I only need 2 new tires. But where should I put them?

You might be surprised, but they go in back

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Graphic is a reminder that if you are buying only 2 new tires, put them on the rear wheels if you want to be able to drive safely | Michelin illustration

Ideally, you buy tires four at a time. They wear as you drive and tens of thousands of miles later you buy four more.

But the reality is that you may have been doing a lot of burnout accelerating, or your right-side tires were punctured by road debris, or maybe you bought a used car and it came with two good tires and two in which the tread depth won’t pass the Lincoln penny test, or perhaps you simply cannot afford four tires right now but can buy a pair to make the car as safe as possible.

So the question is: Which wheels get the new tires?

Obvious, you say, they go up front, on the tires that steer and do the heavy braking.

I thought so, too. Which means we both were wrong.

Several years ago, I was among more than 15,000 people who at various times took part in a driving demonstration at the Michelin Proving Grounds in South Carolina. 

With a Michelin test driver riding shotgun, I was put into a Ford Fusion with worn tires up front and new tires at the rear. The track is wet and the Michelin staffer suggests a faster speed, fast enough that you feel the front end losing traction and back off the gas pedal to get the car back under control.

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Next you move into another Fusion, but this time with new tires up front and worn rubber at the rear. You do the same exercise on the same wet track and suddenly the back end suddenly snaps around and you spin out. 

Still skeptical, I’m offered a re-run and guess what — the same thing happens.

By the way, the worn tires we used weren’t anywhere near bald. They still had plenty of visible tread. 

The point is that with worn tires in front, you feel them as they lose traction and then you react. With new tires in front, you don’t feel the worn rears as they lose traction and next thing you know you’ve done a 180 or a 360.

As the test driver explains, “Steering without stability is useless and braking without stability is useless and accelerating without stability is useless.”

He also explains that it doesn’t matter if the car is front-, rear- or all-wheel drive, a vintage vehicle or new, nor does it matter if you’re riding on all-weather, high-performance or winter tires. And in this case, even Michelin says the brand isn’t important, but your safety is. 

The driver gets feedback through the steering wheel. Therefore, you put the two best tires on the rear wheels. 

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OK, there are exceptions, but they involve drivers, not cars. Of the more than 15,000 people who went through the exercise, only a handful didn’t spin. 

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Larry,

    Does it make a difference whether the car is front wheel drive vs, rear wheel.drive or whether traveling straight line or on a curbe?

  2. Surprisingly, front-, rear- or all-wheel drive doesn’t matter. It’s that the driver can feel through the steering wheel if the front end is losing traction and can adjust accordingly. But with a very few exceptions, such as experienced race car drivers with exceptional feel for their vehicles, there is no warning when the back end brakes loose. That’s why you put the 2 best tires in back.

  3. I guess I was wrong too. I always thought that the newest tires should go on the drive wheels; be it front or rear-wheel drive. When it comes to AWD vehicles, ALWAYS replace all 4 tires at a time to ensure matching tread and matching tread wear.

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