How long do car tires last?

Tires are displayed at a Goodyear Gemini store in Spring, Texas.
Tires are displayed at a Goodyear Gemini store in Spring, Texas.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

It's every car buyer's nightmare -- driving your new baby off the dealer's lot only to discover later on that it's a lemon!

Fortunately, with later-model cars at least, tough competition in the auto industry has ratcheted up quality. From the initial quality of the auto parts used in manufacturing cars, to long-term auto part longevity, car buyers have a lot less to worry about than they once did.

With unbiased reviews, known maintenance issues and car part information easier to come by than it was years ago, the balance of power in auto purchasing has been shifted to consumers.

In this article, we'll look at four car parts in particular -- the ones that put the torque to the tarmac and that keep your coach in contact with terra firma. We're talking, of course, about your tires. When it comes to car part longevity, your tires are a component you definitely want to monitor on a regular basis. That's because their condition has a big impact on your fuel economy, the comfort of your car's ride and its overall safety.

The great thing about tires sold in the United States is how easy it is to know and understand the important specs. Unlike much auto part information, you don't have to hunt far to find the most important information about your car's tires. In fact, the government requires that information to be printed right on their sides! We'll examine what some of those letters and numbers mean in just a bit.

One thing you won't find on the side (also called the sidewall), however, is just how long those tires will last. Just like you don't know exactly how long your car itself will last, predicting the life span of tires is a tricky proposition. But in the following pages, we will look at some ways you can increase the use you get from your tires.

To find out the factors that can either burn rubber or help you to preserve it, roll on through to the next page.

Factors Affecting Car Tire Longevity

Kevin "Bud" Grimm watches the smoke billow from the rear tires of his 1971 Dodge during the burnout session at the River City Rod Run in Post Falls, Idaho. Grimm blew out both of his rear tires during the burnout.
Kevin "Bud" Grimm watches the smoke billow from the rear tires of his 1971 Dodge during the burnout session at the River City Rod Run in Post Falls, Idaho. Grimm blew out both of his rear tires during the burnout.
AP Photo/Jerome A. Pollos

In the movies, they make it look so cool: smoking the tires, drifting and even making screeching "emergency" stops when there's no emergency.

However, those are all extreme examples of how to sentence your tires to a fate of premature baldness. But even if you don't drive like you're filming a Hollywood chase scene, certain habits can make a profound difference as to the overall lifespan of your tires.

When it comes to car part longevity, few systems give as much visible and immediate feedback as the tires. These car parts are among the most basic, but they can speak volumes about your driving style, the roads on which they're driven, and even the condition of other auto parts and systems, such as the precision of your car's alignment.

In addition to the factors just mentioned, the following can also affect how long your tires last:

  • Outside temperature
  • Inflation pressure
  • Frequency of rotation
  • Appropriate pairing of tires on same axle (new opposite new, old opposite old)
  • Proper or improper loading of vehicle
  • Rating of the tire itself

One excellent repository of auto part information, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), says you can do several things proactively to lengthen the life of your tires, including:

  • Maintain the proper tire pressure
  • Avoid loading the vehicle with more weight than the manufacturer advises
  • Avoid road hazards
  • Inspect your tires for cuts, slashes and deformities

Even though automakers and their suppliers have found ways to test auto part longevity for a variety of components, tires remain something of a mystery. That's because as mentioned, so many variables can go into the treatment of a set of tires by any given owner. Have the tires been sitting under pressure but gone un-driven (a condition which wears them prematurely)? Have they been subjected to extreme temperatures? Have they been flogged on the street?

Tires have gone from typically lasting about 20,000 miles (32,187 kilometers) in the 1970s, to some long-lasting tires today that are able to get 80,000 miles (128,748 kilometers) of tread wear. But, as the saying goes, "your mileage may vary" [source: Tire Rack].

Save money and give yourself peace of mind by maintaining your car's tires. To find out how, go to the next page.

Car Tire Maintenance

Mechanic Chris Neiderer rolls a tire at the service center at Chapman Chevrolet in Philadelphia, Pa., on June 2, 2009.
Mechanic Chris Neiderer rolls a tire at the service center at Chapman Chevrolet in Philadelphia, Pa., on June 2, 2009.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Would you like a way to save a few hundred bucks a year on car-related expenses, with no cash out of your pocket?

Just keep your tires inflated at the recommended pressure. It's estimated that correct tire inflation can result in a 3.3 percent increase in fuel efficiency. According to some sources, that's good for about $2 of savings at every fill-up. And if you factor in increased tire life, your savings are even greater [source: Allen].

Tire pressure gauges are inexpensive, available at any auto parts store and are easy to use. Vehicles built in the United States after Sept. 1, 2007, have been required to have tire pressure monitoring systems built-in.

