Square vs. Staggered Tire Setups
Regardless of which branch you look at, there will always be some words that won’t make a lot of sense to some people. Experts tend to know these things mainly because it’s part of their job. The same goes for tires.
Sure, I doubt there is a person who doesn’t know what a tire or rim is, but that’s just the basic. Going into further detail opens up the world for many other things that most people are unfamiliar with.
A common question hovering around the internet is about cars’ tire or wheel setups. This gets divided into two categories – square and staggered and if you don’t know what they mean, keep on reading.
In today’s guide, I’ll define what each of them means, what are the pros and cons and if it’s wise to make changes to them.
Square vs. Staggered Tires
Cars come in two options – square or staggered tire setups, sometimes called wheel setups. The first one means you have the same dimensions on all 4 corners, while the second refers to different sizes on the front and back tires.
What is a Square Tire Setup?
As explained in the previous section, a square tire or wheel setup refers to having all 4 tires with the same dimensions. This is the more common option, as it is designed to balance the contact patch size on the front and back wheels.
You can find this type of setup on most front-wheel or all-wheel drive cars. The reason for the AWD ones is since all 4 wheels are driven, you want to have the most traction you can. For the FWD cars, a similar rule applies, despite the rear wheels not being driven. With these cars, the front wheels are doing the driving and steering, so you’re getting good traction and handling up front. There is a burning question about FWD cars and the other type of setup, which I’ll answer later.
What is a Staggered Tire Setup?
Unlike a squared setup, with a staggered one, you have different-sized wheels and tires on the front and the back. This is common in rear-wheel drive cars, as the front tires are steering while the rear are driving. As a result, you’re getting larger tires on the back when compared to the ones up front.
When we talk about staggered setup, it’s important to note that the tire width isn’t the only thing that differs. From the factory, some cars have different diameter wheels, for example, 19-inch on the front and 20-inches on the back.
The idea is to add a bigger tire on the driven wheels and help the car with traction. While it does take away a bit from the front, unlike a FWD car where they do two things, in a RWD one, they are only responsible for steering.
Which is a Better Setup?
When talking about square and staggered setup, it’s important to note that they serve different purposes for different types of cars, so they aren’t quite comparable. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and I’ll try to outline them below.
Pros and Cons of a Square Setup
As the most common option, I’ll start with the square setup and its advantages. Going for all 4 tires of the same size means that the contact patch on all 4 corners will be the same, so the traction between the front and rear tires will be identical. Emphasis on identical because this is where other aspects can play a role. The engine over the front wheels adds weight and pushes the tires more into the ground, so there’s a bit more traction, which is needed, as they do the driving and steering.
Apart from the “equal” levels of traction, we have another advantage in terms of finance. You probably noticed that tire manufacturers offer one treadwear warranty for square setups and another for staggered. This is because square tires can be rotated, which is a crucial aspect aimed at prolonging their life and getting the most miles.
There are also some advantages when it comes to handling, something you may notice with an AWD car. Cars with this kind of setup tend to have more neutral handling, especially if it has a 50-50 weight distribution.
In terms of cons, on a FWD or AWD car, you won’t have a lot of cons, if any. You’re getting the best of both worlds, and to be honest, most drivers won’t care too much about how the car handles, as long as it gets them from point A to point B safely.
Pros and Cons of a Staggered Setup
With the staggered setup, there’s more to discuss in terms of pros and cons, especially cons.
The main reason car manufacturers go for the staggered setup is to improve traction in RWD cars. While the front tires are wide enough to provide excellent handling characteristics, the rear ones are wider. This combination ensures that you have more traction at the rear without compromising front-end grip and is especially important with front-engine cars.
Next up, we have the looks. Larger rear tires look beefier and give the car a more muscular and aggressive look.
Now we come to some of the drawbacks with a staggered setup, and the main one is tire rotation. Depending on the tire model, you can rotate from left to right but not front to back. As a result, you’re not getting the same treadwear warranty, and the tires will wear down more quickly.
Another slight negative side is something you’ll notice when driving on the limit. Since the front tires are smaller, you’ll notice a bit more understeer when you really start to push it. Sure, you can correct that mid-corner, but it should be noted that the handling won’t be as neutral as with a square setup.
Considering that both types of setups have different applications, you’ll see why this comparison isn’t too fair. Sure, we can talk about the pros and cons of each, but at the end of the day, both should work fine for most people.
Naturally, you can change things up, but that may open up some additional problems. If you want to know a bit more, keep reading.
Will a FWD car benefit from wider tires at the front?
Technically yes, but that can raise some additional problems. Let’s face it, FWD cars exist today because they are cheaper to make and leave some room in the back because there’s no tunnel running through the middle of the car. Early corollas were RWD, but in the 80s, Toyota figured that a FWD was cheaper, so the platforms were changed.
With a FWD car, it’s natural to think you’d get better performance with a wider set of tires on the front. Look at any Civic on a drag strip, the front tires are massive, while the rear ones are from a bicycle. The problem with changing the squared to a reverse staggered setup means that you’re throwing tire rotation out the window, thus eliminating the “cheap to make and cheap to run” philosophy of FWD cars.
Is it better to leave an off-road vehicle with the squared setup?
I’ve seen some off-road vehicles with a staggered setup, and I wouldn’t recommend it. With these vehicles, you have power going to all 4 wheels, so putting wider tires on the back will result in unbalanced traction.
My car has a staggered setup, can I make it square?
The most common modification some people make is converting cars with staggered setup into squared, and there are some good reasons for this. Putting the same sized tires on the front as the back ones means you’ll bring more traction up front and get a more neutral handling car. As a bonus, you can rotate the tires to get more life out of them.
Whether you should do it or not is up to you. My IS250 has a staggered setup with 245 on the back and 225 on the front, and in normal driving conditions, I don’t notice any problems in terms of handling. Keep in mind that unless you go to a track, the understeer isn’t something you’ll notice in every corner.
I’ve seen some people that went with a staggered setup, but I haven’t had the chance to test drive one and see if there’s a noticeable difference. In this regard, I’d say it’s a matter of personal preference. You may not like how the car handles, but you will save a bit more on tires, as you won’t replace them as often.
At the moment, I like how the car looks with the wider tires on the back and will probably stick with it. I may change my mind at a certain point, so for this, I would recommend testing before you decide to make the change.