What does tire size mean?

Tire size can be confusing. Some numbers on the sidewall are listed in millimeters while others are inches. Plus, the right size for your car, truck, or trailer can differ depending on where and how you drive.

You can see your original equipment tire size in your owner’s manual or on the placard generally located on the driver’s side door jam. This is the sizing recommended by the vehicle manufacturer.

If you’re interested in switching out your tires for a different look or performance, a good place to start is the numbers and other indicators on your existing tires’ sidewall. Next, have a tire professional help you determine a tire size range that will fit your vehicle and driving needs.

Tire Size Meanings
Here’s what those numbers and indicators on the sidewall indicate and how to understand them:

A: TIRE TYPE The first letter in the code tells you what class of tire it is.

P stands for passenger vehicle tire. P-class tires include cars, SUVs, crossovers, minivans and smaller pickup trucks.

LT means light truck tire, designed for vehicles that are capable of carrying heavy loads, towing trailers, or for those looking for an extra heavy duty option. These are often equipped on three-quarter or 1 ton trucks and SUVs.

ST stands for Special Trailer. These tire sizes are meant for trailers, including fifth wheels and other travel trailers, as well as boat and utility trailers.

If there’s no letter before the first number, you have a metric tire most commonly referred to as European size. It’s also measured in millimeters but may have a different load capacity than a P or LT tire.

B: TIRE WIDTH The three-digit number following the letter is the tire’s width (from side to side, looking at the tire head on) in millimeters. This may also be referred to as the section width.

C: ASPECT RATIO The forward slash separates the tire width number from the two-digit aspect ratio. The bigger the aspect ratio, the higher/taller the tire’s sidewall, or “profile” as it’s sometimes called.

The aspect ratio is indicated on the tire sidewall as a percentage. It’s the height of the sidewall measured from wheel rim to top of the tread, expressed as a percentage of tire width.

In this example, the aspect ratio is 65, meaning the sidewall is 65 percent as high as the tire is wide. To get the sidewall height, take the tire width of 215 mm and convert it to inches (8.46). Then multiply this by 65% (.65). This gives you an answer of 5.5, the sidewall height in inches.

D: CONSTRUCTION TYPE This single letter tells you about the internal construction of the tire.

R is for radial tires, the industry standard for most tires today. They have better road grip, lower rolling resistance for better gas mileage, ride comfort and durability than previous generations of tires. In a radial tire, the plies — layers of strong cords made of a blend of polyester, steel and fabric and coated with rubber — are laid perpendicular to the direction of travel.

D is for tires built with diagonal (crisscrossed) plies, called bias-constructed tires. They are also called conventional, x-ply, or cross-ply tires. Some motorcycle and trailer tires still use this internal construction.

Some run-flat tires are identified with an F followed by the type of internal construction.

E: WHEEL DIAMETER This two-digit number specifies wheel diameter in inches. It’s the distance between the two bead seat areas (where a tire gets tightly sealed onto the wheel).

F: LOAD INDEX The two-digit or three-digit number that follows the gap specifies tire load index. The load index symbol indicates how much weight a tire can support, based on the following standard chart. In our example, the load index is 89, which indicates the tire has a load capacity of 1,279 pounds, when inflated to the tire’s maximum air pressure rating.

G: SPEED RATING The last letter is the tire speed rating. This indicates the top speed it’s safe to travel at for a sustained amount of time. A tire with a higher speed rating can handle heat better and provide more control at faster speeds. The maximum operating speed of a vehicle is no more than the lowest speed rating of all tires mounted on the vehicle. (Of course, you should always abide by speed limits for safer driving.) Speed rating is usually, but not always, a single letter (see the chart).

Buying New Wheels or Changing Your Tire Size?
A tire size calculator is a quick way to see whether the tire size you’re considering will likely fit your car, SUV, sports car, light truck or crossover.

But remember that is only an estimate. It’s important to stay within the sizing tolerances of your vehicle. Tires that are the wrong size could cause some pull in the steering wheel, rub against the suspension or body of your vehicle, reduce clearance on hills, or result in a stiffer or noisier ride.

If you’re considering mounting a different tire size on your vehicle, check with a tire expert. Find out whether the tires and wheels you have your eye on are the right fit for your vehicle’s suspension, gearing, and bodywork. And ask how any differences in revolutions per mile, tire speed, load index, and speed rating will affect your ride quality and vehicle performance.

Carlos G. Hill

Carlos G. Hill

Carlos joined TireReview in 2019 after seven years of living and working in Dubai. He has been a journalist for over a decade and has worked for a wide range of publications, including Rolling Stone, Time Out, iQ and Loaded. After starting out on the automotive team as deputy editor of Engine Technology International, Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International and Transmissions Technology International, he has been an editor since 2015, and began editing Tire Technology International in 2018. In 2020, he was appointed editor-in-chief of Tire, Professional Motorsport World, Electric & Hybrid Marine Technology International and Crash test Technology International

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