The Extinction of Affordable Tires

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Have you noticed how expensive tires – even basic tires – have become?

Your run-of-the-mill radial now runs close to $100 (less mounting, tire stems and all that). It’s easy to drop $400 or more to replace all four tires – and that’s for an “economy” car. If you own a late-model family car, it can be a lot more than that.

Reason? Wheels (and so it follows, tires) have gotten bigger – and thus, they cost more.

Most compact (and even subcompact) cars now come standard with at least 15 inch wheels; sixteens are common and often you see 17s and even 18s. Not a single 2011 model year mid-sized family sedan comes with anything smaller than a sixteen-inch rim.

Many sporty sedans – and even SUVs – have 19 and 20-inchers with tires that can cost $400 each.

In the past, cheap cars came with cheap tires. 1980’s-era Chrysler K-cars came with 13-inch stamped steel wheels. You could buy a new tire for $30. As recently as the mid-1990s, economy-type cars still came with economy-type wheels -and affordable tires.

Then came rap culture and with it, the (still current) obsession with ever-bigger “rims.”

Large wheel/tire packages have always existed – but as specialty equipment associated with performance cars. This business of putting 16-inch rims of basic economy cars and 17-18 inch rims on family sedans and minivans is a New Thing – and by any sane standard, not a good thing.

It’s not just the cost of the tires that gets you, either.

Sixteen, seventeen and eighteen-inch rims are taller, which means the tires they’re shod with have shorter – and stiffer – sidewalls. That, in turn, results in a harsher ride. And the rims themselves, being made of alloy rather than steel, are more delicate. One bad pothole or curb-bump can ruin them.

Have you checked the price of a new factory alloy rim lately?

Steel wheels can take more abuse – and they’re much less expensive to replace if you do manage to mess one up.

Low aspect ratio tires (the fancy name for tires with short sidewalls) also wear faster, so you get to pay to replaced them more often, too.

Oh yeah; rolling resistance is higher – which means a fuel economy penalty.

You’d think common sense would object to all this – at least insofar as “basic” and “family” type cars are concerned. Economy cars, family cars; minivans. No one autocrosses these things; they don’t run at Autobahn speeds. People just poke around in them, commuting to the office, going to the store, picking up the kids, cruise-controlling it down the highway at 70.

They are Transportation Modules.

The idea that an economy compact needs 16 inch rims – and that a family sedan or minivan needs 17 or 18-inch rims – is as ridiculous as a SubZero freezer in a standard-issue suburban townhouse.

But common sense no longer determines vehicle design. People have been convinced by PR – and by the rip-tide tug of “culture,” which currently embraces everything related to rap culture – that large wheel/tire packages are must-haves … even if it bankrupts them.

That’s ok by me.

But what’s not ok by me is that the cattle-like stampede of “trendiness” has the side-effect of making life more expensive for people who don’t give a damn about being trendy and like things that do make sense – like basic wheel/tire packages for basic transportation cars.

Because so few current-year (and recent vintage) cars – including economy cars – come with 13 or 14 inch wheels, the price of smaller tires in 13 and 14 inch sizes is going up as the supply of them goes down. It is actually getting hard to find tires in these sizes at all. In a few more years, it may be that the only way to get a set for your old econo-car will be to buy them from a specialty tire maker like Coker.

But by then, of course, we may all be broke anyhow.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  1. Most modern all season tires will last a long time. The 18″ Goodyears on my Magnum went about 70,000 miles.

  2. Just another reason that we need: more Shitboxes.

    Small wheels, high gas mileage,… umm… high gas mileage…


  3. I hate low profile tires, and I will never buy a vehicle carrying them. If it comes down to those are the only cars available (i.e., no more regular profile tire used cars are being sold), I will make the dealer swap them out for regular wheels and tires before I buy the car.

    • Ditto, Pam!

      For everyday driver use, they’re silly – a waste of money on multiple levels, to say nothing of the harsher ride quality, etc.

      Unfortunately, it is very hard to find any new car with less than a 16 inch wheel. Seventeens and eighteens are very common – and 19s and 20s are not at all uncommon.

    • Smaller wheels won’t clear the brakes on many cars. (My Magnum couldn’t run 17″ wheels in front-would hit the calipers.)

  4. Well, I must be a victim of auto industry PR! I thought modern short sidewall tires flex less in turns than tall tires, making for better handling and less stress/wear on the tire, and with more surface contact. That makes sense to me. And so does the theory of a load resting on larger circumference wheel should be easier to keep rolling than a short rimmed wheel; kinda why Conestoga wagons that held two tons of goods pulled by a couple of oxen had huge wagon wheels instead of 14 inch predecessors of old car tires.

    • Hi Brian,

      You’re right that short sidewall tires flex less and so improve steering response/handling. But they also ride rougher and because many are sport compound, they wear faster.

      This is an acceptable compromise if the car is a performance car that will be driven in a performance kind-of-way. But I think it’s silly to put such tires on a car that will be used for basic A to B transportation and rarely driven much faster than the posted limit, especially in the corners….

  5. I bought an 06 VW Jetta Diesel with the low profile tires. After having them wear out at 12k miles, I bought 14 inch steel rims (I had to search for a rim with a deep inset to fit over the brake housing) and put on new 14″ tires. I’ve been running this set for 80k miles, and will still get a few more out of them. I recommend this for everyone. Then the price of the old tires will remain low.

    • Hi Dave,

      That is a top-drawer solution – outstanding, sir!

      Now, if only I could find a decent set of performance tires for my old muscle car’s 15 inch wheels….

  6. Amen!

    I’ve owned several old VWs, including a 73 Super Beetle – and the things were excellent in the snow; just like your ’62 Renault.

    The world has gone mental; I feel like a stranger in a strange land….

    • “The world has gone mental; I feel like a stranger in a strange land….”

      You & me both, Eric. . .

      Almost $400 for a set of tires for my wife’s ’94 Corsica – just regular-sized tires too. . . And not even Goodyear Eagles.

  7. And, of course, let’s not forget inclement weather handling. In heavy downpours, and even moderate rain, these modern wide tires hydroplane more easily. Thereby convincing the alarmed “water skier” that he/she must have electronic traction control on anything they buy! On snow, just forget it. you would do better to outfit the front hubs with skis and put dozer treads on the rear; of course, that wouldn’t really do much on a front wheel drive unit would it??

    There WAS at time when form actually followed function, remember??
    The best snow car I ever owned or drove, was a 1962 Renault Dauphine. Rear engine, Rear drive, on 4 135/15″ tires only 5″ wide. They cut through snow and standing water like a steak knife. Hey folks! That’s a car nearly 50 years old that handles better than the modern crap outfitted with tires pushing, or exceeding, Indy-Car dimensions!
    What gives??? Ultimately it is the demise of sensibility, the lack of even a modest understanding of physics, and the ugliest “F” word of all……FASHION!


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