Answer Man: You might want to tread lightly with thin tires

News-DemocratApril 15, 2014 

Q. My wife and I were driving home from church and we started to debate the use of small (thin) tires. We both agree that they must ride much rougher than the older, thicker tires. I mentioned that the thinner tires are standard issue on many newer cars because they get better gas mileage. My wife thought that only "hipsters" wanted them. So, what's the story?

-- W.P., of Belleville

A. Apparently, people have been growing increasingly tired of the rubber on which their grandfathers drove around.

More and more they are shedding their old-fashioned "balloon" tires of the past for the tall, thin (or "low-profile," as it's known in the business) variety you and your wife have been seeing, according to Kent Meckfessel, owner of Meckfessel Tire in Belleville.

For the speedsters, they provide better handling. For the fashionistas, those monster alloy wheels can have pedestrians reaching for their sunglasses. But before you're too hasty to join the in-crowd, you should be aware of some major -- and potentially costly -- downsides.

In fact, two well-known car experts -- Tom and Ray Magliozzi (now retired as Click and Clack on NPR's "Car Talk") -- once urged car owners to steer clear of them unless they had money to burn.

"Definitely there is a trend (to low-profile tires) that we've noticed for the last 15, 20 years," Meckfessel said.

"It used to be that most tires used to be a 75-series tire. In other words they were 75 percent as tall (from rim to tread) as they were wide. But the profiles have changed, and more cars than not are now down to 60 percent or below.

"So you can see the height-width ratio is really changing. And it's keeping a lot us tire dealers busy because of the different changing sizes and you don't have them in stock because there are so many different varieties. But, yeah, there is definitely a trend to that."

The advantages are twofold. First, some just like the glitz of those large, shiny wheels in a multitude of designs. But for those who like to put their cars through their paces, the low-profile tires provide better handling while they're zooming over narrow, winding roads.

"The rubber part of the tire is the biggest shock absorber you have on the car," Meckfessel explained. "So with a taller sidewall, you do have more absorption. The low-profile tires don't have as much of that, so there's less flex in the sidewall part of the tire. So when you go to turn or dodge a pothole or something in the road, they respond a lot faster."

In addition, those larger wheels and rims allow car makers to install larger brakes. That may give you the feeling, at least, of enhanced safety as you zip around some snaky, mountainous curves.

But trying to feel like Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes at a price. For one thing, if you like soft rides, this is obviously not the tire to get pumped up over.

"They do ride worse," Meckfessel said. "That's the downside because you don't have that large cushion."

Gas mileage may be a wash. Actually, the low-profiler is often wider, which means a greater footprint on the road, leading to more resistance and worse mileage. However, low-rolling resistance tires and other advances can compensate for this loss, Meckfessel said.

Even so, your wallet could be in for a rough ride. Without that extra sidewall cushion, potholes, curbs and other road hazards can more quickly and easily damage tires, rims and other components. In addition, some say that they even may destabilize cars not designed to run on them.

"Our advice, in general, is: 'Unless you own stock in alloy-wheel companies, stick with standard-size wheels and standard-profile tires when you have the option'," Ray Magliozzi once told a man who was bemoaning the $1,800 cost of two tires, rims, a front strut and rear shock absorber after his month-old Mazda5 ran over a pothole. "Your wife (who was concerned about the tires while they were car-shopping) is onto something."

Today's trivia

What was unusual about the SextoAuto car manufactured in 1912 by Milton Othello Reeves in Columbus, Ind.?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Have you ever heard of "geocaching (GEO-cashing)"? That's the relatively new recreational activity for which participants use some form of a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to find a hidden container, called a "geocache" or, simply "cache." Well, now that you've heard of it, you can use it the next time you play Scrabble. Just last week, it became the latest word that Hasbro added to the players dictionary -- and the first to be voted in by players themselves. In a fan vote, "geocache" beat out 15 other words, including bitcoin, ew and zen, the runner-up.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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