TL-DR: Rotate your tires on a regular basis, it does work.
Tire Rotation is an often discussed topic, one that many vehicle drivers may have heard of, but not all understand what it actually does. Tire rotation is not about the wheels and tires turning – it’s referring to the practice of periodically removing the wheels (which the tires are mounted to, of course) and re-installing them to different positions on the vehicle. Periodical tire rotation serves many purposes, such as the following:
- Rotating your tires maximizes overall tire tread wear to get the most usable life;
- Rotating your tires allows you to check the balance of each wheel and tire assembly (and rebalance if needed, but this is a separate topic);
- Rotating your tires lets you inspect the tire and tread for any uneven wear, puncture, or imminent damage.
Tire rotation is also important because the front tires and the rear tires do different jobs. On any typical 4-wheel equipped, front-engine, front steering passenger vehicle the front tires will always wear faster than rear tires. The process is slower on RWD (Rear Wheel Drive) vehicles and faster on FWD (Front Wheel Drive) vehicles; this is not a myth or an imaginary thing – it is a proven fact simply because of all of the things each of the tires have to do. Consider these details:
- The front tires carry the weight of the engine 100% of the time;
- The front tires are responsible for dictating the direction your vehicle is traveling (steering);
- The front tires have to control a majority of the vehicle’s weight (approx. 60-80%) under deceleration (braking);
- The rear tires apply power to the ground to move your truck (in RWD mode);
- The rear tires carry the bulk of the weight of any cargo you load into the truck bed.
So okay: tire rotation – most people do it (or pay someone to do it), some people think it’s a waste of time. Well, I’m going to explain to you why tire rotation is a good thing and something you should do regularly to maximize your vehicle’s overall traction level (a.k.a. “level of grip”), improve traction balance (a.k.a “overall stability”) and decrease tire wear (a.k.a. “usable lifespan”).
DISCLAIMER: I am not claiming to be a tire expert or some licensed tire rotation professional or whatever. Everything I am explaining is based on personal experience only, but for accuracy purposes, I asked a few people in the wheel/suspension/tire industry to read this article first to check for any errors, provide any advice, and tell me if I needed to make any revisions. The method and reasoning explained in this write-up are based on what I choose to do with my truck. If you choose to do a different method, cool – good for you ?
Let’s start with our humble, reliable D40 Nissan Frontier (of course!) with a brand new set of tires. It doesn’t matter what brand, size, or type – but let’s keep it simple and say that all 4 tires are the same brand, the same model, the same size, the same age, and have the same tire pressure. Let’s also remove any external factors out of the equation and state that the truck is always properly aligned, and driving conditions are the same typical daily usage – same weather conditions, same on-pavement conditions (so just to be clear, off-roading is not part of this discussion). This way the only variables you need to pay attention to are:
- Rate of tire wear; and
- Position of the tire on the vehicle.
When it comes to the rotation method, my personal preference (and what I’ll use here) is the Rearward Cross. The “Rearward Cross” method means that every time you rotate the tires, the front tires will move rearward and cross over to the other side, whereas the rear tires will just move forward (but stay on the same side). With this method, each tire will spend an even amount of time in all 4 positions on the vehicle after 4 tire rotations:
Speaking of, for this particular topic we’ll say that our sample tire at the front axle position takes 2 years to wear out to 0% tread, but takes 6 years to wear out to 0% tread at the rear axle position. This calculates out to the front tires wearing down at a wear rate of 50% per year, and the rear tires wearing down at a rate of 16% per year:
Finally, we’ll use 20% tread OR 6 years of tire life as the threshold limit for safely requiring a tire replacement (even if many people take the risk and run their tires farther before replacing them).
So our working parameters for this example, in summary:
- We’re using the Frontier as the test subject, not some other vehicle;
- All 4 tires are identical – same brand, model, size, age, and tire pressure;
- All 4 tires are not directional or asymmetrical;
- Weather, road-conditions are identical;
- The vehicle is always properly aligned;
- We’re using the “Rearward Cross” rotation method;
- We’re basing rotations by time, not mileage (it’s easier to understand);
- Front tire position in our example takes 2 years to wear out to 0% tread (so 50% yearly);
- Rear tire position in our example takes 6 years to wear out to 0% tread (so about 16% yearly);
- When a tire drops down past 20% tread or gets to 6-years old, it must be replaced.
