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Car Talk

The ins and outs of low-profile tires

Dear Tom and Ray:

I bought a used 2007 Nissan Maxima SE last June. I love my car! The problem is the tires. I knew nothing about “low profile” tires until after I bought the car, and now that they have been brought to my attention, I have done a little research. Among other problems with the low profiles, they handle poorly in snow and ice. I live in the Boston area, so snow and ice are a common occurrence in the winter. I was wondering if there is a way to replace my wheels and tires to be able to put regular tires on the car. Could it be as simple as switching to the tires that run on the SL model? Thank you for any input. — Leigh

TOM: Well, first we should explain to everyone else what a “profile” is on a tire. It doesn’t have a beak, like my brother’s profile does.

RAY: No, a tire’s profile refers to the height of the sidewall. On a tire with an aspect ratio (profile) of 65, the sidewall’s height is 65 percent of the tire’s width. 60 or 65 is a normal tire. Fifty and 45 would be considered low-profile, and would have a shorter sidewall.

TOM: And, like you, Leigh, most people never consider tire profile when buying a car. On the buyer’s checklist, it’s just below “quality of the trunk carpeting.” But it does have repercussions, as you’re learning.

RAY: Low-profile tires have certain advantages. They improve the car’s handling, under most conditions. Because low-profile tires have a shorter sidewall, the sidewall is stiffer. The stiffer it is, the less it bends and flexes when you turn.

TOM: But, in our opinion, the disadvantages of low-profile tires generally outweigh the advantages. Low-profile tires give you a harder and noisier ride. And because there’s less sidewall between the road and the wheel, they lead to lots of bent wheels — expensive alloy bent wheels.

RAY: But you’re in a difficult spot. You’ve got the Maxima SE. That’s already got the smallest wheels and highest-profile tires available on that car (17-inch wheels, 55 aspect ratio). Switching to the SL’s wheel/ tire package would make things worse, since that’s a lower-profile package (18-inch wheels, 45 aspect ratio).

TOM: You could experiment with a higher-aspectratio tire on your 17-inch wheels, but once you start doing that, there’s no guarantee that the tires wouldn’t rub against your fender liners and cause interference. That’s why we recommend that you stick with one of the wheel/tire size options offered by the manufacturer.

RAY: But since winter driving is your greatest concern, our advice would be to buy yourself four good snow tires and four new wheels to go with them, and use those in the winter. They’ll have to be the same size as the wheels and tires you have now, but since they’re designed for snow and ice, they’ll give you much, much better handling in winter weather.

TOM: And then in the spring (when is that in Boston — late June?), you can switch back to your summer tires and drive them until you bend the rims. Good luck, Leigh.

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Do you really need that truck if you only make one trip to the lumberyard per year? Find out what kind of car NOT to get in Tom and Ray’s pamphlet “Should I Buy, Lease, or Steal My Next Car?” Send $4.75 (check or money order) to Next Car, P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.

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(c) 2011 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi and Doug Berman Distributed by King Features

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