APR 17, 2019

<div>When the Rubber Meets the Road – Tire Types</div>

When everything goes according to plan and you’re keeping the shiny side up, the only parts of your vehicle that actually touch the pavement are your tires. It seems that most car manufacturers believe that All-Season tires are the answer to every driver’s need for surefootedness and control of their vehicle because All Season rubber comes standard on most new models. In fact, All-Season tires are a compromise and like all compromises, they aren’t the best solution for all situations.

If you wear a pair of lace-up oxfords to work every day, would you consider wearing them to play soccer, or wear them to shovel the snow, or take a stroll on the beach? Think of your tires as shoes for your ride and you’ll understand the importance of matching where and how you drive to the right kind of rubber.

Tire Basics

Before you can make an informed opinion about the right tire for you, there are some basics that need to be taken into consideration. Aside from all tires being round, made of rubber (mostly) and fitting on wheels, there are three basic characteristics that determine how well they are going to perform in an environment.

Directional Tires (Les Schwab)

Tread Design

There is actually a lot of engineering that goes into tread design. Generally speaking, tread designers focus on dry braking, noise, wet braking, handling, PRAT (Ply Steer Residual Aligning Torque), and irregular wear. The problem is when a design excels at one task, it will be at the cost of reduced performance of another. For example, the best braking design for a dry road is a slick tire. That’s why racers use “slicks” on the track. Slicks, however, won’t brake worth a darn on snow or wet pavement. The deep sipes (slits in the tread) of a snow tire act like claws and give good traction and braking power on snow and ice but they sound like a gravel truck on dry pavement.

Tire Depth (Wikimedia Commons)

Tread Depth

The spaces between treads are channels where surface debris like snow, ice, mud, dirt, and water are channeled out from under the tire. By necessity, a winter tire will have a deeper tread depth than a performance tire that runs on a dry road or track.


A tire’s compound refers to the magic chemical recipe that gives the rubber its distinct characteristics. How tough it is, how well it performs in extreme temperatures, and how sticky it is, comes down to the tire’s compound makeup.

Now that you have the basics, let’s look at specialized tire types.

Tire Types

Toyo Tires Open Country M/T

Mud Tires (AKA M/T)

These tires have their roots in agricultural transportation when trucks, tractors, and other vehicles had to make their way through mud and other extreme slop. They are definitely for off-road use and are ideal for pickup truck drivers who regularly have to plow through extreme off-road conditions.

The massive tread and deep channels take most of the credit for their traction. Some models have “stone ejectors” located at the base of the channels to kick stones and other debris out of the channel. Many offer lugs on the sidewalls to assist in the traction and to also serve as bumpers protecting the sidewalls. Almost all are three-ply (or more) construction and the compound is designed for toughness and puncture resistance. On dry pavement, they lose a lot of their attraction. They are incredibly loud, do not brake as well as All-Season, and are clumsy in turns and curves.

Michelin X Ice XI3

Winter Tires (Snow Tires)

If you live where the snow falls frequently and you absolutely have to drive in it, you need winter tires. Even if you have AWD you need something touching the ground that can bite into the surface and give you traction. If you don’t, your AWD drivetrain is just a fancy way to spin your wheels.

Winter tires come in 2 flavors, studless and performance. Studless tires are designed with a special compound that allows them to remain pliable in sub-zero temperatures and have tread designs that will plow through drifts. The downside is they are poor performers both in braking and handling on dry pavement. The performance tires aren’t as aggressive as studless but are perfect if 2’ or 3’ is big snow and the streets are mostly cleared. Regardless of the selection, you need four. Going with two is like trying to ice skate with one skate. It’s just not a good idea.

Pirelli P Zero Nuovo Tires

Performance Tires

Here are a few fast facts about performance tires. They are the best braking tire available, their low profile stiff sidewalls make them handling dreams, they are the best tire for acceleration off the line, they are the most expensive, and they wear out the fastest. Designed for speed-rated tires, but you’ll find them as standard equipment on some vehicles that are not known for performance (like the Toyota Camry).

Performance tires have mostly slick treads with very small sipes. They typically have a wider footprint giving them more traction in acceleration and breaking. If your car’s OEM tires were speed-rated, you are probably stuck with this type of tire for good. Many vendors will not sell you a tire unless it equals or exceeds the speed rating of the OEM.

BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 All-Terrain Radial Tire

All Terrain

The name says it all (pun intended). These are good tires for on-road and off-road driving but not the best for either. With a big block tread design, deep channels, and reinforced sidewalls, all-terrain rubber provides good grip and braking action off-road. If you’re not plowing through drifts, all-terrain tires make a good substitute for winter tires providing the temps don’t consistently hover in the single digits.

On dry pavement, they are a bit noisy but not as bad as winter tires. Because the compound provides for a more pliable rubber, they are susceptible to cupping and faster tread wear but regular rotation can extend their life significantly. If you drive an off-road pickup these are a good choice for daily driving and weekend adventures in the dirt.

So, there you have a quick rundown on the different tire types available. The one component we didn’t cover, is your driving behavior. How you drive plays a big role in tire durability, tread performance, and of course safety. What’s your compound made of?