Reader Question: Carry a Real Spare Tire?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Ao asks: With the large number of vehicles that now come with a compact spare that has limited range or perhaps no spare, at all, in the case of vehicles with run flat tires, I wondered about the advisability of carrying a spare tire (perhaps mounted on a alloy wheel) loose in the trunk.

Is it dangerous for passengers in the front or rear seat in the event of someone rear-ending the vehicle?  A compact spare may only be enough to get to a very small town with no major tire dealer. Since run flat tires only protect against punctures – not cuts or blowouts -I’m not very comfortable with no backup plan on those either.

I’m aware of road service plans, but even if they come promptly, the possibility of not having a tire available to fit my car would cause me to have to have the car towed in and perhaps have a long delay (without a vehicle to drive) in a small town waiting for a tire to arrive. Any suggestions would be appreciated. I long for the “old days” when they put full-sized spares on alloy wheels in vehicles! Thank you for your great articles, as well as for any help with my question.

My reply: All of your points regarding “space saver” tires are spot on. Other issues include mismatch – the space saver tire is often much smaller (width) than the three remaining good tires. This creates weird handling/braking characteristics. It is arguably a legitimate saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety issue but of course it’s not discussed because that would run counter to the reason why new/late-model cars almost never have a full-size spare: The government’s fuel efficiency fatwas. But that’s a subject for a longer rant!

I think it is a very sound idea to obtain and carry a real (full-size) spare for all the reasons you’ve listed. In the event of a flat, you will not be stuck nor will you have to stop – until it’s convenient for you to do so. The car can be driven normally – as long as you like. Not limped at low speed to the nearest tire store – which may be nowhere near where you happen to be and very inconvenient.

There is a downside, though. Not safety – the spare tire (and wheel) impacting passengers in the event of a crash. Assuming we are not talking a crossover SUV, the trunk is physically separated from the passenger compartment, often by a metal-braced barrier – and that will prevent the wheel/tire from being hurled into the passenger compartment. And even in a wagon or crossover with “connected” cargo area/passenger area, a spare tire is heavy enough that it’s not going to go flying.

The main detraction is loss of trunk/cargo space.

In the first place, most newer cars (coupes/sedans) have very small trunks – about 13-15 cubic feet is typical. And in the second, almost all new/recent-vintage cars come from the factory with big wheels (and tires to match). Most have at least 16-17 inch wheels and many have 18, 19 and even 20-inch (and larger) “rims.”

A full-size spare will eat up a considerable portion of the limited space there is, limiting what you can use the trunk for as far as carrying other things. If you have a wagon, crossover, SUV or truck this will be much less of an issue, of course.

If you decide to get a full-size spare, be sure the wheel is of the same type (diameter and width and backspacing) as the factory wheels. I’d get one exactly like the others and then get a tire of the same size/type and have that mounted.

The wheel will be expensive if you buy a new one over the counter – unless you happen to have one of the few cars still made with steel wheels. But you can usually find a factory wheel at used parts lots; just make sure it’s not damaged (cracked, chipped, out of round) which you can establish by close visual inspection and by a tire shop. Ask for a return guarantee on the used rim if it turns out to be damaged.

Check the air in the spare every couple of months, too! And write down the date you bought it so you know when it’s time to replace it. Generally, that’s after 8-10 years, even if it never touches pavement. Tires get brittle over time.

Look for a longer rant on this business soon!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. I agree all around, both with AO’s initial concerns and EP’s answers. Here’s a few quick thoughts in no particular order:

    1. Full size spare > “inflatable” spare > donut > run-flats and no spare – One recent trend I’ve seen in some cars is the provision of a deflated spare and an air pump. The spare is not a normal tire, but has a collapsable sidewall that lets the tread surface shrink a little bit to wrap around a wheel. It cuts down on the overall size of the spare a little bit for better packaging in the trunk.