All set? Okay.
Yearly Comparison: No Rotation vs. Rotation, Side By Side
In the following illustrations, the truck shown on the left will remain as is – meaning no tire rotation at all, so you can see how tire wear decreases overall stability (traction bias), decreases steering and braking traction, and reduces a tire’s overall usability over time. In contrast, the truck shown on the right will be rotating its tires annually. Here’s what happens:
If you don’t rotate: After 1 year, your front tires go from 100% down to 50% tread, and your rear tires go from 100% down to 84% tread. Before we go further, this is the perfect time for me to point out something I’ve seen many people do that is incorrect:
Do NOT make the common mistake of adding tire wear together and averaging it out to say you have “65% tread” overall! This is where many people get it wrong. Tire wear between 4 individual tires is not cumulative; all 4 tires wear at a different rate, and after 1 year they do not magically average out to 65% at all four corners! Each tire wears at a different rate based on the position on the vehicle and will stay that way unless rotated to a different axle position (front or rear).
If you do rotate: After 1 year, you rotate your tires and your front tires are now at 84% and the rear tires are now at 50%. Overall traction (“Grip Ratio”) is higher at the front, where it matters because the front tires need traction to steer your vehicle and to slow it down under braking, so this is what is ideal. Let’s continue to year #2:
If you don’t rotate: After 2 years, your front tires go from 50% down to 25% tread, and your rear tires go from 84% down to 71% tread. Overall traction and traction balance is biased the wrong way (towards the rear) meaning you have less braking and steering control at the front. This also means your braking distances will be longer and you’ll most likely understeer (not steer enough) during critical maneuvers or accident avoidance.
If you do rotate: After 2 years, you rotate your tires and your front tires are now at 42% and the rear tires are now at 42%. Overall traction and traction balance is equal on all four corners since all 4 tires are worn down the same amount, so this is ideal. Your tires have an even amount of traction on all four corners. Let’s continue to year #3:
If you don’t rotate: After 3 years of not rotating anything, your important front tires now have 12.5% tread left, yet your rear tires are still at 59.3% tread. Overall traction and traction balance is dangerously biased the wrong way (towards the rear) meaning even less braking and steering control. Also, since the fronts are already below our 20% threshold, after only 3 years you now have to buy a new pair of front tires.
If you do rotate: After 3 years, you rotate your tires and your front tires are now at 35.3% and the rear tires are now at 21%. Overall front traction is still higher and traction balance is pretty close, so although all four tires are worn down, they can still be used safely. Let’s continue to year #4:
If you don’t rotate: After 4 years of not rotating anything, your newly bought front tires go from 100% down to 50% tread, and your 4-year-old rear tires go from 60% down to 50% tread. All four tires may have even tread wear by measurement, but don’t forget an important fact: Your front tires are only 1 year old and are at 50% tread, but your rear tires are four years old at 50% tread. As tires age, they lose elasticity, the rubber degrades, and although all four tires have the same tread depth externally, the older tires will not have the same amount of grip. At this point, the consolation prize here is that you might have a slight forward bias in traction, which is safer than having a rearward bias – but again, you had to buy a pair of tires already to keep your vehicle on the road safely.
If you do rotate: After 4 years, once again you now have all four tires at about THE SAME tread depth of about 17%. Overall traction and traction balance is still equal on all four corners since all 4 tires are worn down the same amount. However, after year 4 all four tires are below our threshold of 20% tread, so it’s time to replace all 4 tires and start fresh again with 100% on all four corners. Let’s keep going, the left truck still hasn’t purchased a whole set of tires yet, so we keep going to year #5:
If you don’t rotate: After 5 years of not rotating anything, your front tires you barely bought a year ago is already down to 25% tread! Your rear tires (which don’t forget, are now 5 years old) are down to 41.8% tread. All four tires have different ages and have different levels of grip. You are back to the not-ideal rearward bias in traction.
