Ah, the age-old question – are wider tires better? Okay, the subject might not be as old as the automotive industry because, in the old days, cars were generally designed with very narrow tires in mind.
But that’s understandable, considering rubber technology wasn’t very advanced in the first few decades of the 20th century, and producing wider tires was super-expensive. Besides, cars weren’t very fast back then, which meant that tires as wide as mountain bikes today have were enough to keep you safe. Well, at least that’s what automakers thought at the time.
Fast forward to today, and we have a plethora of choices when it comes to tire sizes, with very narrow and very wide tires on offer. But why do we have all those choices? Aren’t wider tires better in every regard? Well, although tires got wider as cars got faster, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should go for the widest size, and in this article, I’ll tell you why.
First, though, let’s set a benchmark of what is considered a “wide” tire!
What Tires are Considered Wide?
Every car tire comes with the dimensions imprinted on the sidewall. As an example, I’ll take one of the most popular sizes – 205/55R16. It’s a tire dimension you’ll generally find on compact economy cars, and most people are familiar with it. Here is what every number means:
- “205” shows you the width of the tire in millimeters at the manufacturer’s recommended pressure.
- “55” is the height of the sidewall and is the percentage of the tire’s width. In this case, the sidewall height would be 55% of 205 mm, which is 112.75. This also means that a 215/55R16 tire, for example, will have a higher sidewall than a 205/55R16 tire, although the second number is the same.
- “R16” is the diameter of the rim on which the tire fits in inches, with the letter “R” showing you it’s a radial tire (all car tires today are).
Okay, that’s pretty straightforward, but where do you draw the line? When does a tire become wide? I’d say it depends. For some compact cars, like a Corolla or a Civic, a 225-section tire would look wide. However, put the same tire on a large SUV, and it will look comically narrow.
So, it’s all a matter of perspective, though modern cars generally do have wide tires, even from the factory. You could always go wider, so let’s say that for the purposes of this article, we’ll consider every tire wider than the original a “wide tire.”
Let’s continue, then!
Benefits and Drawbacks of Wider Tires
Wider tires are quite popular in enthusiast circles today and for a few very good reasons. For starters, they look much better than narrow tires, especially on cars with more aggressive looks. You might share that sentiment, but it’s a generally accepted rule.
But more importantly, wider tires, in theory, provide better grip. That’s thanks to the larger contact patch, which increases friction and improves traction. As a result, a wider tire will give you better traction on dry surfaces but also on damp roads.
If you compare the same car with narrower and wider tires, the braking distances will be shorter with the wider tires attached. Moreover, the vehicle can drive faster through the corners and accelerate with less wheel slip. Thanks to all those advantages, wider tires are generally safer.
So, wider tires are better, right? Not so fast; due to the added friction, wider tires have higher rolling resistance, which is detrimental to fuel economy. They are also heavier and usually fit larger and heavier rims, which again affects fuel economy.
Not to mention, wider tires usually have lower sidewalls, which have a harmful effect on the ride quality, i.e., you will feel the bumps from the road more. And due to the wider contact patch, they are also noisier at speed.
Besides, even narrow modern tires have a high enough grip to keep you planted on the road. If the automaker’s engineers employed them in the car model, it means they were tested for safety, comfort, and fuel economy. Sure, going wider will give you a better grip, but be honest – will you ever even need that? Perhaps on the track, but 99.9% of the drivers only use their vehicles on public roads.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Narrower Tires
Apart from providing passengers with better comfort and saving on gas, narrower tires have other benefits as well. Most notably, thanks to their shape, they have higher hydroplaning resistance. While a wide tire would float, the narrower tire would cut through a puddle of water. In most cases, a wider tire still provides better traction in rainy conditions, but I’d trust a set of narrower tires more in very heavy rain.
Furthermore, narrower tires are easily better on snow-covered roads. Thanks to the smaller contact patch, they provide higher surface pressure, which increases traction on snow and ice. The discrepancy is not insignificant, especially if the width difference is over 30 mm. Some people put narrower winter tires on smaller steel wheels, which not only increases snow traction but also keeps the expensive rims intact from road salt.
But the biggest benefit of narrower tires is that they are cheaper without sacrificing performance too much. So, if you are on a budget, I recommend always installing the same size as your OEM tires.
Should You Install Wider Tires on Your Car?
While this comes as a personal preference, there are still some things you should be aware of if you are on the fence between putting wider tires or keeping the originals.
For most people, I’d suggest keeping the OEM dimensions and ensuring the tires you buy are quality-made. That way, your vehicle will still perform at a very high level, and you won’t sacrifice comfort and fuel economy.
If you really want to improve the looks of your car or need the added grip, though, you can go for wider tires. However, make sure the new models are of a similar quality – a high-quality narrow tire from Michelin, Continental, Bridgestone, or Pirelli will perform better than a super-cheap Chinese wide tire. In this case, you’ll only be adding to the looks, and lose performance, especially in rainy and snowy conditions.
Meanwhile, if you really want to improve the performance of your car, I suggest going for a set of max-performance summer tires in the OEM dimensions. That way, you’ll ensure the tires fit your vehicle and don’t rub the fenders while significantly improving grip.
Should You Install Narrower Tires for Winter Driving?
In my experience, going with the OEM tire size for the winter is always the best solution. That’s because you’ll be mostly driving on dry or wet roads, anyway, where the wider tire would give you better traction.
Sure, if you live in areas with very harsh wintry conditions, going for smaller wheels and narrower tires could be beneficial. However, I’d recommend only using the narrowest tire the manufacturer recommends for that particular car model.
Narrow vs. Wide Tires for Off-Roading
Tire width is a very hot topic in off-road circles, and there is no definitive answer on whether you should go for wider or narrower tires. The main reason is that off-roading includes driving over various surfaces, all difficult in their own right.
Still, we can use the same “contact patch, friction, and downward pressure” idea here and compare it to various different terrains. I’ll start with the most common – dirt and gravel. Thanks to the higher pressure narrower tires produce, they will generally provide you with higher acceleration and braking traction, though lateral grip will be similar.
But mud isn’t as straightforward. Namely, if you only encounter shallow mud, a narrow tire would be a better choice because it will cut through the mud and give you higher traction. However, this could be detrimental in very deep mud, where you’d want your tires to float a bit so you won’t sink. In that case, wider tires would be a better choice.
It’s the same with sand – narrower tires will give you better traction but will sink more, meaning they are only good in shallower sand. Meanwhile, wider tires will float over the sand and won’t let you sink.
As for rock crawling, narrower tires are generally better, as they produce more pressure, which helps the tire conform better over the rocks. Besides, since narrow tires generally come with larger sidewalls, you can air them down more, which is again beneficial when driving over large rocks.
Choosing a new set of tires can be daunting with all the options out there. Thus, I’d suggest not adding the size to the equation – purchase a set with the same dimensions as your OEM tires and put your mind at ease.
Still, if you plan on making or car or SUV more geared toward track or trail driving, you can install wider or narrower tires, depending on your needs. Just make sure you always purchase tires from reputable manufacturers, and I’m sure you’ll be happy with the purchase!
I’m Ivo Gievski, the content writer for Tireer. We built our website with over 15 years of experience and extensive research in the automotive and technology sectors. My dedication to delivering high-quality content is unwavering, and I strive to continuously hone my skills to stay ahead of industry trends and provide readers with informative, engaging, and valuable insights.