    2. As mentioned, the main reason for the lack of spare tires today is the need for better gas mileage by governmental mandate (not consumer demand). A secondary reason is space savings in the trunk due to modern vehicle design. Mandated crumple zones, aerodynamic sacrifices, etc. have all claimed much of the interior volume of modern cars. While externally similarly sized, interior dimensions both in the cabin and in the trunk are considerably smaller today than they were 20 years ago, which were smaller than 20 years before that. They need to make up for that lost cargo volume somehow, and a spare tire takes up a lot of room for something that may get used once or twice in a car’s lifetime. They also figure that most people have cell phones and most new cars come with roadside assistance for the duration of the car warranty. That’s assuming a) you have a flat in an area with cell phone service, b) there’s a nearby town that can repair/replace the tire, c) you have plenty of time to wait on the tow truck service, repair, etc.

    3. Consider also carrying a high volume tire inflator in your trunk, one that directly connects to the battery of the vehicle for power. If you have a puncture, even a fairly significant one, you can often re-inflate the tire (and slightly over-inflate it) long enough to get you down the road to a tire repair shop yourself. I’d suggest keeping speeds low and not pushing it too far, but it might allow you to get to somewhere safer to work on the car or get you to cell phone service range. I’ve even driven directly to a tire repair shop and just had them patch the tire and not touched my spare other than to recheck the spare’s tire pressure.

    4. Run flats and donuts (and those inflatable spares) all operate differently than your normal, fully inflated tires. RFs will flex more, build up more heat in the sidewall from that flex, and can fail catastrophically if driven too fast/too far. Donuts aren’t made of very stout material and aren’t meant to be driven fast or far. They also are considerably smaller in diameter than the normal tires, putting serious wear on the differential if put on a driven/powered wheel. That doesn’t stop many people from driving on them far too long, and I’ve even seen cars with three (yes!) donuts on them at once, which means they intentionally sought out two more donuts to put onto two other hubs presumably because they had at least 3 tire failures since the last time they bothered to service the car. God help anyone who they run into because they almost certainly don’t have any money to pay for your car’s damage.

    5. Look online for aftermarket spare tire solutions. Some car models have them. My Chevy SS sedan has a large well in the trunk for a full-sized spare tire but didn’t come with one from the factory. It’s hidden under the carpet in the trunk, though. Many times, the well is large enough for a full-size spare but only contains a donut. Take a look. Also, some SUVs have optional external spare tire mounts that can be purchased to mount the spare on the back bumper. These are typically more truck-based and rugged SUVs, and may require a new rear bumper, but that can be an upgrade to a solid steel bumper from the flimsy plastic stock bumper anyway. Plus, you won’t lose any cargo space! Some of them can even carry two full-size spares.

    6. Check out salvage yards for your car’s make/model and see if you can snatch a wheel/tire off one of those for cheap. Like EP suggested, though, check it out thoroughly for cracks and check the tire itself for tread, punctures, etc.

  2. Hint: turn the full size spare so the outside (valve stem side) is DOWN and there should be a significant size “dish” in the back of the wheel that you can fill with smaller stuff.

  3. This isn’t here nor there to the article but I read this good article about Ronnie Van Zant and Lynyrd Skynyrd and just had to post it. If you call me and I don’t answer it very possibly might be that I have the stereo turned up really loud over that really loud truck and am listening to Free Bird……and probably speeding to boot.

      • Ed, Rob Zombie nearly ruined me on Free Bird but I try to put it behind me…..where it belongs. It was a unique movie but no sequel is needed.

        I Know a Little was one ARA could have made their own with their lead vocalist’ unique voice although I don’t know how you’d improved on it.

        I do know anyone who could play the lead guitar on FB wouldn’t have a problem getting work.

        • 8, I was never a big fan of Free Bird, and didn’t like all of Skynyrd’s stuff. The songs of theirs I did like are the ones that cover bands couldn’t copy, like I Know a Little, and The Breeze.