But how do you know what the correct pressure is? If you've ever taken a close look at your car, you probably noticed the assortment of auto part information located on stickers or stamped onto the car itself. The government requires that this car part information be visible, so that consumers or someone servicing the car will know the correct specifications for making adjustments or for replacing various car parts.

This information is easy to find for your tires. On cars sold in the United States, you can locate information about the original equipment tires in many places -- sometimes it's in the front door jamb, or it might be on the glove box door. You'll always find it in the vehicle owner's manual and on the tires themselves, too.

Since quality tires can be expensive, this is an area where extending car part longevity as much as possible makes good sense. Keeping your tires at adequate pressure -- no more and no less -- is a no-brainer then. You'll find the maximum tire pressure listed in both metric kilopascals (kPa) and in pounds per square inch (psi). If the owner's manual or door sticker differs from what's on the actual tire, always go by the information on the tire.

Remember to measure tire pressure when the tires are "cold," that is, prior to making any trips. Driving heats up the air in the tires, causing it to expand. Also, inflate your tires to the recommended level, not to the maximum pressure listed. Inflating all the way to the listed maximum means that they could be dangerously overinflated during driving and cause an accident.

Changing your oil and antifreeze at scheduled intervals are well-known ways to increase auto part longevity. Clean fluids mean that the engine and all the components attached to it don't have to work as hard. In that same vein, it's a good idea to rotate your tires about every 5,000 to 8,000 miles (8,047 to 12,875 kilometers). Rotating your tires allows the tread to wear evenly so that you get more useful life from your tires.

Provided you know how to safely use a jack and jack stands, rotating your own tires is a simple maintenance procedure. This tire rotation chart (midway down the page) from the NHTSA shows proper tire rotation on front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles.

At some point, rotating your tires will no longer be enough and you'll have to replace them. To determine when that point is, go to the next page.

Replacing Car Tires

Merle King works on balancing a tire at Bagsby Tractor and Truck repair shop in Spring Hill, Tenn., on Oct. 1, 2009.
Merle King works on balancing a tire at Bagsby Tractor and Truck repair shop in Spring Hill, Tenn., on Oct. 1, 2009.
AP Photo/Josh Anderson

With some car parts, you simply don't know it's time to replace them until they actually break. But with regular visual inspection, you'll know it's time to replace your tires when there's no longer adequate tread to help your car stay safely in contact with the road surface. You can perform the "penny test" to see if the tread is deep enough. Simply take a penny and insert it (upside-down) into the tire's tread groove. If the top of Abraham Lincoln's head is visible, then the tread is worn out. If you have a ruler handy, that's 1/16 of an inch (1.59 millimeters).

And of course, if you spot deformities such as deep cracks or bubbles anywhere on the tire, you should have it checked out by a tire dealer or auto parts and service center. Replacement may be in order. The tire shop has access to a wealth of car part information that can make your job of choosing which set of tires to select a lot easier.

When you need to replace a worn-out tire, chances are you'll want to replace more than one. Tires are usually replaced in sets of two or four. That's because having a difference in the traction capabilities at each corner can lead to a dangerous loss of control.

For safety and best performance, it's recommended that all tires on your vehicle are the same size, speed rating, and type -- either radial or non-radial. The exception would be on some sports cars that have bigger tires (diameter and width) on one axle than they do on the other.

Even on a front-wheel drive car, if you can only replace two tires, they should go on the rear axle: The greater tread depth in the back helps maintain control in wet and slippery conditions. It's highly recommended by tire experts that you never replace just one tire at a time. If it's unavoidable, however, you should pair the new tire with the existing tire that has the least tread wear [source: Rubber Manufacturers Association].

Your tires are just one example of this "well-worn" truth: For greater car part longevity, nothing beats a schedule of regular monitoring and maintenance. Extending auto part longevity, including that of your car's tires, is a smart way to save money and avoid sending used-up materials to the landfill prematurely.

For more about car tires and other auto part information, follow the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Allen, Mike. "Obama's Call for Tire Inflation to Beat Gas Crunch: Reality Check." Popular Mechanics. Aug. 7, 2008. (Oct. 1, 2009)
  • Consumer Reports. "Help keep your vehicle's tires safe." April 2009. (Sept. 25, 2009)
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Tire Safety - Everything Rides On It." (Sept. 24, 2009)
  • Rubber Manufacturers Association. "Replacement Guidelines for Passenger and Light Truck Tires Manual & Supplement." Jan. 25, 2005. (Sept. 30, 2009)
  • Tire Rack. "Tire Aging - Part 1: Nothing Lasts Forever...and Tires Are No Exception." (Sept. 26, 2009)