravity and place different stresses on tires, so you have to reduce a passenger tire’s load rating by 9 percent. In other words, you have to buy a heavier-duty passenger tire, which usually requires moving up to a larger tire. Upsizing wipes out some of the savings you thought you could achieve by switching to passenger tires.

But switching does provide at least one benefit-better ride quality. Passenger tires are smoother and quieter at highway speeds. If you use your truck or SUV more like a family car than a hauling vehicle and you drive it on paved roads, check out passenger tires. But rely on a tire pro to find the right tire for your vehicle.

Tire Buying Guide: Buying new tires

Rebuild or replace your TPMS sensors

Starting in September 2007, all carmakers were required to install a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) that warns you when tire pressure falls to 75 percent of the recommended pressure. The TPMS sensors are either part of the valve stem assembly or strapped around the rim inside the tire.

To avoid damaging the valve stem sensor when changing tires, many shops remove the sensor. If the sensor is out, it pays to rebuild it with a new seal and torque nut. Shops charge $10 each to rebuild the sensor, and we think it’s a worthwhile service. However, the batteries in tire pressure sensors have only a seven to 10-year life. If the TPMS sensors in your vehicle are approaching the end of their battery life, you may want to skip the rebuild and have the shop install new sensors for about $40 each (the batteries can’t be replaced).

Tire pressure facts

  • Tire pressure sensors usually set off the low-pressure light when the tire pressure falls by 25 percent. By then you’ve already started premature tire wear because of low inflation pressure.
  • Tires generate excess heat when they’re underinflated, and excess heat increases the risk of tire damage, especially in Sun Belt states during summer months.
  • Recent studies show that the tire pressure gauges at nearly 20 percent of all service stations overreport tire pressure on a 35-psi tire by at least 4 psi.
  • Less than half of all gas stations that provide compressed air hoses also include a pressure gauge.
  • The metal caps on tire pressure sensors are part of the antenna system and should never be replaced with plastic caps.
  • Tire shops are reporting an increase in the number of tire pressure sensor valve stems that break during inflation due to internal corrosion. Apparently the sensor manufacturers didn’t consider the long-term effects of using dissimilar metals in the valve stem construction.