Whatever Happened to the Spare Tire?

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No, not the one around your middle. The one that used to be in your car’s trunk.

Most cars (note: passenger cars, not just big trucks and SUVs) used to come with a full-sized spare tire.

What happened to them? And why?

Two things led to the near-abandonment of the once-common full-size spare tire:

First, cars got smaller. A 1973 Nova – considered a “compact” when it was new – would be classified as at least a mid-sized, if not full-sized car, by modern car standards. Today’s compact is a car like the Toyota Corolla – a much smaller car, overall. And it has a much smaller trunk. A full-size spare would eat up most of the available space, which is the main reason why cars like the Corolla don’t come with full-size spares anymore.

Even “mid-sized” cars today have fairly small trunks by the standards of what was commonplace a few decades ago.

Meanwhile, wheels and tires have gotten a lot bigger. Taller and wider. Seventeen and eighteen inch wheels are commonplace on current-year mid-sized family sedans. Even economy cars usually have at least 16 inch wheels. Taller- and wider – wheels (and the larger tires that mount on them) take up more space than the once-typical 15×7 (or smaller) wheel/tire combos of the past.

So, as a purely practical matter, the full-size spare outgrew its environment. Who wants to cart around a fifth wheel/tire that takes up a third to half the available trunk space?

Another problem was – is – changing styles. Many new cars (crossovers and hatchbacks) don’t even have trunks, properly speaking. They have cargo areas. Now you’ve got the additional issue of visibility. No one wants to see a big old tire laying on the floor of their cargo area.

So the car companies (or the tire companies) came up with the “mini” or “space saver” temporary spare tire.

Early examples used a steel rim that was the same diameter (and sometimes even width) as the four regular wheels – but the tire itself was deflated (and hence very compact). Cannisters of compressed carbon dioxide (or similar) came with the space saver and were used to inflate the tire when it was needed. The upside was these spares took up less room when not in use – and also weighed a lot less than a standard-size spare, which helps both fuel economy and handling. But this this type of temporary spare isn’t used much anymore, probably because of the hassle of having to inflate the tire and also because it wasn’t uncommon for the inflator to have leaked d(or been lost) leaving you stuck and outta luck.

Ready-to-roll mini spares replaced the inflatable space saver; these are like the original space savers except the tire doesn’t require inflation prior to installation.

As with the earlier inflatable type, current minis are great in the sense that they free up valuable trunk space, but have the downside of not being an equivalent wheel/tire relative to your other three still-good ones. The mini wheel will usually be much narrower, especially compared to the now-typical eight and nine inch wide alloy wheels many new cars come equipped with. Also the tire itself will not be high-speed-rated (as many new car tires are) or have the same ratings for load and heat and so on.

And here we come to the biggest weakness of these space-saving mini-spares: They’re designed to get you to the next service station – and that’s it.

Most have warning stickers on them that caution against driving for more than about 50 miles or so – or exceeding 50 mph. Expect your car’s handling (and braking) to be affected – not for the better.

Drive accordingly.

The good news is you may never need to deal with this. Flats are not as common as they used to be because tires are tougher than they used to be. There’s still the potential for physical damage (running over a nail, etc.) but many people drive for years and years without getting a flat.

An alternative to breaking out the space-saver mini if you do have a flat is a can of emergency tire sealer/inflator such as Fix-a-Flat (or equivalent). Unless the tire’s sidewall has been flayed open, or you have a really massive hole in the tread, this stuff will usually get you going much faster (and more safely) than jacking up the car using the usually pitiful factory-provided jack/tools and trying to install the mini by the side of a busy road. Just screw the inflater bottle onto the tire stem and press the button. Usually, that’s all there is to it. Maybe a 5 minute stop and you are back on the road – and without your hands and clothes covered in grime and your (formerly) clean cargo area mussed up by your nasty old tire.

