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Cheapism: Best budget tires

April 16, 2014 at 12:07 PM ET

As winter snows (finally!) give way to April showers, it’s time to swap winter tires for more versatile all-season tires. Treads designed for snow and ice generally don’t suit bare roads or warm weather, so make the switch right away for a smoother ride and longer wear. Before reinstating the all-season tires you already have, reach for some pocket change. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests using a penny as a guideline: If you can see all of Abe Lincoln’s head when you turn him upside down inside the tread, you need new tires. Other experts who have conducted tests in wet conditions recommend looking to George Washington, who sits a little farther from the edge of the coin. If the tread meets the top of his head on a quarter, you’d best start shopping.

Here are the top picks under $100 from Cheapism.com: two all-season tires and two winter tires to keep in mind for next year.

The General Altimax RT
Wal-Mart
The General Altimax RT

The General Altimax RT (starting at $63) compares favorably to other all-season tires, with a treadwear rating of 600 (100 is the baseline), an A rating for traction (AA is best), and a B rating for temperature resistance (A is best). Although the manufacturer assigns these grades, the government sets the criteria and online reviews bear out these tires’ performance. Consumers marvel at the quiet, smooth ride and proclaim the General Altimax RT superior to better-known brands. General Tire offers a 70,000-mile limited treadwear warranty. (Where to buy

The Falken Sincera Touring SN211 (starting at $77) promises to last even longer, with a treadwear rating of 720 and an 80,000-mile warranty. An A for traction and a B for temperature resistance round out its scores. Consumer reviews generally describe a solid, comfortable ride on these all-season tires. Performance does seem to falter in winter weather, but they make a good choice for drivers who switch out their tires for the season. (Where to buy

The General Altimax Arctic (starting at $65) clings to the road in all manner of slippery conditions and plows through deep snow, prompting hyperbolic praise from reviewers. This winter tire also accommodates metal studs for an even better grip, but be sure they’re permitted where you live. (Where to buy

The Michelin X-Ice Xi3 (starting at $99) is a studless winter tire that handles well and proves responsive whether the roads are sloppy or dry. A 40,000-mile treadwear warranty — uncommon among winter tires — provides some guarantee this tire will last. (Where to buy

Before picking out new tires for your car, look for a placard on the driver’s side doorjamb that provides specifics such as the correct size to buy and the speed rating. Most all-season tires for family sedans and vans are rated S (112 mph) or, in the case of the tires recommended here, T (118 mph). A higher rating typically translates to better handling. Although you may never approach the rated speed (lest you get a ticket), don’t choose a tire with a speed rating any lower than what appears on the placard. The exception to this rule is snow tires, which are typically rated Q (99 mph). The Michelin X-Ice Xi3 is a high-performance winter tire that carries a T rating.

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