Understanding proper tire rotation can go a long way toward extending the life of the rubber wrapped around your wheels. In fact, rotation is so important that it’s something you should do at least twice a year — typically with the changing of the seasons — as part of your automobile’s regular maintenance.
So why is proper tire rotation a crucial part of keeping your car on the road?
It’s all about understanding the link between tire wear, suspension setup and alignment.
As you roll on down the road, the rubber on your tires eventually begins to wear down. The thing is, this wear doesn’t occur evenly, for a number of reasons. First, consider the fact that your front wheels move from side to side when you steer your vehicle, which means as you lean to one side or the other through a corner the outside edge is subject to additional wear that the rear tires don’t have to deal with. Then, consider that your wheel alignment can show a bias at the front and even on one side of the car compared to the other, to compensate for road crowning and to keep the vehicle tracking straight.
Load balance also plays a role — if you drive with cargo in your truck bed, then there’s more weight over the rear tires, which can affect wear. If you have a performance car, then the drive wheels — whether front or rear — can also wear down more quickly because of the wheel spin produced by a powerful engine. The end goal of rotation is to even out wear as much as possible by spreading the load around over the life of each tire.
Front, Back and Side-to-Side
Proper tire rotation varies depending on the type of vehicle you’re driving. For a rear-wheel drive car, typically you would move the rear tires to the front, on the same side as they were originally mounted. Conversely, when moving the front tires to the rear, you would swap sides. This balances out the amount of wear to the outside edge experienced at all corners. For front-wheel drive, it’s the reverse — the fronts move to the back on the same side as they were originally mounted, but the rears crisscross when moving to the front.
Four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicles swap their tires in an X-pattern — right front to left rear, left front to right rear — while cars featuring tires that have a unidirectional tread pattern (meaning it can only spin one way) have to switch their tires front and rear without any crossing at all.
Most tire companies recommend rotating your tires every six months, which usually works out to between 6,000 and 8,000 miles. If your climate calls for you to swap your summer rubber for winter rubber, remember to mark each tire’s original location as they come off your vehicle so you know what pattern to use when rotating them at the start of the next season (after pulling them out of storage).
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Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.