Cars Explained: How Do Tires Work?

Tires are an essential part of our car. While most people understand the basics of tires, like how to use the quarter trick to see if your tread is okay, we don’t give much thought to how tires actually work. Likewise, we know that there are different types of tires, like snow tires and all-weather, but most people couldn’t really tell you the real differences between the two. So how exactly do tires work?

How tires work

Tire tread is one of the most important factors of the tire, and driving without tread can be particularly dangerous. The contact patch is the area of the tread where the tire itself meets the pavement. As your car accelerates, turns, or slows down, the physical forces acting upon your tire mean that it must contour and move. Tires must provide enough friction for your car to begin moving when you accelerate, as they are your car’s only points of contact with the road.

Jaguar D-type spare wheels and tires
Spare wheels & tires for 1955 Jaguar D-type ‘Long Nose’, (in background) | Michael Cole – Corbis/Corbis, Getty Images

All about your frame of mind

When you look at a car that has a wide profile or low profile tires, you probably make an assessment of how it looks on the car aesthetically. Contrary to what you might believe, however, tires are more than just molded rubber. The frame of the tire can be comprised of a number of materials, like steel or polyester. This layer of the frame is called the belt, and it must be rigid enough to support the shape of the tire but malleable enough to help the car drive over imperfections in the road.

Buying used car tires
Pile of tires | Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images

How they affect a car’s performance

If you go online to read reviews about cars, you probably hear about ride quality quite a bit. For luxury cars, you expect a smooth, comfortable ride, and for lower-end cars, you might expect to feel potholes a bit more. There are a lot of factors that come into play when referring to a car’s ride quality, and you might be surprised to learn that tires are a big part of that. While a car’s suspension can help tremendously, the difference in wheels and tires does as well.

As CNET explains, lower-profile tires are a hot trend for sports cars, and they do give your car a performance edge as they grip the road better under radial and lateral forces like cornering. However, these stiffer tires can make your ride less comfortable, causing you to feel more of the road, potholes and all.

Run flat tires
Run flat tires | STORMI GREENER/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Are More Expensive Tires Actually Better?

Believe it or not, there is a lot of engineering and time that goes into designing tires. While we typically look at the name brands when making a decision, our choice of tire can affect a lot more than just our car’s ability to drive safely.