Have you ever looked at the tires on your car — I mean, really looked at them? There are a lot of numbers, letters, and graphics there. Aside from the usual brand markings and tire names, like Grabber, Primacy, Potenza or Raptor, there are a lot of other pieces of information molded into the sidewall of your tires. What does all this stuff mean? Why is it there and should you really care about any of it? Let’s go through all of it, and then you can decide what matters to you.
Tires are some of the most heavily regulated items on your car. In the US, vehicles are regulated by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), and there are no fewer than four that pertain to tires: FMVSS 109, FMVSS 110, FMVSS 119, and FMVSS 139. Here is what they cover:
FMVSS 109 – “New Pneumatic and Certain Specialty Tires” first adopted in 1967. This was the original tire standard that all new tires had to meet.
FMVSS 110 – “Tire Selection and Rims for Motor Vehicles with a GVWR of 4,536 Kg (10,000 lbs) or Less.” This standard sets requirements for what tires and rims can be chosen for a new vehicle. Among other things, it ensures that the tires are sized properly to carry the weight of the vehicle.
FMVSS 119 – “New pneumatic tires for motor vehicles with a GVWR of more than 4,536 kilograms (10,000 pounds) and motorcycles.” Applicable to motorcycle tires and heavy truck.
FMVSS 139 – “New Pneumatic Radial Tires for Light Vehicles.” This standard is a revision of FMVSS 109 following the passage in congress of the “Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act.” This act, which became law on November 1, 2000, was in part a response to the Firestone tire issues on the Ford Explorer. In response to section 10 of this act, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration proposed and passed FMVSS 139 to make tire safety and testing more stringent. It is very similar to FMVSS 109 but primarily raises tire testing speeds and testing lengths.
With that established, let’s talk about the markings on the side of the tires using my 2015 Mustang as an example. We’ll forget about the brand and tire model name because that’s kind of boring anyway. Let’s focus on the other stuff. Here are all the numbers and letters shown on the side of my tires:
Now let’s go through them one by one.
You probably already know how tire size works, so if you want to skip ahead, you’re welcome. For the rest of you, tire size follows the following format:
Shown in red are three digits followed by a slash, followed by two digits, followed by two letters ending in “R” or just the letter “R” by itself, then followed by two more digits.
Shown in green, the first three digits are the section width of the tire in millimeters as measured with the tire mounted on a standard width rim. Every tire size has a standard rim width defined by the relevant authority. In the U.S. that authority is the Tire and Rim Association (or T&RA) while in Europe it is European Tyre and Rim Technical Organisation (or ETRTO).
The two digits following the slash represent the aspect ratio, which is a percentage multiplier that determines the section height. Take the three-digit tire width, multiply it by this percentage and you get the distance from the rim to the tire tread.
The last two digits denote the diameter of the wheel/rim in inches.
You may also see a “P” in front of the tire size which means it is a Passenger tire. Light truck tires may have “LT” instead of the “P”.
In the case of my Mustang, the tires on this car show 265/35R20.
This means the tires are 265 mm wide, have a section height of 265 x 35% = 92.75 mm, and sit on a 20-inch diameter rim.
These numbers are also very useful if you want to know the overall diameter of your tires. It’s done by multiplying the width by the aspect ratio, times two since there are two sidewalls comprising the diameter, then adding the rim diameter converted to millimeters. For the Mustang tire it would be: 265 x 35 / 100 x 2 + (20 x 25.4) = 693.5 mm, or 27.3 inches.
It’s interesting to note that tire size is one of the only instances in the worldwide auto industry where you will see a mix of units. Width is metric but rim diameter is imperial and it’s true throughout the world. Even in countries that have used the metric system since it was invented over 200 years, rim diameter is denoted in inches. To understand this, let’s look at some history.
Mixing English And Metric Units
Before the advent of radial tires, in the days of bias ply tires (which we’ll get to in a sec), size was given by an alpha-numeric system that used a letter followed by a two-digit number, then a dash followed by a two-digit number — something like: F70-15. The letter denoted the tire load range, with A being the lowest and getting progressively higher as you move up the alphabet. The two-digit number is the aspect ratio, with higher numbers meaning a taller tire, and the number after the dash was the rim diameter in inches. Since the load capacity of a tire is a function of the size of the tire, the load range number gave a general idea of how large the tire was, but it was far from perfect. Also, what is missing from this method is anything related to the tire width. It really wasn’t a very good system.”
