For many consumer goods, the old adage that "you get what you pay for" holds true. When it comes to capitalism, however, prices can be inflated by factors having nothing to do with quality and practical value.
Consider, for example, that you could spend thousands of dollars on an authentic Louis Vuitton handbag or simply buy a lookalike knock-off for a fraction of the price. While the real deal is probably better quality, the price disparity isn't reflective of the difference in practical value. What you're really paying for is the label, along with the perceived prestige and exclusivity it implies.
Does the same basic principle apply when the rubber meets the road? While tires can vary dramatically in price, you might naturally wonder if you're paying for a name or if the price tag actually means that there is greater value in terms of safety, longevity, and other desirable features.
What exactly makes some tires better than others? Is it worth paying a little more?
What's in a Tire?
In short, rubber makes a tire! The quality of rubber used in tires can vary, however, with different manufacturers and even different models relying on diverse rubber compounds.
That's not all that goes into the performance your tires deliver, though. Manufacturers must consider the amount of rubber used, the sizing of tires for different vehicles, the tread pattern and depth, and more. Of course, brand names can also play a role in pricing, with all other things being more or less equal.
The Proof is in the Pudding
So how can you tell when paying more is actually going to deliver greater performance and value? Your best bet is to look into performance testing. Tire tests frequently include tests performed in a variety of road conditions (dry, wet, icy) to see how tires will handle different environs. They'll also address the distance required to come to a full stop when braking and more.
Many studies show that more expensive tires can improve performance and braking, but will also offer benefits like greater longevity, reduced road noise, increased comfort, better ride quality, and even better gas mileage.
For example, a 2017 AAA study of 12 different all-season tires found that while more expensive tires typically performed better initially, performance degraded more sharply as the tires wore out. Granted, this is likely because the starting point was already lower for cheaper tires, but if you're looking for a relatively consistent experience over the life of the tire, cheaper tires could actually be the better choice.
Knowing What You Need
Should you spring for more expensive tires? It could depend on several factors, starting with the car you drive, the package you have (regular vs. sport or off-road, for example), the weather conditions in your area, and of course, your intended usage.
If you live in sunny SoCal, for example, you may not need to shell out for pricy all-weather radials that are a must-have product in rainy Oregon or snowy Michigan.
Generally speaking, higher-priced tires are usually going to deliver improved performance and longevity, which certain road conditions may require. It's always best to do your homework and read up on your options, though, as there may tire brands that offer similar values at a lower cost.