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Car Tire Basics

Our research identified all-season and winter tires for less than $100 that deliver on handling, longevity, and comfort, not to mention peace of mind. The No. 1 pick is General Altimax RT (starting at $63), which earns kudos for its smooth ride, 70,000-mile treadwear warranty, and road-handling chops in all seasons (but for the most extreme winters).

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Falken Sincera Touring SN211 (starting at $77), parked in second place, comes with an 80,000-mile tread warranty and also provides a comfortable ride, although users brake their enthusiasm slightly for its handling in snow and wet weather. The Goodyear Wrangler ST (starting at $73) pales in comparison to the top contenders. Its specifications don't measure up and users raise doubts about longevity and reliability.

Tires, of course, are always round and made of rubber but differ from model to model in many respects. In other words, after putting aside quality and value, there is no single right tire. Your choice ultimately depends on the car you drive, the way you drive, the roads you regularly traverse, and where you live -- all factors addressed by, and reflected in, a tire's specifications -- its size, speed tolerance, tread wear, and heat resistance. The up-market Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 (starting at $288), for example, is a race-inspired, high-performance tire designed to withstand extremely high temperatures generated from racing at top speeds. As superlative as this tire may be, it's likely that the average driver has no need for such capabilities.

To provide the most help to the greatest number of people, our buying guide focuses on the best cheap all-season tires with a complementary section devoted to the best low-cost winter tires. All-season tires are a compromise classification developed to provide reliable handling throughout the year, except in extreme winter weather when their functionality may be hampered. All-season tires are never as good as dedicated winter (or summer) tires, but they have become ubiquitous due to their ease of use and general dependability. Winter tires are, as the name suggests, specifically equipped to provide better traction and steering on roads slick with snow and ice, but their performance falters in warm weather and on dry pavement.

What We Looked For in All-Season Tire Specs

A lot of information is visible on the sidewall of a tire. Unfortunately for the average tire shopper, these critical details are displayed in a code of numbers and letters that stand in for specifications like speed, tire width, height-to-width ratio, maximum tire pressure, maximum load, and treadwear. We'll discuss the most important.

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Tire Size.

The best cheap all-weather tire for your car is partially predetermined by tire size. Car manufacturers specify the required dimensions, and there's no room to fudge here. Size matters because it affects the car's suspension and handling. Before you shop, find the car's tire placard -- it should be located on the driver-side doorframe or doorjamb. The placard should indicate the proper tire size, how much weight each tire should carry, and the appropriate speed rating. The tire's load index should match or exceed that found on the placard.

Speed Rating.

Tires are rated for speed according to a letter system. There are 12 letters, starting at H, then jumping to N and ending at Z, each denoting a maximum miles per hour that the tire can handle without loss of performance. (Oddly, the maximum speed for H -- 130 mph -- places the letter between U and V.) A higher tire 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. For the other letters, driving below the rated maximums (which are way above speed limits) should provide a good balance between speed and grip on the road.

Both the General Altimax RT and Falken Sincera Touring SN211 carry a T rating, a very generous maximum sustained speed of 118 mph. These cheap all-season tires are approved for use in both family sedans and vans.

Tire Tread and Longevity.

Tire manufacturers provide a rough estimate of how many miles a tire can roll (under optimal conditions) before the tread wears out and the tire needs replacing. Elevation and climate also affect a tire's life expectancy. In general, tread life for standard, all-season tires extends between 40,000 and 100,000 miles; high-performance all-season tires have a shorter lifespan, on the order of 40,000 to 70,000 miles. Pay attention to the tire's estimated life because a slightly pricier model could potentially yield savings by lasting longer than the cheaper alternative.

The best cheap all-season tires on our list fare comparatively well on the longevity scale. The Falken Sincera Touring SN211, our runner-up pick, comes with a treadwear warranty of 80,000 miles. The General Altimax RT, our top pick, is backed by a 70,000-mile warranty. Out in the world, drivers report that both live up to their billing. Goodyear doesn't specify a tread life for the Wrangler ST.

Tires also are assigned a treadwear rating that indicates how many miles the tread should last relative to other tires. For example, the useful life of a tire with a treadwear rating of 300 should be twice that of a tire with a rating of 150. The actual lifespan, however, depends on driving style, climate, and maintenance (are those tires properly inflated?). Falken assigns the Sincera Touring SN211 a rating of 720, which suggests the company has high confidence in its product, and General gives the Altimax RT a rating of 600. The Goodyear Wrangler ST, on the other hand, carries a tire treadwear rating of 340. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), only 8 percent of tires are rated 501 and above.

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Uniform Tire Quality Grading System.

The NHTSA established the Uniform Tire Quality Grading System (UTQGS) to help consumers evaluate the features of all-season tires. The system comprises three measures of tire quality: treadwear (baseline of 100), traction (scale of AA, A, B, C), and temperature resistance (scale of A, B, C). Grades are determined by the manufacturer based on specific test criteria set by the U.S. Department of Transportation. UTQGS ratings are most helpful for comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of different all-season tires from the same manufacturer. The General Altimax RT and Falken Sincera Touring SN211 both score well, with UTQGS scores of 600-A-B and 720-A-B, respectively. The Goodyear Wrangler ST presents with 340-B-B.

by Jeremy Bender (Google+ Profile)

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Filed in: Autos, Cars, SUVs,
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