A few things to know, though: Like using the mini, using Fix-a-Flat is not a permanent fix. You should have the damaged tire dismounted and properly repaired as soon as possible. While handling/braking performance will not noticeably deteriorate (because you’ve still got the factory-type wheel/tire mounted instead of the much-smaller, less capable mini) the tire’s structure could be compromised, so don’t drive super fast or super hard. Also, tell the tire place you used the sealer. The goo inside the tire can be a hazard during dismounting if the tech doesn’t take precautions and if you don’t tell him, he may not.

Another option is to buy a real-deal spare in the same size (and with the same type tire) as the other four. If you have a car with a big enough trunk – or don’t mind losing the trunk space – this alternative eliminates the problems of the mini and also the emergency sealer/inflator.

Be sure that the spare wheel you get is correct; i.e., that it has the right bolt pattern, diameter, width and “backspacing” for your vehicle. The best way to assure this is to get a a spare that’s the same type of wheel as the ones that came on your car (junkyards are a great place to find these) and then mount a tire on it that’s the same size/type as the tires on the other four wheels.

Throw it in the Woods?

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21 COMMENTS

  1. I think people should stop saying that the mid-sized spare (donut) saves fuel by being smaller.

    What EXACTLY is the weight difference between the average spare and the average full sized tire? Just how many micro miles per gallon in fuel savings does that difference produce? Does a slightly dirty, carbon caked fuel injector that sprays a little too much fuel into the combustion chamber “waste” a comparable amount of fuel as the so-called additional weight of a full sized spare?

    The manufacturers are trying to beat the competitors’ product by getting more and more storage/cargo space. That’s all!

  2. I bought my car 2015 dodge dart limited at Sherman dodge without checking my spare tire. I came back and tell them that my car has no spare tire. They told me that the latest car now has no more spare tire, instead it comes only with tire kit. I told them that I don’t need that tire kit, I need a spare tire, if you wish you can switch my tire kit, but they will not do it. What if my tire will blown out? That’s ridiculous. Before the deal is done they will give you everything, but after thats it.

  3. Hi! I have a question, with the run flat while, what size of clove could be considered to punctuate the while? I got one, however the clove is like 1cm length.. is this enough to get it flat?

    • Karen, I admit I’m really sick with high fever and don’t see very well right now but could you translate your two sentence comment?

  4. I am like millions of other drivers. I have not had a flat in at least 3 decades other than my lawn mower. The only time I have had a spare out since then was to help a guy get over a curb that he cut too short. Yes I did stop and help someone else.

      • For the majority of my life it has all been electronics and slightly more software. When you deal with such things you do not make things up and it is all facts. You build them for the things that happen 99.999 percent of the time. You do not build for the thngs that never happen in a lifetime or only happens in Europe if you are building for the USA. There is no fiction in either. Only the facts.

        • You mean you’re the guy who changes the readout (“Toll Ahead: Cars $1”)? Or they guy who pushes the clicker to count how many cars have passed through the gate? De troof only please. And all the facts, too.

          • I do not work for the guuuuuvernment as you say. Tell me what writer would write like “De troof”? I would say a poor and starving writer.

            • Poor ol’ Clover… another ridiculous premise: You helped another driver; ergo you are a Great Human Being. Even though you push for laws and policies that will stuff a gun in the face of that same driver you helped if he doesn’t kowtow to whatever edict you and your fellow Clovers deem “in the public interest.” That is, in the Cloverite interest. I’ve pointed out before that the best way to help your fellow man is to leave him the hell alone; by resisting the human vice of trying to force him to live his life as you think he ought to; to mind your own goddamn business. But those are concepts alien to the degenerated anthead mentality of a Clover.

  5. One thing you forgot to mention are the current batch of “run flat” tires. My Corvette didn’t come with a spare of any kind, as the original tires are designed to “run flat”, with enough ability to get you to a service station, dealer, or tire shop.

  6. Some cautions/tips:

    1. One of the reasons that the “donut” spares are rated for only low speeds, in addition to what you mentioned, was the fact that they are smaller in diameter than the regular size wheel-tire on the other side of the car. If that donut is put on a drive wheel, it will make more revolutions per distance traveled than the regular wheel-tire on the other side. In so doing, it causes the differential in the middle of the axle to work harder and generate more heat. This can lead to differential damage from fluid breakdown due to the higher heat/friction. The faster you drive, the more heat builds up. Differentials are designed to allow cars to go around corners but not to constantly manage large differences in rotations from left to right.

