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How to decode an alphanumeric tire code

Every vehicle on our roads leaves the factory with a set of tires chosen specifically by the auto manufacturer. The type and size of tire is no coincidence - these details are integral to the automobile design process from day 1. This isn't to say that the design cannot be improved on, or that you have to keep using the same tires your vehicle rolled off the dealer's lot on - but it does mean that you have inform yourself of all the necessary information before deciding how to replace your current set of rubber.

On the sidewall of every tire sold in North America there is an imprinted alphanumeric code. A typical example might be 245/45/17 85Y. In our examination of how tire size and type can affect your motoring experience, we shall break the mysteries of this code and use it as our guide through the many different options facing you, the driver.

The first number, 245, represents the width of the tire, in millimeters, at its widest point. The second number indicates the height of the tire's sidewall, as a percentage of the tire's width. In our example, this would make the sidewall height 45 percent of 245 millimeters, or 110.25 millimeters. Visually, this tire would look fairly wide, with a somewhat low sidewall. In general terms, the wider the tire, the greater the traction - in corners and when launching off the starting line. Sidewall height or 'profile' has the greatest effect on ride comfort. A 'low' profile tire gives a more direct feel for the road, as there is less rubber between the wheel and the pavement. This increased feel comes at a price, however, as there is also less rubber to cushion any bumps or road imperfections that may be encountered. A taller sidewall provides greater protection both from an uncomfortable ride, and from potholes and speed bumps that may otherwise damage a rim or suspension components.

The next number, 17, refers to the diameter, in inches, of the wheel the tire is being mounted on. It is somewhat unusual for metric and imperial measurements to be mixed together in this fashion, but that is the standard that the industry has embraced. The last number, 85, is an indicator of wheel load - it is a numerical code that matches a chart you can find at your local tire shop. In this case, 85 indicates a maximum load of 515 kg per wheel.

The final marking in this code, the letter Y, indicates the maximum speed at which the tire may be operated for ten minutes without creating a dangerous situation from heat build up. A Y code tire can be run at 186 miles per hour for this time frame, which puts it in a high performance class.

You may encounter other letters or numbers on your tires. Oftentimes, the numerical code example we used above is preceded by lettering such a P, to indicate automobile tires, or LT, which describes a light truck tire. The number may also have M+S appended to it, which means that it possesses greater than average abilities in terms of mud or snow traction. You should now be confident in your ability to identify the tires on your vehicle, and fully understand their capabilities and limitations.