Before the alpha-numeric system came into use in the mid 60’s, tire sizes were denoted by a number like this: 6.50-13, where 6.50 was the tire width and 13 was the rim diameter. Both numbers were inches. Tire sizes where the first number ended in a zero almost always used a 90% aspect ratio. Later developments had tire sizes like 5.75-15 which meant the aspect ratio was 80 to 84 percent.
Since the American auto industry was very dominant in the early days of cars, everyone who wanted to sell tires in the U.S., regardless of country of origin, had to use this sizing method. So, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when Michelin invented radial tires, they had to come up with a sizing system that would accommodate the American rim diameters, which were all in inches, but they wanted to use the metric system as much as possible. This is why we now have a tire sizing system that uses a mix of units. If you want to dive deeper into this rabbit hole, click Coker Tire’s website here.
The last set of numbers of the tire size — the one denoting the rim size (see “ZR” above) — includes either one or two letters before it. The second letter shows the tire construction and will almost always be “R” which stands for Radial. The first one, if it is included, is the speed rating of the tire and denotes how fast the tire is certified to go before you run the risk of it coming apart at the seams. If the tires on your car show only the letter “R” in this spot, then the speed rating will be part of the load rating which we will get to later. Here is a chart showing what each letter means:
Note that speed rating is a European thing. For the U.S., tires only need to meet FMVSS 139, which tests tires up to 100 mph. In Europe, where higher speeds are possible on the Autobahn, the speed rating is set using standard ECE R-30 which describes the test procedure tire manufacturers must use to certify the speed rating they show on the tire sidewall.
Phew, we made it through the tire size. Let’s move on.
Load Rating And More On The Speed Rating
The next number is the load rating. This is the two-digit (or sometimes 3 digits) number after the tire size. In the case of the Mustang, it is 99. This number shows how much load the tire can handle and again must conform to the standards described in FMVSS 139 and ECE R-30. In a tire, the load is carried by the air inside the tire. The more air in the tire, the more load it can carry.
There are two ways to get more air in a tire: inflate it to a higher pressure or make the volume of air inside the tire larger. It’s easy to increase the air pressure inside a tire but you can only go so far. Pretty soon the air pressure is so high you risk blowing the tire out. The better way is to increase the size of the space inside the tire by changing the dimensions of the tire. Think of the air inside the tire as a donut. How can we make the volume of this donut larger? Well, we could increase its width, we could increase its outside diameter or we could decrease the size of the hole in the middle. All of these have implications on other things though. Increasing the width may cause the tire to interfere with the wheelhouse; an increase in the outside diameter could cause similar issues. Decreasing the size of the hole in the middle means using a smaller wheel which may not fit the suspension or brakes. This is why these questions MUST be answered in the very early stages of a car’s design and why it’s so hard to change once the vehicle is in production. The tire size and the corresponding maximum weight and cargo loading of the vehicle are some of the first things that get decided when a new vehicle is being designed.
Let’s get back to the Mustang example. Remember that the load rating is 99, which in and of itself doesn’t mean very much; it’s just a number that corresponds to an actual load value. Here is a chart of what the numbers mean:
From this, we can see that each of my Mustang’s tires can carry a load of 1,709 lbs or 775 Kg. This means that, as far as my tires are concerned, the maximum weight my Mustang could be 4 x 1709 = 6,836 lbs. That is of course way more than the car will ever weigh, so in this example load rating is not an issue I need to worry about. But in the case of a pickup truck, it might very well become an issue when the truck is fully loaded. Depending on the truck and its tires, it could be easy to dump a load of gravel, or sand bags, or dirt in the back and overload the rear tires; this could cause a blow-out down the road.
Where load rating becomes critical is for the vehicle OEM during the design phase. In the U.S., all cars must meet FMVSS 110 which places requirements on the minimum load rating of the tires a car is equipped with. In a nutshell, for passenger cars, there are two things to worry about. First, the maximum load on the front or rear axle must be no more than the combined load ratings of the two tires on that axle. Second, the “Normal” load shall be no more than 94 perfect of the combined load ratings of the two tires on that axle. Normal load is defined depending on the maximum number of passengers the vehicle is designed to accommodate according to this chart:
If a passenger tire is used on an MPV, light truck, bus, or trailer, then the load rating is first divided by 1.10 before the above rules are applied.
The last part of the load rating shown on the tire sidewall is a refinement of the speed rating. For my Mustang, the speed rating in the tire size is “Z” which means the tire is certified for over 149 mph. The “Y” shown in the load rating refines this, and means the tire has been certified and tested up to 186 mph. Per truck body manufacturer Reading Truck “Y: The fastest speed rating — once Z which indicates faster than 149 mph — now is Y, which allows the tires to reach 186 mph.”
