Globalization has brought with it an onslaught of amazing advancements and conveniences. One of the more commonly recognized (and highly debated) aspects of this modern global market, is the outsourcing of materials and labor. While shipping jobs overseas may cut costs and allow various logistical advantages to materialize, there’s a shadowy side to this international endeavor, and it goes well beyond economical impacts and job numbers. Markets around the globe have been flooded with inexpensive foreign products, many of which are little more than knock-offs of the real deal, with the tire market being one of the more heavily scrutinized sectors.
But does the average driver really give a shit? Not really. The masses want the cheapest product possible, and to hell with how or where it’s made. Longevity? If a consumable product like a tire is cheap as chips, lifespan takes a proverbial back seat. The result? An ass-load of inexpensive rubber rolling around on the highways, as low prices continue to take the podium.
So are budget tires any good? That depends upon the model of tire, the driver’s priorities, and the sort of driving they do.
What used to be a shadowy grey area within the automotive arena has emerged into the spotlight. And while many purists will continue to only run the rubber they recognize, budget-minded drivers have been quick to jump on the inexpensive tire bandwagon. Low prices, respectable warranties, good reviews, and attractive rebates all make for a very enticing offer.
Reputable online sellers and local brick-and-mortar shops are helping fuel this cheap tire buying craze, by making these products readily available to the masses. This is why conducting some research before committing to a fresh batch of rubber is pretty much mandatory shopping etiquette. No one wants to be rolling around on a set of sticky time bombs, so digging into the details and figuring out what’s best for your budget is going to require some pondering.
Luckily for your ass, we did some digging, in order to provide you with some useful info on budget rubber. When it comes to all things automotive, cutting corners is not always an advisable approach. But as you shall soon see, cheap tires can be an exception.
The Trouble With Cheap Tires
While Barack Obama’s war on cheap Chinese tires may have garnered the most headlines, there’s more to the story than just trade tariffs and political posturing. While safety standards and inspection certifications must be met in order for a tire to be sold in most global markets, there are certain things that tend to go unnoticed by the buyer.
The quality of the materials used, structural design, environmental impacts associated with manufacturing, projected longevity of the product itself, and many more contributing factors all deserve to be brought into question. But most drivers don’t give a damn about any of these things. All they see is a low price, and that the product is in stock with free shipping.
So where are most of these cheap tires coming from, you might ask? Despite all of the “anti-dumping and anti-subsidy” laws imposed by European and U.S. government on cheap Chinese truck tires, China’s tire exports in 2018 alone topped over 287 million exported units. But that’s not to say that China is the only Asian country cranking out automotive rubber. Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan also generate an enormous amount of this consumable product every year.
That’s not to say that the products coming out of the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, or the United Kingdom aren’t creating crappy tires too. Negative reviews of both high-end and inexpensive rubber show that no one is safe from scrutiny, as everything from excessive road noise and uneven wear, to horrendous cornering grip, wet traction issues, and piss-poor braking are reported.
Complaints from consumers should be taken with a splash of degreaser though. Most drivers don’t have access to a controlled driving course, nor the interest or financial fortitude to procure, install, and learn how to utilize advanced vehicle monitoring equipment. This means most buyer reviews are based upon what someone senses or “feels” while driving. Oh, you didn’t have traction back there? Your dumbass probably didn’t see that patch of sand on the pavement. Noisy tires on the interstate? Have you taken the time to check your mini van’s corner balancing and caster?
Didn’t think so…
Another major influential factor for most tire buyers, are guaranteed warranties. From reinforced products like run-flat tires, to dedicated mud-terrain compounds, having a protection plan in place is crucial. So when a tire manufacturer you’ve never heard of offers you an inexpensive product with an amazing tread life warranty, do you jump at the offer, or do you sit back and ponder its validity? Warranty claims can be a tricky affair, especially on something that sees such extreme levels of abuse, so opting for a product from a company with stellar customer support and a proven track record is something that should be carefully considered.
But warranties aren’t the only important part of buying tires. Drivers are quick to forget all of the additional fees, mandatory accessories, and standard services associated with running new rubber. From shipping charges and disposal fees, to valve stems, TPMS sensors, and mounting and balancing extras, the process of sourcing and installing said rubber requires setting aside a separate, surprisingly sizeable chunk of change. So even though a tire may be inexpensive, if it has a short lifespan and a shitty warranty, it’s probably going to cost more than its more expensive alternative.
In contrast, a tire that lasts for a long time may sound like great value, but that too runs its own risks. While the expiration of the tires themselves definitely raises some red flags, it’s the hardness of the compound itself that warrants worry. Harder tire compounds may last a long time, but they tend to trade traction for longevity. There’s a reason why high-performance tires are super sticky, and why “warm-up laps” aren’t just meant for acclimating the driver to the track. Remember, when it is cold out, that rubber gets even harder, so don’t assume that rigid tires are the answer either.
