Rotate Your Tires

Tire rotation is an important maintenance duty that extends the life of your tires and ensures safe driving. We'll take a look at this simple but effective procedure.

Whether you plan on doing the job yourself or having it performed by a certified mechanic, it's important to know why we rotate our tires.

Front And Rear Tires Wear Differently
Think about it. All that parallel parking. All those three-point turns. With each turn of the steering wheel, pressure is brought to bear on the front tires. (This is even more accentuated in front-wheel-drive cars, where the front wheels also supply the main motive power for the vehicle.) Resistance causes friction, which in turn produces heat. The result? The front tires wear quicker than the rears. Because of this, it's necessary to rotate the tires front-to-rear several times during their life cycle to 1) equalize tread wear and 2) maximize the life of the tires. This is what we refer to when we say "rotate the tires." Rotating generally does not refer to either of the following actions:

  • Exchanging tires on the same axle — for example, swapping the rear tires left to right
  • Criss-crossing tires — moving a tire from the passenger's side rear to the driver's side front

There's a good reason for this. Tires develop wear patterns as they age. Some of these patterns are tied to the suspension system and the alignment. That's why we keep the tires on the same side of the car.

If your car has staggered wheels -- the front and rear tires are two different sizes, such as with the Chrysler Crossfire — you can still swap the tires side-to-side, but not front to back. If your tires are unidirectional (specific to one side of the car) or asymmetrical (the tread pattern changes from the inside of the tire to the outside), you can rotate them front to back but not side to side. And if you happen to have staggered wheels that are also unidirectional or asymmetrical, you cannot rotate your tires at all! But that's rarely the case.

How often should you rotate your tires? That depends. Refer to your owner's manual for exact guidelines, but most manufacturers recommend rotating tires roughly every 5,000 to 10,000 miles. Again, see your owner's manual for specifics.

An important tool needed for this procedure is a torque wrench. They range in price, but you can get a simple one for under $35. The torque wrench is especially necessary on modern cars with alloy wheels, to avoid over tightening and damage to the wheels. The recommended torque specs can be found in your owner's manual or online.

With that knowledge, let's move to the procedure, provided your car has four wheels with equal tire sizes and matching tread patterns.

Ready To Rotate Your Tires?
Park your car on level pavement. Put the car in "Park" (or in gear, if it's a manual transmission) and set the parking brake firmly. Turn off the engine.

Choose which side of the car that you want to work on first. Now go to the opposite side and block the tires, front and rear. This is a precaution and will prevent the car from moving while you work on it.

There are several kinds of jacks you can use to elevate the car. The most readily available may be the jack that came with the vehicle. However, this is also the most unsafe and should only be used for short periods of time. If you use this jack, we recommend safeguarding yourself by using jack stands under both the front and rear axles. In fact, this isn't a bad idea anytime you're working around an elevated vehicle. Once the car is in the air, position the jack stands under the axle, behind each wheel; then gently lower the weight of the vehicle onto the jack stands.

You can also use a small hydraulic jack or -- the best of all possible options -- a floor jack. Whatever, the principle is the same. Locate a point under the frame nearest the manufacturer's recommended jacking point, and position the jack there. In most front-engine vehicles, this will be a foot or two behind the front wheel. (There will sometimes be a hole facing you here, where you can insert the extension from the jack.)

Before you elevate the vehicle, you will want to take the lug wrench and loosen the lug nuts on both the front and rear wheels. This technique uses the vehicle's weight to hold the wheels in place, so they don't spin as you crank on the lug nuts.

Once the lug nuts are loose, jack up the vehicle and then, if you have jack stands, back down onto the stands. Spin off the lug nuts and put them in a safe place.

Remove the front tire, then the rear, and switch their positions, rolling the front tire to the rear, and the rear to the front.

Before you mount them, let's inspect the tread.

The tread pattern has wear indicators built into it. These are little bumps or nubs manufactured directly into the tread. Inspecting them will tell you how close the tire is to needing replacement. See if you can spot them. They're located throughout the tread pattern, but especially on the ridge where the tread and sidewall meet. Find one? Compare its height to the height of the tread surrounding it. If the tread is wearing to the point where its height is approaching that of the wear indicator, you'll need to be shopping tires soon. Make a mental note.

Now go ahead and mount the tires, having switched front to rear, etc. If you have a friend handy, have them hold the tire while you thread the first lug nut or two into its hole. Once all the nuts are threaded finger-tight, grab the torque wrench and tighten them further.

Now, as before, you want to use the weight of the vehicle to hold the wheels in place while you snug the lug nuts down good and tight. Jack the vehicle up off the jack stands (if you're using them) and then slowly let it sink to the ground.

Take the torque wrench and tighten the lug nuts to their recommended specification.

By the way, it's best to work the lug nuts diagonally across from one another, as though forming a star, instead of side to side. This allows them to seat better into their cradles.

Done. Now go to the other side of the car and repeat the steps.

That's All There Is To It...
Remember, this quick and simple procedure will extend the tread life of your tires. It will also provide maximum gripping power to the vehicle.

To repeat: this should be done roughly every 5,000 to 10,000 miles. Check your owner's manual for exact intervals.

You don't need some fancy mechanic with a lot of expensive tools to do this job for you. This is one you can do yourself.

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