Why Are Tires So Expensive?
Tires, among many other parts of your car, are the ones that you need to change constantly. The rate at which you change them may vary depending on the tire type, your driving habits, how much you drive, the tires’ age, and many other aspects.
If we eliminate buying tires because you damaged the old ones or didn’t care for them, you are looking at the expense of several hundred dollars or more every few years. Touring tires generally last longer, and you could stretch them out up to 5 or 6 years, after which the rubber hardens, and the performance isn’t pretty good. On the other side of the spectrum, you have performance tires, which, if you use them as intended, can drop to 3 or 4, depending on how quickly you wear them out.
So, whenever the time comes for a new set of tires, you go online, look at the prices, and start sweating. The main question that is on a lot of people’s minds is why they are so expensive. We’ve heard stories from our fathers or grandfathers that they’ve purchased a set of tires for less than $100, and we can barely find one tire for that price, and it’s probably from the mid-range segment. So, are we being ripped off, or is there a good reason for this phenomenon?
Why Are Tires So Expensive?
Several aspects dictate the price of tires, which is why today’s prices are higher than the were several decades ago. Technology improvements, performance, longevity, refinement, and most importantly, inflation are only a few reasons why tires are so expensive today. With that said, things aren’t as simple, and there’s a bigger picture you need to see.
As much as I’d hate to admit it, there are several reasons why tires these days cost an arm and a leg, and I’ll outline each one separately to give you a clearer picture.
Tires are bigger
The simplest reason why tires these days are more expensive is the size. In a few decades, we went from 13- and 14-inch tires as standard to 16 and 17, and the difference alone is the main reason why you’re paying more. In other words, your father may have gotten a set of 4 tires for less than $100, but they probably weren’t 18-inch models.
Here’s a simple comparison. My 1992 Corolla was running on 13-inch wheels, 175/70R13 to be exact, while a newer model from 2021 or 2022 comes in several flavors ranging from 16 to 18 inches. Even if we go for the smallest size, you are looking at 205/55R16, meaning that you get more rubber, so naturally, things will be more expensive.
In terms of price, I went with the Kinergy ST because it had a model with a 13-inch size, which comes at around $80 per tire, while the 16 ones are about $115. As a result, you’ll be paying almost 50% more for the larger tires.
Another thing worth noting is that both of these have different speed and load ratings. The 13-inch model is good for up to 118 mph, while the 16-inch one is rated for up to 130. Not a massive difference, but it will impact the price, nevertheless.
Tires these days are better
Ever since the industrial revolution, things have constantly been evolving and will continue to do so. In the early days of the tire industry, manufacturers made tires with inner tubes. The outer part of the tire was responsible for the performance, while the inner one kept the shape and held the pressure. Then the tubeless tire was invented, and things changed.
Throughout history, tires have evolved a lot, and that evolution comes at a price. Think of it this way: a tire that was considered excellent in the 60s would probably perform much worse than some of the Chinese tires that are among the worst performers today.
Cars from that era couldn’t get up to a 3-digit speed, excluding the sports cars, of course, so the commonly purchased tires didn’t need to be Y-rated. As a comparison, tires these days are mostly H-rated and up, with some models coming with T-rating for older cars mostly.
The maximum speed of new tires isn’t the only aspect that makes them better, you also have the performance like grip and traction. As cars become more powerful, the tires need to keep up to deliver the performance manufacturers promise. BFGoodrich is a pretty good example here.
In the 80s, the company introduced the Radial T/A, a performance-oriented tire that was apparently among the best for that kind of driving. Over the years, the company has constantly upgraded it to keep up with the rest of the pack. Those upgrades come from new technologies and materials, which is why the tire remains relevant even after 4 decades.
Imagine if BFGoodrich didn’t make any changes to the tire and continued making it as it did in the 80. Today, it would have been a tire that no one would even think about buying. All of those new technologies and materials are more expensive, so a set of Radial T/A may have been $200 in the 80s (I don’t know for sure, let me know if you have some specific info on this), but today it can set you back well over twice that.
