Wait (you say), I thought all my tires rotated all the time? Isn’t that what tires do? You know, rotate?
Silly as that sounds, a lot of drivers don’t really know what’s involved in a tire rotation. It’s simple enough, though; because tires don’t all wear in the same places or at the same rate, you can make a set of tires last longer if you swap them to the other end of the car periodically. Tires are a big, periodic expense — do yourself a favor and rotate them regularly.
Why do tires wear differently? There are several reasons—and different reasons—depending on your vehicle and your driving style. A traditional rear-wheel-drive car puts its power down to the ground through the rear axle, so it’s obvious that the rear tires would wear faster, right? Not necessarily so if your driving cycle includes a lot of stop-and-go driving, because cars do 80% of their braking with the front tires. Heavy use of front brakes will scrub off more rubber. Same for living in a hilly neighborhood with lots of twisty roads, where hard cornering can prematurely wear down the tread.
Front-drive cars will almost always wear the front tires out more rapidly, because those tires are carrying most of the weight, as well as doing all of the thrusting and steering. Spinning your tires away from traffic lights is going to peel off a lot of rubber in short order, regardless of whether the drive wheels are in the front or the back. Ditto for sliding around corners or seeing how late you can brake into that freeway exit. You know who you are.
Aside from all of these reasons why all four tires don’t wear evenly, there’s the issue of alignment. Wheels are not necessarily kept perfectly perpendicular to the pavement, nor pointed straight ahead. Your car is engineered to provide the best steering, ride and handling when the wheels lean in just a hair at the top (an alignment adjustment called camber), and are pointed just a little pigeon-toed (a different adjustment called toe-in). That means that wear won’t necessarily be consistent across the tread. Throw in the fact that roads are all slanted slightly towards the curb for drainage, making you constantly steer slightly to the left. Regular tire rotation will even all of these types of wear out.
How often should you have your tires rotated? The definitive answer is, like many automotive questions, in your owner’s manual. For those of you not motivated enough to go out to your glove box and look, conventional wisdom says every 5,000-10,000 miles, or at least twice a year for most drivers.
You could, of course, rotate your tires yourself in your driveway with nothing else except the jack and tools that came with your car. Preferably on a cool day, because you’ll work up a sweat, for sure. For the most part, it’s simpler to leave this to a mechanic with a lift and pneumatic tools. Rotation patterns vary: the simplest is to simply swap the fronts for the back, leaving them on the same side. I suggest that every other rotation should also swap tires diagonally, equalizing left-to-right. Back in The Day when every car had a full-sized spare, it was considered appropriate to put the spare into the rotation pattern. This spawned a certain amount of debate as to the appropriate pattern, as opinions differed mechanic-to-mechanic. Times have changed—few cars sport a full-sized spare on a matching rim, most have some sort of undersized inflatable donut spare, and a select few have no spare at all, just an aerosol can of fix-a-flat.
Now, the bottom line: how much is proper rotation going to cost you? It all depends. A repair shop is justified in billing you for about 20 minutes to swap the tires, and $25-30 is an appropriate price. No mechanic who’s worth his greasy fingernails will pull a wheel off without giving your suspension and brakes a critical look. If you’re taking your vehicle in for its semi-annual service/inspection, the rotation may well be baked into the price. And if you’re returning to the dealership where you’ve bought the car, or to the tire store where you bought the tires, the rotation may well be free! In fact, regular tire rotation may be required by your tire warranty. – Mike Allen
Mike is a guest writer for the Openbay blog. He’s an ASE-certified mechanic, longtime former editor of Popular Mechanics, and world-record-holding race-car driver. For more on Mike, check out his bio here, and find him on his own site, Saturday Mechanic.
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Image credits: Don O’Brien, The U.S. Army, Jen Russo, flickr