    2. Fix-a-Flat is only useful on older vehicles. Any modern vehicle with a federally mandated tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) will most likely include in-tire monitors. Fix-a-Flat and other similar products can permanently damage these sensors, and they generally cost quite a bit per sensor (think hundreds of dollars, at least a few years ago).

    3. Sometimes the Fix-a-Flat repair cans actually make it hard to repair certain types of tire damage. This is extremely rare, so I have been told, but can end up forcing you to purchase a new tire. Of course, you also need to replace the tire on the opposing side if there is much mileage on the tires and that means you’re buying two tires.

    4. One trick I have had success with is carrying a small air compressor with me. It takes up very little space and, depending on the model, can keep up with small or even large-ish leaks long enough to get you down the road to a tire repair shop. Just pull over, air it up, and carefully proceed down the road a bit further. It works well for the smaller slow leaks but can get you out of a bind with somewhat larger leaks, too.

    5. Run-flat tires are getting better. They have essentially replaced the spare tire in most sports cars of late, but in that case you’re expecting a rougher ride anyway. Most run-flats provide a much stiffer ride due to the stronger sidewall. They also make it much harder to tell that a tire is low without checking it yourself (which you should be doing anyway).

    • I understand that 2011-12 Mustangs with the Brembo brakes come with a “temporary mobility kit” which according to the owners manual: “consists of an air compressor to reinflate the tire and a sealing compound in a canister that will effectively seal most punctures caused by nails or similar objects. This kit will provide a temporary seal allowing you to drive your vehicle up to 120 miles (200 km) at a maximum speed of 50 mph (80 km/h).” So there must be some formulation that doesn’t damage the sensors. I suspect all the flat sealer manufacturers have modified their formulas by now.

      It doesn’t really take much to fit a full size spare on at least some cars. Some modification to the brackets holding the space saver spare or making a new trunk mat if the tire sits a bit higher than the well is required. It’s work, but having a full size spare I found to be worth it. Another idea might be a real tire and rim of the correct diameter that isn’t as wide so it fits in the well perfectly. Not a perfect solution but far better than the space-saver.

      • Agree.

        Especially if the car is a late-model sport/performance car like the Mustang with large (wide) wheels. Ever try driving something like that – which came with say 18×9 inch rims and ultra-performance tires, but the “temporary” spare is a third the width? I can attest the car will handle evilly. Better heed the warnings. I think it would be very easy to get into a wreck as a result of the strange handling and much-reduced braking efficiency, etc.

  7. Remember the Volkswagen TV ad from a few years ago, where one fellow stared slackjawed at (what was later revealed to be) the full size spare wheel/tire combo that VW was now blessing a particular model with? I wonder if that dispensation continues today.

    • A bit of follow-up:
      My father’s 1982 VW diesel Rabbit, a hatchback, includes a full-size spare wheel/tire in a dedicated hollow under the “cargo area”. And the Mark I Rabbit was a tiny car, comparatively speaking.

      Full size spares CAN be engineered into modern vehicles, whilst minimizing or eliminating lost cargo-carrying capacity, if the manufacturer prefers.

      • I think that “doughnuts” are used to save money for the manufacturer.

        “Full size spares CAN be engineered into modern vehicles, whilst minimizing or eliminating lost cargo-carrying capacity, if the manufacturer prefers.”

        I agree. My 2001 VW Golf had a regular size spare. It did not appear that cargo room was negatively affected in any meaningful way.

      • Hi James,

        Yep!

        Of course, back in ’82, the Rabbit probably had a 14 inch or 15 inch rim – maybe 6 or 7 inches wide at most. With a skinny tire. Today, a Golf has 17 or 18 inch rims and much wider tires. The same’s true of pretty much any late model car.

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