Cheapism: Best tires under $80

Oct. 5, 2011 at 11:49 AM ET

By Kara Reinhardt

The time to think about winter tires is not as you’re skidding off the road wishing you’d bought some. It’s right about now, when the roads are sprinkled with fall leaves rather than covered in ice. With safety at stake, this is certainly not the place to skimp on quality for the sake of price. That said, tires with solid ratings from experts and consumers can be had for less than $80 apiece, or less than $320 for four — and experts do recommend that you replace all four. Trying to get away with buying just two snow tires for a two-wheel-drive car can lead to poor handling and uneven wear.

Winter tires improve a car’s traction in cold weather, with treading that grips the road in snowy and/or icy conditions. Some winter tires also come with metal studs, which provide an even better grip. However, studded tires don’t perform as well on dry pavement and are subject to state regulations that restrict or even prohibit their use, because they can damage roads. Winter tires in general are specifically designed for cold temperatures and can make for a rough ride in warmer weather. Switching back to standard all-season tires right away in the spring can extend the life of your winter tires, saving you money.

All-season tires live up to their name in moderate climates, where drivers don’t see much winter weather and have no need for dedicated snow tires. Manufacturers are required to rate these tires according to the Uniform Tire Quality Grading System, which gives consumers a sense of how the tires perform relative to others with the same brand name. A UTQG rating comprises tread wear (relative to a standard of 100), traction (AA is best), and temperature resistance (A is best).

Before shopping for any new tires, take a look at your vehicle’s tire placard, which you can typically find on the doorframe or doorjamb on the driver’s side. Match the size of the tires you buy to the size on the placard. Another measure to consider is the tires’ speed rating. Generally a higher rating translates to better handling. Most winter tires have a speed rating of Q, or 99 mph. Standard all-season tires have ratings of S (112 mph) or T (118 mph).

Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable winter and all-season tires.

  • The Michelin X-Ice Xi2 (starting at $72) is a studless winter tire that performs particularly well on packed snow and ice, according to reviews. It outdoes other winter tires with a 40,000 mile tread-wear warranty and a speed rating of T, or 118 mph. (Where to buy)
  • The General Altimax Arctic (starting at $56) is a “studdable” winter tire, so you have the option of using the studs depending on the weather and the laws in your state. Reviews praise the tire’s performance in winter weather both with and without studs. (Where to buy)
  • The General Altimax RT all-season tire (starting at $51) impresses reviewers with its traction and overall value for the money. It earns a UTQG rating of 600-A-B, according to General Tire. While consumers rave about this tire’s performance on wet and dry roads, winter weather isn’t its strong point, so it’s best for warmer climates and drivers who switch to snow tires in the winter. It comes with a T speed rating and a 70,000-mile tread-wear warranty. (Where to buy)
  • The Falken SN211 all-season tire (starting at $54) offers the same speed rating and an even better 80,000-mile tread-wear warranty, as well as a 720-A-B UTQG rating. Drivers admire its quiet ride and say it outperforms expensive tires from big-name brands. (Where to buy)

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