Expired Tires and Skating on Thin Treads
Speaking of failures, like many consumable products, tires also have a shelf life. So if your inexpensive serving of rubber goes out of code while you’re rolling, that already questionable tire suddenly becomes an even more dangerous liability. A report by Discount Tire Direct emphasizes the impact old or compromised tires have on driving safety, stressing that it’s important to know when to rotate, and when to replace this core automotive component.
Tread depth and age both play crucial roles in a tire’s handling characteristics, with a 2/32nds of an inch of tread being the bare minimum requirement for safe dry stopping. The investigation goes further, explaining that in the wet tires with 4/32nds of tread take longer to stop, with hydroplaning also being a key concern. Things get even more dicey in icy conditions, with testing showing that tires with 6/32nds of tread or less suffer reduced traction, braking, accelerating, and handling properties.
Unlike car detailing, which occurs on a far more regular basis, replacing tires is not nearly as commonplace. The recommended replacement time frame for tires, including those with plenty of tread life, is 6 years from their manufacturing date, onward. So if those cheap tires scored poorly on a portion of the driving test when they were new, imagine how they will perform when they’re expired. Yikes.
However, most drivers will burn through a set of tires well ahead of that 6-year mark, even when averaging 15,000 miles of windshield time on an annual basis. Routine tire maintenance, driving styles, and terrain traversed all have an impact on the lifespan of a tire, and unfortunately, a lot of drivers are really rough on their rubber. This makes the selection of the right type of tire compound for your driving needs an even more mandatory task, and a damn daunting one at that.
Quick Nerd Note: Tire manufacturers construct tires from all manner of materials, some of which tend to break down even when they are sitting on a shelf. So beware of old rtires, because they will never perform as well as the fresh sticky stuff.
Aftermarket Tires: What to Look For and What to Avoid
Have you ever seen a sports car come straight from the factory with extra skinny, fuel-efficient tires? How about a hybrid with really wide, super sticky rubber? Different vehicles are intended for different purposes, and the same goes for the tires they rely upon.
In the past few decades, tires have evolved to a point where they are no longer intended for one core purpose. Sure, things like drag radials and studded winter tire designs still have their specific strengths when it comes to traction, but most drivers don’t rely upon these types of tires for getting around every day.
The street-oriented performance tire segment is an ever-expanding market that is loaded with hybridized buying options. In search of an all-season high-performance tire with superior fuel efficiency ratings? We’ve got ’em in abundance. And while compromises must be made somewhere in order to embolden all of the other performance aspects, there are some really good all-season tires out there that don’t cost a fortune.
Regardless of how inexpensive or asinine your tire budget may be, those who live in areas with lots of snow should swap-on a dedicated snow tire setup that’s been wrapped around some skinny alloy wheels. This tried-and-true winter maintenance upgrade is one of the best ways to guarantee grip, especially if chains aren’t in the cards.
Those who do not require occasional grip in the snow should skip the all-season approach as well, and opt for a dedicated summer tire instead. As a detailed tire buying guide from Consumer Reports shows, even ultra-high-performance tires suffer when an all-season design compromises dry and wet grip in favor of a little more wintry traction.
Buying Budget Tires the Right Way
While all of the big name tire brands continuously strive to create more advanced versions of original products, lesser known companies have been busy crafting their own offerings. Many of these smaller brands have released inexpensive tires with truly amazing performance results, earning them rave reviews from drivers and experts alike.
Look into the history of brands like Hankook, Kumho, Falken, Nexen, Nankang, Sumitomo, and Nitto, and you’ll realize that these companies have been around a lot longer than you might think, and are far bigger than one might expect. Granted, companies like Michelin, Dunlop, BFGoodrich, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Yokohama, Pirelli, and Continental continue to snag the spotlight due to their race heritage and history, but they too have been found guilty of releasing sub-par products.
Cheap tires are better than ever, some of which have been known to outperform their more expensive rivals. This is precisely why many of the larger tire distributors have their own proving grounds on premise for testing and review, and why automotive journalists continue to conduct long-term tire tests. Testing grip in the wet is just as important as ensuring that a tread life warranty is applicable, so when in doubt look to the pros for answers and don’t just buy what the brand is selling. And as for the bottomless barrel of customer reviews found on every tire wholesaler’s website, it’s probably best to take these with a shot of degreaser as well, as the internet comes loaded with its fair share of “idiots and experts.”
Regardless of what you drive, or where you go, it’s important to remember that there’s way more to automotive rubber than air pressure and the occasional spritz of tire shine. From fuel efficient passenger car budget rubber, to the ultra-high-performance compounds engineered for extreme traction, tires are a highly complex, multi-layered serving of engineering.
Our final tidbit of tie buying advice is simple: Do your damn research. If a less expensive buying option from a manufacturer that you are unfamiliar with materializes, and it has solid reviews and seems like a good match for your driving needs, you should give it a shot. Just keep in mind that a good warranty doesn’t always warrant an awesome product, and that your tires are the only part of the automobile that come into contact with the ground. Your performance and safety are only going to be as good as the rubber that rotates within each wheel well, so shop wisely
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