You may find on your tires that there is no speed rating in the tire size, in which case it will only be shown as part of the load rating.
The next marking on my Mustang tire says “EXTRA LOAD.” There are essentially two load ranges in passenger car tires: Standard Load and Extra Load. Standard Load tires have a load rating based on 35 psi inflation pressure while Extra Load tires have a load rating based on 41 psi and contain reinforcements in their construction to handle the higher pressures and loads. Usually this means the load rating for a XL tire is 3-4 load rating points higher than a standard load tire of the same size. For my Mustang tire, for instance, the XL tire has a load rating of 99 while the same size in a Standard Load would have a load rating of 95. That’s a difference in maximum load of 85 Kg. That’s probably not a big deal in the case of my Mustang but it could be a big deal for a different vehicle.
Max Load and Pressure
Next is the maximum load the tire is certified to as well as the maximum pressure the tire is designed for. Note that this is the maximum pressure the tire can handle and has nothing to do with the pressure the OEM recommends for that particular car. Always inflate your tires to the pressure recommended by the OEM, NOT what it says on the tire sidewall. The maximum load value is really redundant with the load rating since the load rating 99 corresponds to 775 Kg. Both of these markings are required by law in the US and Canada.
Looking further, you see the Traction, Treadwear, and Temperature ratings. These are sometimes referred to as the Uniform Tire Quality Grades, or UTQGs. These are ratings given by the tire manufacturer based on standard testing procedures to allow a way to compare tires, but are not generally very useful since they allow a fair amount of judgment on the part of the manufacturer. Also, the tests are not always realistic or representative of modern driving conditions.
For instance, the treadwear rating is a measure of tire wear compared to a reference tire. Tires are run on vehicles in a convoy through a 400 mile test loop in Texas. The wear of the test tire is compared to a standard tire run under the same conditions. If the test shows that the test tire will last the same amount of time as the reference tire then it gets a rating of 100. If it is expected to last twice as long as the reference tire then it gets a rating of 200, etc. The thing is that manufacturers may not over report the results but they are allowed to under report them. In other words, if the test results show a rating of 500, the manufacturer is allowed to report 400, but it may not report 600. It may choose to do this for marketing reasons, but it means the numbers you see when buying a tire are not necessarily accurate.
Similarly, the Traction grade numbers are based on a test where the tire is mounted on a trailer and the wheels are locked up on wet pavement to measure the friction between the tire and the road. The problem is that friction of a sliding tire is always lower than the friction of a rotating tire and since almost all cars have ABS these days, a tire is almost never really sliding. The message here is that you could use the UTQG numbers to compare tires but take them with a grain of salt.
Now we get to the more esoteric stuff. The next marking on my tires is DOT F30F OBDX 1319. What the presence of this code means is that the tire meets all the requirements of FMVSS 109 and/or FMVSS 139 and all tires sold in the U.S. MUST have a marking similar to this or they are not legal to be sold. In general, the DOT code is the letters “DOT” followed by 8 to 13 letters and numbers and is called the Tire Identification Number or TIN. The portions of this number that are required by law are the letters “DOT,” the plant code, and four digits which show the week and year the tire was manufactured. In our example, these digits are 1319 which means the tire was manufactured in the 13th week of 2019. [Editor’s Note: Generally tire makers recommend that their products be replaced every six to 10 years. -DT]
Next to the DOT mark are two to three digits that show the plant the tire was made in. In this case “F3” means the tire was made in the Manufacture Francaise Des Pneumatique in Roanne, France. The next two digits (which are not required by law), “0F” refer to the tire size. The remaining letters, “0BDX,” before the date code are optional and, per Cooper Tire, “show the tire type and manufacturer’s code.”
Ply Material Call-out
Also required to be shown on the tire sidewall are the generic names and number of plies used in the construction of the tire. In the case of the Mustang tire, it shows 1 Polyester, 2 Steel and 1 Polyamide ply in the tread area and 1 Polyester ply in the sidewall area.
China and Brazil Certification
Depending on where your tires were meant to be sold, you may also see a symbol that shows CCC inside a circle followed by a number. This is the “China Standard Mark” and means the tire is certified for sale in China. Near this symbol you may also see the Inmetro mark:
This is the certification of the National Institute of Metrology, Standardization and Industrial for Brazil Market and means the tire is certified for sale in Brazil.
