Imagine driving down a twisty road in a sleek sports car, the engine tickles your ears, and the wind plays with your hair. Now, think about what type of tires you are rolling on. Not the model or make, but the dimensions – they are probably low-profile tires. I mean, like 100%.
In the past, high-profile tires were the norm, even among sports cars. But ever since Pirelli launched the Cinturato P7 max-performance tire in 1974, things changed dramatically. This was a revolutionary tire for its era, introducing a nylon zero-degree belt for higher stiffness and lower weight.
However, the biggest advancement was the low-profile geometry of the Series 50, which paved the way for the low-profile tire we know today. Since Pirelli launched that tire, other tiremakers quickly followed with their own versions of max-performance summer tires with low-profile sidewalls.
Today, even a regular passenger vehicle tire would be considered a low-profile one in the 60s and 70s. For instance, during the 1950s and 1960s, the aspect ratios of tires were generally quite high, often 70 or more (the aspect ratio is the height of the tire sidewall expressed as a percentage of the tire's width).
Since the tires were skinnier in the past, higher ratios were necessary to retain ride comfort, as suspensions weren't as advanced. Meanwhile, high-performance tires in the 70s and 80s had ratios ranging between 50 and 60, which is considered a high-profile tire today.
The shift to low-profile tires has dramatically improved the handling in sports cars launched in the 1980s, when we saw some amazing machines launching on the market, like the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959. Today, most sports cars come equipped with low-profile tires from the factory in an effort to improve handling.
But what makes low-profile tires so suitable for high-performance vehicles? And why do even owners of regular cars want them so much? Are they the right choice for you and your vehicle?
You will have the answers to all your lingering questions here. This article will delve into the nitty-gritty of low-profile tires, dispelling myths and illuminating facts to help you make the best decision for your ride. Buckle up because we're about to embark on a fascinating journey into the world of low-profile tires!
- What Are Low Profile Tires?
- Advantages and Disadvantages of Low-Profile Tires
- Factors to Consider When Buying Low-Profile Tires
- How Low-Profile Tires Affect Vehicle Performance
- Myths and Misconceptions about Low-Profile Tires
What Are Low Profile Tires?
Any enthusiast that delved deep into the automotive world came across the term "low-profile tires." These tires almost have an aura now and are an indispensable part of the tuning culture, as they bring edgy aesthetics to any car. However, they are also designed to improve the performance of the car, particularly the steering response and handling.
Let's have a closer look at the structure of these tires, what makes them so popular, and whether they can truly improve the performance of your vehicle.
1. Definition of Low-Profile Tires
Low-profile tires, as their name suggests, have shorter sidewalls or a lower "profile" than typical tires. They are characterized by a low aspect ratio, which is the height of the sidewall expressed as a percentage of the tire's width. Hence, a wider tire with the same sidewall ratio as a narrower tire will have a higher sidewall. A low aspect ratio, typically less than 50%, equates to a shorter sidewall and a wider tire.
2. Calculating Sidewall Height: 225/40R18 vs. 265/40R18
To highlight the impact of the tire's width on the actual height of the sidewall, let's dissect two tire sizes: 225/40R18 and 265/40R18, both readily available in most max-performance summer tire models. Even though they both have the same aspect ratio (40), they do not have the same sidewall height due to their different widths.
For instance, a 225/40R18 tire has a tread that is 225 mm wide and a sidewall that is 40% of the tire's width. Thus, to calculate the sidewall height, we multiply the width by the aspect ratio (as a decimal), which gives us: 225mm * 0.40 = 90mm. So, a 225/40R18 has a sidewall that is 90 mm (3.543 inches) tall.
Meanwhile, the 265/40R18 tire has a width of 265mm. Using the same calculation method, the sidewall height becomes 265mm * 0.40 = 106mm. So, a 265/40R18 tire would have a sidewall that is 106 mm tall (4.173 inches).
The 16 mm difference might seem insignificant, but it can have a huge effect on how the vehicle handles. Therefore, it's crucial to choose the right tires for your car and your driving needs, as even small changes can have a big effect on handling and comfort.
3. How Low-Profile Tires Work
Low-profile tires, due to their reduced sidewall height, are built to perform and respond more quickly to the driver's inputs. In other words, they are much more responsive, which can be most felt through the steering, but also when accelerating and braking.