When I say that tires are better, I don’t mean only in terms of how fast you can go into a corner or how short the braking distances are. If you read our reviews, you have noticed that we also talk about refinement. Older cars weren’t as good as today, so a highly comfortable tire or one that didn’t make much noise was pointless. The sound insulation, suspension, and many other things we take for granted these days were a luxury several decades ago. This means that going for a Turanza QuietTrack on my Corolla is pointless because the engine and wind noise would still be louder even if I get the loudest tires on the market.
Cars today are far more refined, and with that, manufacturers need to make tires to match those levels of refinement. A touring tire from the 80 would probably be louder than a modern winter tire, so getting a better-refined tire means you’ll need to pay more.
Then there are tires for “special occasions” like off-roading or the studded tires for ice. While both have been around for a long time, in the early days, the performance wasn’t as good as it is today. Off-road tires may have been decent for that era, but not per today’s standards. Also, thanks to innovation, today we have all-terrain or rough-terrain tires, which enable us to combine road and off-road performance.
While I’m on the subject of ice and winter, I have to give a shoutout to all-season tires. We’ve had them since the late 70s and early 80s, so before that, people were going for summer and winter setup, at least for those areas that need that. Making a tire that performs well in multiple conditions is a convenient approach where car owners avoid replacing the tires twice a year. Naturally, the performance of the tires from 40 years ago is far worse than what a modern-day all-season tire can offer, even from the mid-range segment.
What about longevity? Of course, you have that too. Tires these days come with a very long treadwear warranty, some of them going up to 90,000 miles, which may have been considered science fiction 4 or 5 decades ago.
Things cost more
In the previous section, I said that tire manufacturers implement new technologies and materials. They are derived mostly from research and development, which helps manufacturers make better tires. Every year, companies spend billions of dollars on R&D, so technically, when you pay for a tire, a small percentage is for what the company spent in the previous years developing it.
A century ago, tires were practically handmade, while today, everything is automated, and the process is robotized. All of that equipment costs money, and naturally, no company would be willing to sacrifice profit for you to get a tire for $10.
Finally, we have the materials. Tires these days are very complicated, mostly because they consist of multiple materials, some of which are made in-house. Yes, producing or purchasing these materials is more expensive, so you’d think, “why don’t tire manufacturers make tires with cheaper materials?”. Actually, they do, and it’s those cheap Chinese manufacturers that I recommend avoiding. Going cheap on the materials or the manufacturing process means you’ll get a tire with poor performance. In this day and age, a poor-performing tire is considered unsafe.
This is probably your biggest culprit why tires are way more expensive these days than they were several decades ago. Inflation isn’t affecting only tires, it also affects every other aspect of our lives. A Corolla in the 80s was around $4-5,000, while today, you can barely buy a scooter for that price. A new Corolla today starts from $20,000, so it’s 4 to 5 times more expensive.
The same goes for the tires, and inflation is to blame. If you go a set of tires in the 80s for $200, in today’s money, that would be around $750, which is almost 4 times more.
So, to sum things up – yes, modern tires are more expensive, but things aren’t as simple as you think.
Over the years, technologies progressed, and manufacturers developed and used newer materials, all of which you are paying for as the end-used. It’s not something you should be crossed with; that’s how things work in the real world. So, when I compare a premium tire with a mid-range one, in most cases, the premium one is more expensive and offers better performance.
The same “rule” can be applied here. Tires in the olden days were less expensive, but don’t perform as good as today’s models, so you are technically getting what you’re paying for.
On the other hand, I said it’s not all that black and white because there is an important thing to consider. With calculated inflation, a set of tires that costed $200 in the 80s is now $750, which seems a lot. So just by taking inflation into consideration and ignoring the other aspects, you’d be paying a very high price for a set of tires that would offer 80s-like performance. If you add the improved performance, technologies, and R&D into the mix, you can easily look at over $1000.
Instead, a set of good touring tires like the CrossClimate 2 is around $680. So if you think about it, technically, you are paying less, considering everything.
Finally, if you’re currently looking for some new tires and are struggling to pick some good ones, check out our reviews or leave a comment, and we’ll send you some recommendations.