Why Are Some Tires More Expensive Than Others

Death, taxes, and changing tires.  These are three certainties Ben Franklin famously stated.  Ok, not that last one, but let’s face it: if you own a vehicle there’s 100% guarantee that you are going to be faced with the reality of having to replace the tires at some point.  When that time comes, consumers are faced with an array of different prices for products that seemingly appear to do the same thing: spin.  This prompts many questions: Why are some tires so expensive?  Does price always equate to quality?  Are Michelin tires (or another top brand) really worth it?  What’s the difference between cheap and expensive tires?

The short answer to all of these questions is this: some tires are more expensive than others because of a mix of factors, including brand popularity, rubber compounds, tread design, proprietary engineering advancements, and the overall amount of R&D invested in development.

Despite this mix of factors, research from Consumer Reports shows that prices are the driving factor consumers use when deciding which tire to purchase. Although this research is a bit dated now (it was published in 2016), there’s no reason to believe that shoppers’ sentiments have changed, which makes it all the more important to truly understand the details behind why some tires are more expensive than others.  

This knowledge will also help determine the most cost effective solution when you are eventually faced with the decision of replacing tires.

The Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Tires

Not all rubber is created equal.  Significant feats of engineering go into tire development.  After all, those four pieces of rubber are carrying an average load of 4,000 pounds; are expected to traverse various different terrains and environments; and are the only things keeping your vehicle (and, ahem, you) tethered to the ground.  

There are key differences between cheap and expensive tires.  In independent test after test, higher cost tires generally perform better than inexpensive tires across the the tire triforce:

  • Safety: more expensive tires provide better traction and breaking ability on both wet and dry surfaces.
  • Performance: higher cost tires provide a more comfortable ride, generate less road noise, and yield greater gas mileage.
  • Longevity: higher-priced tires can sustain more wear and tear and last longer between routine tire changes.

Regular readers of our content know that we prioritize safety above all else.  It’s hard to put a price tag on keeping you and the family, pets, and other people in your vehicle safe.  But the reality is that the out-of-pocket expense for top-rated tires can simply be cost prohibitive.  In this case, it’s important to look at the entire lifecycle cost of cheap vs. expensive tire, and probe the difference between price vs. value.  

Price vs. Value – Are pricey tires worth it?

Price is what you pay.  Value is what you get.  It’s important to think about these two dynamics when purchasing replacement tires.  Here’s why.

Let’s say you drive a 2019 Honda Accord and you blow a tire.  You need to replace it and its mate (why its mate?  Check out our post on whether all of your tires have to match).  You go to a shop or look online, identify the correct tire size for your vehicle, and then compare the various-priced tires that would work.  You look at the cheapest option available, an $86 Ironman iMOVE GEN2 AS, and a more well-known and higher-priced tire, the Continental Extreme Contact PLUS at $143 (prices as of time of publication).

Two Ironman tires will cost $172 off the shelf Two Continental tires will cost $286 off the shelf.

That’s a $114 difference right at the cash register.  From an immediate, out-of-pocket perspective, this feels like a no-brainer.

But let’s look at the bigger picture.  

The Ironman tires are rated to last 35,000 miles. The Continental tires are rated to last 50,000 miles.  

If you keep the Accord for another 105,000 miles, you’d have to replace the two Ironman tires three times (105,000/35,000) for a total cost of $516 ($172 x 3). 

The Continental tires will only have to be replaced twice (105,000/50,000) for a total of $572 ($286 x 2).  

We know what you’re thinking – it’s STILL cheaper to buy the cheaper Ironman tires, by $56.  But the math above does not take into account installation costs.  

According to our friends at tirebuyer.com, installation can cost anywhere from $15 to $45 per tire.  Our local Costco will do it for $20, so let’s use that price, which is on the lower end of tirebuyer’s estimates.  

In the Ironman scenario, installation of two new tires would cost $40.  Multiple that by three since you’ll need three sets of tires over 105,000 miles and the cost is $120.

If you purchase the more expensive Continental tires, you’ll only need to replace your tires twice.  So two new tires cost $40 on installation, times two for two sets of tires and that brings the price to $80.  

Now, let’s add this to the cost of the tires to get our grand totals:

We know, we know… you were expecting this exercise to prove that the more expensive Continental tire would end up costing less in the long run.  But remember, this is a hypothetical matchup.  Also remember, I’m using the low end of the per tire installation.  And, of course, lots of things can happen over the course of 105,000 miles.  

But this exercise is more about VALUE, not PRICE.  

The Ironman tires end up being $16 cheaper in this hypothetical exercise – a whopping 2% cheaper in the long run.  But over the life of those 105,000 miles, the $16 invested in the more expensive Continental tires would have bought you:

  • A). Better performance, so a more comfortable ride and better gas mileage
  • B). Enhanced safety for you and everyone else in your vehicle
  • C). Saved time and stress on one entire tire installation 
  • D). And you would have used one less pair of tires, which is good for the planet.  

All this for $16. That’s value.  

So should you buy cheap or expensive tires?

It’s hard to deny the reality that, generally speaking, more expensive tires perform better across the tire triforce: safety, performance, and longevity.  But when it comes to the impact on your wallet, it’s important to look beyond the sticker price and think about the entire lifecycle value affiliated with both the product and process of replacing tires.  You may pay a bit more in upfront costs, but it’ll more than make up for it in lifetime value.

We also recommend thinking about the future of your vehicle, specifically how long you think you might keep it.  Is it an aging junker that’s going to require thousands of dollars worth of repair in the coming years?  Or is it something you might trade in sometime in the next 5,000 miles?  If so, you may very well be better positioned to avoid the higher upfront costs as you won’t net specific dollar savings over the long run (because there is no long run), but you certainly would benefit in the short term from the other benefits that more expensive tires net.