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How Often Should You Rotate Your Tires ... and Why It's Necessary

US News & World Report - Cars logo US News & World Report - Cars 1/25/2018 James MacPherson
a close up of a car© Porta / Getty Images

Today’s tires have become so trouble-free that many drivers ignore them completely, skipping critical inspections and maintenance procedures until there is a problem. Among the steps often ignored is tire rotation.

Tire Rotation Defined

Tire rotation involves moving tires from one position on a vehicle to another. A typical tire rotation would move the front tires to the rear, and the tires at the rear of the vehicle to the front.

Often in this procedure, one set of tires also changes sides. For example, the left and right rear tires would change sides when moved to the front of the vehicle, while the front tires would stay on their respective sides when moved to the rear.

There are, however, numerous rotation patterns. You should follow the pattern outlined in your owner’s manual.

Typically, tire rotation is called for every 5,000 to 7,500 miles, though there are exceptions.

Again, the owner’s manual will spell out what should be done for your vehicle.

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Why Rotate Tires

Tire rotation is undertaken to ensure that the tires wear evenly. This can extend tire life and save you money.

Even tire wear is also important for balanced handling. For example, failure to rotate tires on a front-wheel-drive vehicle will eventually result in the front tires having significantly less tread than the rear tires. In an emergency, this could make the vehicle more difficult to control, especially if the road is wet.

Some cars with no suspension or alignment problems may also inflict unusual wear patterns on tires that are not rotated, shortening their life. Tread cupping, which can cause high noise levels and vibration, is one such unusual wear pattern that can be eliminated by rotating the tires.

There is one final reason for rotating the tires on a regular schedule: The tire maker may require it to keep its warranty in force.

Front-Wheel Drive

Tires wear differently depending on their location on the vehicle and the vehicle’s drivetrain.

Front-wheel-drive vehicles wear front tires more quickly than rear tires, since the front tires transfer power to the road and steer the vehicle.

In order to correctly rotate the tires of a front-wheel-drive vehicle, you have to move the front tires to the rear and the rear tires to the front. However, when moving the rear tires to the front, they should be placed on opposite sides of the car; you should move your rear right tire to the front left, and the rear left tire to the front right.

Rear-Wheel Drive

Rear-wheel-drive vehicles provide more balanced wear, since the rear tires deliver power to the pavement while the front tires do the steering. Even with this division of labor, however, the different functions, front and rear, produce different wear patterns that make rotating the tires advisable.

When rotating your tires in a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, you should pretty much do the opposite of what you would do with a front-wheel-drive vehicle. The rear tires should be moved to the front but stay on the same side. Your front tires should be moved toward the rear; you should move your front left tire to the rear right, and the front right tire to the rear left.

All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel- or four-wheel-drive vehicles may present the strongest case for rotating the tires to keep tread wear even. In many of these vehicles, significant differences in tread depth can place an unnecessary strain on the drivetrain.

For it’s all-wheel-drive vehicles, Subaru recommends that the maximum variation in tread depth be kept to about 2/32 of an inch. Since many crossover all-wheel-drive vehicles are actually in front-wheel-drive mode most of the time, rotating the tires on these vehicles should be done often, since the front tires can be expected to wear more rapidly than the rear tires.

Tread wear variances of more than 2/32 of an inch suggest that the tires should be rotated more frequently.

When rotating the tires of an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive vehicle, you will follow the same process as if it was a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. The front right will go to the left rear, the front left will go to the right rear, and the two rear tires will move to the front without switching sides.

Do It Yourself?

Tire rotation can be done at home. Requirements include a hard, flat, and level work area, a jack, jack stands, wheel chocks to keep the car from rolling, a torque wrench to make sure that the lug nuts or bolts are tightened properly, and a standard set of hand tools. You will need some muscle power, too, and remember never to get under a vehicle supported only by a jack.

Whether you do it yourself or pay to have the tires rotated, the following should be done:

      •  Thoroughly examine each tire for possible tread or sidewall damage. Remember to check both the inner and outer sidewalls.

      •  Check the date code. Since tires deteriorate over time, eventually becoming unsafe, many safety experts and automakers recommend not using tires older than six years of age, even for standby duty as a spare. Others place this time limit at 10 years. To determine a tire’s age, check the last four digits of the DOT code. A code of 3517 means the tire was made during the 35th week of 2017. You can find out what the rest of the numbers on a tire mean by clicking here.

      •  Use a torque wrench when tightening the lug nuts. This will ensure that the wheels are properly mounted on the vehicle. Too little tightening and the lug nuts could loosen, possibly resulting in wheel separation while driving. Too much tightening risks possible brake rotor warping, resulting in vibration while stopping and longer stopping distances. It also could mean that, in the event of a flat, you would be unable to remove the lug nuts when using the short wrench that comes with many vehicles, since it provides little leverage. Typical tightening specifications call for 75 to 100 pound-feet of torque, though some cars call for much more. The owner’s manual should have this specification.

      •  Check the air pressure, or on cars that require different pressures in the front and rear tires, adjust the air pressure, when performing a tire rotation. Use a quality gauge when the tires are cold to get an accurate reading.

Other Issues

      •  Staggered wheels are found on vehicles with larger tires at the rear than the front. Here, a front-to-rear rotation is impossible. Side-to-side rotation is used instead.

      •  Dually trucks, or pickups with dual rear tires on each side, may include all six tires in their rotation pattern. Check the owner’s manual.

      •  A five-tire rotation pattern is possible when a vehicle has a spare tire and spare wheel that are identical to its other four tires and wheels. A five-tire rotation puts the spare tire into regular service.

      •  Studded winter tires should never be switched from left to right.

      •  Some cars with tire pressure monitoring systems that display the air pressure at each wheel may require a reset to display tire pressures properly after the tires are rotated.

      •  While tire rotation is important, it will not correct uneven wear caused by previous suspension, alignment, or inflation problems.

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