          Skynyrd was an inimitable band and the loss of the members who died in the crash made that loss terminal. Those band members just couldn’t be replaced. Other Southern Rock bands like Blackfoot and Molly Hatchet kept the genre alive.

          • Ed, give Blackberry Smoke a listen. They have a lot of good songs although a good friend thinks they’re the nads and has for years. Probably if I bought some of their music I’d think of them more often but they are good Southern rock.

            • Yeah, Smoke is a good cover band. I don’t know about their original stuff, I’ve only heard them doing Allman Brothers tunes.

              • I haven’t heard everything they’ve done but I consider the Allman Brothers music the best they’ve done.

                I was just playing an SRV album, Step In, and I sure miss that boy. Then again, I miss a lot of people who aren’t with us today and never were musicians. Smoke just aren’t hard enough rockers for me.

                I do like JJ myself sure enough. Yeh, and what happened to CDB? We were rockin one day and the next thing I know he’s doing some schmaltzy bs.

                • I think Charlie got to negotiating around with the conservotards and went full ‘tard to try to signal some virtue to them.

                  I always like Marshall Tucker Band better than CDB. MTB didn’t get on the radio the way CBD did. I knew MDB’s original flute/sax player, Bill Benchoff when I lived in Greenville. He took me to the Top Hat in Greer for a late night open mike deal they had and Toy Caldwell was there.

                  • Ed, I concur with your assessment about Charlie. He started out as a loner, don’t fuck with me kinda guy, I’ll do my own thing. Then he went sorta Nashville redneck dumbass.

                    Now Marshall Tucker Band is something I watch to this day on YT. Then again, I’m a Little Jerry and the Monotones fan.

          • My favorite Skynyrd song is Call M The Breeze, which is a remake of a JJ Cale song.

            I’m with you, I’m not a fan of Free Bird either and think Tuesday’s Gone is better, probably their best.

            • Yep, that’s the one I referred to as The Breeze. JJ Cale was also on my list back in those days. At the time Skynyrd was getting to be well known, I was going over to Amazing Rhythm Aces and exploring that kind of music.

              Skynyrd’s Saturday Night Special kind of pissed me off because it’s a guncontrol song, period, no matter what that writer of the article tried to say. The bands that supported Carter all turned out to be assholes, like CDB.

              I think that if Ronnie Van Zant had lived, he would have kept on with the leftard politics and become someone that he wasn’t at the time he died. Just a feeling I have, no way to know for sure.

  4. Probably most of us remember the “Firestone 721” fiasco. They were shit tires, almost exclusively installed on new Fords’, as has been since the time of Model T’s when Henry and Harvey were both big bidness BIL’s using bad Firestone’s as a way to shod Fords’ cheaply and make money for Firestone.

    A friend had an 80 model Thunderbird with the 721’s and a year or two into the life of them, one blew out a couple miles from town. He mounts the spare that had never been on the ground and drives on……for another mile when it blew. We still laugh about it but a great many people won’t laugh again from them paying the ultimate price for a bad tire.

    It was the same thing back in the 60’s when Firestone made some tires for Sears that made the 721’s look great in comparison. I recall when Firestone made a buttload of Firestone SS “high performance” tires and had a DOT brand on them saying “Not for highway use”.

    No wonder so many people buy pickups and big SUV’s. There are highways in Tx. you can spend the night if you have no spare. Probably you’ll be entertained by the local coyotes though. Don’t let little Pero out to pee by himself though.

    Most people don’t know that a tire/wheel combo that’s not the same height as the other tires can ruin a limited slip differential.

  5. My Cherokee has a full size spare on a steel rim. It won’t match the other three should I need it, but at least it will let me drive on.

    How about this option? If the reader lives in a part of the world that needs snow tires, why not just haul around one of the opposite season tires? Not ideal for sure, since a winter tire in summer might overheat and a summer tire in winter might not take a snow packed road. But for an emergency situation that might be better than the donut and keep on budget.


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