Sometimes, as in the case of the Mustang tires, tires that are required to be mounted a certain way on the rim will have the word “Outside” printed on the sidewall which is meant to face outward on the vehicle.
For tires that are tubeless, which is pretty much every passenger car tire these days except for vintage car tires, the word “Tubeless” must be included. For tires that require innertubes, it will say “Tube Type”.
If you’re curious how an inner tube tire works, check it out:
Modern tires actually create an air-tight seal between the tire’s “bead” and the wheel, with pressurized air filling the space between the rubber and aluminum (or steel). Here’s a look at the beed:
Discount tire describes the bead, writing:
The beads of a tire form the contact point between tire and wheel. They are made with high tensile strength steel wires and are surrounded by hardened rubber compound. They ensure an airtight seal between the wheel and the tire. Bead chaffers rest between the bead and the body ply of the tires, preventing the bead wires from damaging the tire casing and improving the tire’s handling by making the sidewall above more responsive.
You can see the tire bead in the images above.
If the tire is a radial tire, it must say “Radial” on the sidewall. The term “Radial” refers to the way in which the various belts inside the tire are oriented. Inside the rubber of a tire are a number of belts made from steel, nylon, Kevlar, or other materials. These belts form the structure that gives the tire its shape and resists the pressure from the air inside. As a tire rolls down the road, it has to flatten slightly where it contacts the road. This flattening means the tire has to change its shape momentarily from round to flat and the belts need to allow this to happen. Before Michelin invented the radial tire in the early 70’s, tires were made with the belts oriented at an angle or “bias.” Here is a graphic showing that angle:
Image via Kenda Americana Tire
With the belts at an angle, the movement that allows the tire to flatten against the road causes the belts to squirm against each other which causes heat to build up in the tire. Heat is the enemy of longevity in rubber and will cause the tire to wear out faster. Heat is also energy and there is only one place the energy in your vehicle comes from and that is the engine. Having heat buildup in your tires means energy is being wasted which translates directly into worse fuel economy. With the invention of the radial tire, the belt orientation was changed to run at 90 degrees across the tire from bead to bead. This means the belts can more easily accommodate the shape change as the tire is rolling down the road and there is significantly less heat build up. The result is better ride, lower fuel consumption and longer tire life.
A warning regarding the dangers of over-inflating your tires and the need to have them installed by trained personnel is often included. This warning is not required by either the US or European standards, but most tires will include some version of it. On the Mustang tire it states:
Warning: Serious Injury May Results From:
Tire failure due to underinflation/overloading – Follow owner’s manual or tire placard in vehicle.
Explosion of tire/rim assembly due to improper mounting. Never inflate beyond 40 psi to seat beads – Only specially trained persons should mount tires.
Mixing bias tires with radials on the same vehicle. Mixing different tire sizes on the same axle.
Lastly, on the Mustang tire there is an E code which is a European requirement showing the ECE certification. All tires sold in Europe must have a marking like this on the sidewall and it shows the country where the tire was certified along with a number that identifies the type approval document issued for that particular tire/size. In this case E2 means the tire was certified in France.
In addition to the marking shown on my Mustang tires, there are several others that you may see on your tires.
For directional tires, i.e. tires that must rotate a particular direction, you may see an arrow pointing in the direction the tire should rotate when the car is moving forward.
If you have all-season tires, you will see the mark M-S or M+S somewhere.
Snow tires will also have this symbol on their sidewall:
Continental breaks down the difference between the two markings, saying M+S is more about the tread pattern being better for snow and mud than a typical tire, while the “alpine symbol” also called the “Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake Sympol (3PMSF)” denotes that the tire meets certain test requirements:
The original definition of M+S tires is based on the geometry of the tread design. The M+S designation was first used to differentiate the knobby, bias ply tires intended for use on muddy and/or snow-covered roads from the straight rib tires used on early cars or trucks. Tires with tread designs that meet the definition may be branded with the letters “M” and “S” in several different ways (e.g., M&S, M+S, M/S, MS, etc.) at the discretion of the tire manufacturer.
All winter tires that are marked with the Alpine symbol (pictured below) undergo the ASTM F 1805 tire test on medium-packed snow in standardized testing conditions to ensure their snow traction performance meets the minimum industry requirements to be considered a winter tire. Importantly, tires that are manufactured for medium-packed snow are required by law to perform this test and may display the 3PMSF symbol on the sidewall.
As you can see, there is a lot of information printed on your tires but since to most people tires are just round and black, they never really see it. So, the next time you find yourself contemplating your tires, you will now know what you are looking at. Happy staring!