Cheap Tires Are Costing You Money and Probably Also Killing the Planet

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth

This is TTAC, right? This is the place where we tell people they should learn how to swap out transmissions in their apartment parking lots rather than buy a new car, if I’m not mistaken. We love 11-year-old cars and we love buying used and we hate wasting money.

So I know you’re all going to be thrilled when you hear I spent some time at Michelin’s famous Laurens Proving Grounds in South Carolina last week learning about how tires perform when they are worn, because all of us are driving on worn tires. For real. The minute you drive your car away from the driveway where you mounted and balanced your own tires, your tires are wearing. But I have some wonderful news for you — you’re probably not using your tires long enough. So you could be saving even more money. And isn’t that exciting!

Of course, this assumes that you’re buying good tires to start with. Our good friends at Michelin, who were nice enough to pay for a flight, a night at the Greenville, SC Aloft Hotel, and a pretty good piece of chicken, want to start a dialogue about worn tire performance. I know this because they used the phrase “start a dialogue” at least 20 times over the course of the day. The reason they want all this dialoguing to happen is not only because they feel confident that their tires wear better than their competitors’ tires do, but also because they’d like to see some more standardized testing of worn tires as opposed to new tires.

I’m a Michelin fan, myself, having put 15k miles and two track days on my OEM set of Pilot Sport Cup 2s on my Focus RS, and I just replaced them with a set of Pilot Sport 4S, which appear to be performing quite well in many different applications thus far. But, according to Michelin’s experts, I may have replaced those PSC2s too soon (spoiler alert: I didn’t — they were fucking toast).

My day at Michelin’s testing facilities included two different tests with two different tire brands — “Brand A” (which was definitely not a Michelin product) and “Brand B” (totes not a Goodyear Eagle). The first trial consisted of driving a rental Nissan Juke around a small autocross-style course, complete with a slalom, in wet conditions. I don’t know what I did to offend the Michelin people.

Regardless, I was given four attempts at the course, with each successive attempt presenting the opportunity to try a different tire — Brand A in new condition, Brand A with 3/32 treadwear remaining, Brand B in new condition, and Brand B with 3/32 treadwear remaining. I wasn’t particularly surprised that “Brand A” performed better than “Brand B” when new — but I was surprised that Brand A’s worn tire was still better than Brand B’s new tire.

Everything I’ve ever been taught about tires tells me it’s always better to have full tread depth than worn tread when it comes to wet performance. However, the not-Michelin tire at 3/32 was significantly better at turning, braking, and holding steady state lateral grip than the not-Goodyear tire at full 10/32 tread depth. Does anybody else feel like you’re reading descriptions of videos on xHamster? No? It’s just me? Okay.

Brand B’s worn tire? That was a total and complete shit show when it came to handling, turning the little Juke into a Formula D car any time I dared touch the throttle. While it made for an entertaining drifting exhibition for those watching outside the car, I would be terrified to have my children riding in a similarly tired vehicle.

Next up was a straight line, wet conditions, 45-0 braking test in a rental Toyota Camry. (Poor Hertz.) Again, the surprise wasn’t that the new Brand A tires performed the best, stopping in 79.7 feet, but that the worn Brand A tires weren’t far off, stopping in 86.7 feet. Both were far superior to the new Brand B tire, which stopped me in 99.7 feet. Let’s not even discuss the worn Brand B tire, which required a whopping 124.7 feet to come to a halt.

Michelin’s whole point in setting up this exhibition? That not all tires wear equally, and that there’s no consistent, standardized testing for worn tires. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that they’re right, on both counts.

As you can see above, the design and tread of some tires is fundamentally changed with wear. Grooves fade or disappear entirely, preventing water from being channeled away from the surface. Since most tires are made of similar compounds, it’s the tread pattern that differentiates a tire — when that disappears, you have a real problem with grip, especially under wet conditions.

Fear of a Bald Tire is causing early removal and disposal of tires at a fairly alarming rate. According to Michelin’s estimates, as much as $25 billion is wasted annually because people are removing tires too early, costing drivers an average of $250 more every two years. The ecological impact is severe, as well. Michelin estimates that 400 million tires are being sent to the landfill unnecessarily each year. Holy smokes.

“This is information that we feel customers should have access to, and, currently, they don’t,” says Eric Bruner, Director of External Communications at Michelin. Well, customers, consider yourselves informed. Just because your tire depth is at 3/32, that doesn’t mean you need to go out and replace it with a sub-standard brand or grade of tire. You might actually get worse performance, waste money, and kill Mother Earth. And who wants to do any of that?

[Images: Mark “Bark M.” Baruth/TTAC]

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
Mark "Bark M." Baruth

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  • J Dulmage J Dulmage on May 27, 2018

    Hi all this is Jen. I have read all of your comments and this seems like an informed space where I can get some good honest opinions, and some education. I have been told I need new tires as well as a new rack and pinion, new tye rod on the left, new ball joints, rotors changed on my front and tune up with brake system flushing. I have a 2001 Ford Ranger XLT 4WD with about 85,000 miles on it. I had a mobile mechanic work on it a while back to replace a pully and the belt. After he worked on it I overheated and had to replace the engine!!!! So....I love my truck and am on a budget. I want to get some new tires and it is Memorial Day weekend. All the sales are on etc. What would you guys recommend for a reasonable type of tire. I do not put tons of miles on this truck, but I would like something quiet. Thanks I know this is probably TMI, but wanted to give a good pic of what I am dealing with. Thanks

  • J Dulmage J Dulmage on May 27, 2018

    Oh, I live in San Diego. How much do y'all think I should have to pay to get my front end up to speed? Thanks

  • Ajla There's a melancholy to me about an EV with external speaker-generated "engine" noise and fake transmissions. It feels like an admission from the manufacturer that you're giving something up and they are trying to give back some facsimile of it. Like giving a cupcake scented candle to someone on a diet. If I was shopping for an EV I'd rather go to a company enthusiastic about it rather than apologetic.
  • EBFlex More proof of how much EVs suck. If you have to do this, that means you are trying to substitute what people want...and that's ICE.
  • Akear The only CEO who can save Boeing, GM, and Ford is Alan Mulally. Mulally is largely credited with saving both Boeing and Ford. The other alternative is to follow a failed Jack Welch business model. We have all witnessed what Jack Welch did to GE, and what happened to Boeing when it was taken over by GE-trained businessmen. Below is an interesting article on how Jack Welch indirectly ruined Boeing.
  • ChristianWimmer The interior might be well-made, but the design is just hideous in my opinion. It’s to busy and there’s no simplistic harmony visible in it. In fact I feel that the nicest Lexus interior ever could be found in the original LS400 - because it was rather minimalistic, had pleasing lines and didn’t try to hard. It looked just right. All Lexus interiors which came after it just had bizarre styling cues and “tried to hard” if you know what I mean.
  • THX1136 As a couple of folks have mentioned wasn't this an issue with the DeLorean? I seem to recall that it was claimed you could do a 'minor' buff of the surface and it would be good as new. Guess I don't see why it's a big deal if it can be so easily rectified. Won't be any different than getting out and waxing the car every so often - part of ownership, eh.