The reason why low-profile tires are much more responsive is that there is less flex in the sidewall. Moreover, manufacturers use stronger, stiffer materials to construct the sidewalls, ensuring that they can withstand the forces exerted upon them during high-speed cornering. So, a low-profile tire is stiffer than a high-profile tire.
A stiffer sidewall responds more quickly to steering inputs, providing more immediate feedback and a feeling of being more connected to the road. As a result, these tires offer more direct and precise steering and generally more playful and engaging handling.
But the stiffer construction pays its dividends in the grip department as well. Thanks to the lower amount of flex in the sidewalls, the risk of rollover is greatly reduced. Rollover is when the tire bends and bulges under extreme cornering, which greatly reduces the tread's contact patch and, therefore, grip. A low-profile tire won't bend as much and will retain the contact patch, thus greatly increasing grip.
The bottom line is that low-profile tires improve lateral grip and steering response but won't make your car faster.
4. Different Types of Low-Profile Tires
Although the low-profile design is available across many different types of tires, not all are created equal. For instance, today, you can find touring and grand-touring tires with low-profile sidewalls, but they will still be focused on delivering a smooth and quiet ride rather than razor-sharp steering. Of course, a touring tire with a lower sidewall will be more responsive than a touring tire with a higher sidewall.
Meanwhile, ultra-high-performance al-season/summer and max-performance summer tires usually only come in low-profile sizes with aspect ratios lower than 50. These tires are specifically designed with responsive and grippy handling in mind, and the low-profile construction is crucial in retaining those characteristics.
Winter tires, on the other hand, are available in touring and performance applications. High-performance winter tires come with low-profile sidewalls designed for drivers of sporty cars who need to maintain their vehicle's handling performance during the winter months.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Low-Profile Tires
Low-profile tires are very popular nowadays, primarily because they make the car look sleeker and sportier. However, while these tires improve on some driving aspects, they also have disadvantages that might make you think twice before acquiring a set. Here is what you need to know:
1. Pros of Low-Profile Tires
Low-profile tires are primarily designed to improve the driving experience and sharpen the handling of the vehicle. Here are all the advantages they offer:
- Improved handling: because of the stiffer sidewall, low-profile tires flex much less when pushed in the corners, thus retaining an optimal contact patch. This reduces the amount of roll a car experiences, leading to improved stability, better steering precision, and higher lateral grip.
- Enhanced aesthetics: while looks are always subjective, most people would agree that low-profile tires look better, particularly on sports cars. With their wider look and the ability to accommodate larger, more stylish rims, low-profile tires can add an aesthetic edge to your car. They can give it a more sporty and aggressive appearance.
- Increased longitudinal traction: thanks to the stiffer sidewalls, low-profile tires also reduce flex under acceleration and braking, which can help maintain the shape of the contact patch and improve the consistency of traction. It's also worth noting that most low-profile tires are made from softer, stickier compounds, which can further increase traction.
2. Cons of Low-Profile Tires
Are you thinking about putting low-profile tires on your daily driver to improve the looks and driving experience? Read these disadvantages before splurging the cash, as they might be a dealbreaker for you:
- Stiffer ride: if you aren't ready to sacrifice the buttery-smooth ride of your car to enhance its looks, then low-profile tires aren't for you. The lower and stiffer sidewall on these tires makes the ride much harsher and stiffer, particularly over bad roads.
- Higher noise: low-profile tires tend to generate more noise, particularly high-performance models, which further deteriorates cabin comfort.
- Wheel damage: with less cushioning to protect them, the wheels of your car are more susceptible to damage when you hit potholes or other road imperfections.
Factors to Consider When Buying Low-Profile Tires
If the disadvantages of owning low-profile tires didn't change your mind, here is what you need to consider before buying a set:
1. Driving Conditions
If you live in an area with bad roads with potholes or frequently drive over curbs, low-profile tires might not be the best choice for you. Due to the lower sidewall, these tires won't protect the rim as efficiently, which increases the risk of wheel damage. Moreover, the tires themselves aren't as elastic, meaning they can also be damaged by potholes and curbs.
2. Maintenance Considerations
Low-profile tires are often more expensive to buy but also own. Namely, they can wear more quickly and are more susceptible to damage, which could mean more frequent replacements. Not to mention, they usually have shorter treadlife than high-profile tires.
And if that wasn't scary enough for you, low-profile tires can show uneven wear on suspensions that weren't perfectly tuned.
3. Vehicle compatibility
Not every vehicle is designed to accommodate low-profile tires. Check your car manufacturer's recommendations before switching to ensure they won't negatively impact your vehicle's performance or safety.
How Low-Profile Tires Affect Vehicle Performance
Low-profile tires can change the driving behavior of your car significantly because of their structure. Here is how and why low-profile tires affect the driving experience.
1. Impact on Ride Comfort
Due to the shorter sidewalls, low-profile tires transmit more from the road into the cabin. So, expect your car to be bouncier and harsher over bad roads, and you might also experience higher noise in the cabin.
2. Effect on Handling and Stability
One of the most significant advantages of low-profile tires is enhanced handling. They have a wider contact patch with the road and a stiffer sidewall, which leads to less tire flex during cornering and increased grip.
Therefore, if you are an enthusiast driver that wants his/her car to be sharper, low-profile tires are a must. Sure, the ride quality will suffer, but there is no question that you will enjoy the time behind the steering wheel more with these tires.
3. Influence on Fuel Efficiency
Low-profile tires usually come paired with wide contact patches, which increases the rolling resistance and, thus, the fuel consumption of your car. Moreover, low-profile tires tend to be heavier, especially since they are paired with larger and heavier wheels, which further deteriorates the fuel economy of your vehicle.
Myths and Misconceptions about Low-Profile Tires
If you often read automotive forums, you will read quite a lot of myths about low-profile tires. Here is which of them are true and which are completely false.
1. Low-Profile Tires Make Your Car Faster
This is absolutely not true. Sure, a wider tire with low-profile sidewalls might improve traction off the line, but due to the higher weight of the tire+wheel combo, it will actually make your car slower once you get going. So, whenever you shop for new low-profile tires and want to get the most out of your car, make sure you pair them with lightweight, forged wheels.
2. Low-Profile Tires are Always More Expensive
Although low-profile tires are slightly more expensive on average, this is not a universal truth.
In general, wider tires are more expensive because more material is used to produce them, and low-profile tires are usually paired with wide treads. Thus, if you, for example, upgrade from 16-inch tires with high sidewalls to 18-inch tires with low sidewalls, you should expect a significant size increase.
However, an 18-inch tire with high sidewalls might cost the same or even more than an 18-inch tire with low sidewalls. That said, replacing your high-sidewall tires with low-profile tires that will fit the same wheels is not recommended, as they will completely change the suspension geometry and lower your vehicle.
3. Low-Profile Tires are Only for Sports Cars
While low-profile tires are best suited to sports cars, you can use them on any vehicle that can accommodate them. Just make sure that there is enough wheel clearance and that the tire+wheel diameter doesn't exceed the manufacturer's recommendations.
4. Low-Profile Tires are More Prone to Flats
This is only half true. Namely, low-profile tires aren't necessarily more prone to flats than high-profile tires, but the lower sidewall height increases the risks of wheel damage. Also, these tires might be more prone to cracks and bulges.
5. Low-Profile Tires are Only for Summer Use
While low-profile tires are mainly available with summer rubber compounds, you can also find all-season and winter tires with lower sidewalls. Still, it's important to note that a tire with higher sidewalls performs better on snow-covered roads than a low-profile tire.
Low-profile tires are definitely a great addition to any car, particularly if you are an enthusiast driver like me. However, you should be ready to spend more money to keep your car rolling in the future.
Namely, I replaced the factor-installed 16-inch wheels on my Corolla Hatch with 18-inch wheels and, to retain the same suspension geometry, fitted them with low-profile tires. The initial upgrade cost me over $1,500, though I sold the old wheels for $400, which cut the cost to $1,100.
Still, the next time I shop for tires, I will need to pay around 30% more due to the larger dimensions. Moreover, the high-performance summer tires I installed won't last nearly as long as the OE touring summer tires, meaning I'll need to replace them more often.
All of this adds up, and it's a difference that I can feel in my bank account. Of course, I am not saying that I feel sorry for the purchase – I like driving my car even more now. However, it's still important to note for drivers that don't have very deep pockets, as spending money on other things might be smarter.
P.S. While I certainly enjoy the sharper steering and higher lateral grip, my wife always frowns when we hit a pothole – my Corolla is definitely stiffer after the upgrade!
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.