If you do rotate: This “year 5” is identical to Year 1. You started with a fresh, new set of tires and after 1 year your front tires are once again at 84% and the rear tires are at 50%. Overall traction (“Grip Ratio”) stays higher at the front for excellent steering and braking traction. Since we put the tire age limit at 6 years, let’s end the comparison by looking at what happens when we reach year #6:
YEAR SIX (Tire Age Threshold)
If you don’t rotate: After 6 years of not rotating anything, those front tires you barely bought 2 years ago have worn down to 12.5%, and thus your front tires have to be replaced (again). But wait – Your rear tires may only be down to 35.1% of tread… but they reached the age threshold of 6 years, so guess what? Your rear tires also have to be replaced!
If you do rotate: This “year 6” is identical to Year 2. Everything is good =)
Long Term Results Comparison
So, after 6 years of doing a proper yearly rotation, this is what happened:
- Tire Wear is Optimal. At the end of the first 4 years, you have worn down a set of four tires to about the same amount.
- Traction Balance is Excellent. Over 6 years you always had neutral or forward-biased traction, which is safer.
- Tire Life is Maximized. At the end of the 6th year, you’ve only purchased 4 new tires total before continuing to year 7.
Compare the above to 6 years of not rotating at all, and this is what happened:
- Tire Wear Was Always Uneven. Over those 6 years you have worn down 6 tires completely unequal.
- Traction Balance Was Usually Wrong. Over those 6 years, your traction balance after day one went to a rearward bias.
- Tire Life Made You Buy More Tires. At the end of the 6th year, you’ve had to buy 6 new tires just to make it to year 7.
What About: Rotating Based on Mileage?
Bear in mind, my example above was based on rotating on an annual schedule – and I wrote it this way so that it was easy to focus on tire wear over time. However, yes: most people schedule their tire rotation based on actual mileage. In fact, Nissan recommends a tire rotation on the Frontier at every 5,000 miles or every 6-months, whichever comes first. And on top of that, I personally rotate my tires on my truck every 5,000 miles or so (as soon as I remember and as soon as I get some time to do it!) At minimum, if you choose to follow the manufacturer’s owner’s manual schedule then you should easily get a set of tires to last at least 6 years; as far as age goes, the general recommendation is to replace tires between 6-8 years regardless of mileage, depending on environmental conditions had actual usage. So in the end, do what works for you whether it’s time-based or mileage-based.
What About: Tire Flipping?
The term “Tire Flipping” refers to the process of removing the tire from the wheel and flipping it 180-degrees, so that the former “outside” face of the tire is now on the inside. Doing this periodically can also extend tire life, but unlike rotation which you can do yourself in your garage with no special tools, tire flipping requires a tire mounting machine and/or someone who knows how to properly unmount and remount tires. Note that tire flipping does not apply if you have directional tires (usually just a sports car problem) and in the case of truck A/T tires, you may have to sport white lettering or a different sidewall design if you flip the tires during a rotation.
What About: Rotating The Spare Tire In (5-Tire Rotation)?
Some people like to rotate all 5 tires (four main and the spare) with the expectation that they get even more tire life. Well, of course they will – because they’re rotating through 5 tires, not 4 like most do. However, before you decide to drop that spare tire to get it into the rotation, think again: not only is this more work but what you’re really doing is just constantly make sure that none of your 5 tires have the same wear… ever.
Remember, for stability and handling purposes, each axle requires a pair of tires to perform as close to equal as possible – something that will never happen (aside from day 1) if you rotate 5 tires at a time. Another thing to note: most people have only 4 of the same OEM alloy wheels plus a steel spare wheel, or a set of 4 matching aftermarket wheels – not 5. So even if your spare tire is the same brand, model, and size as your main set of 4, your wheels don’t match.
Rotating in 5 tires means you’ll have to get tires unmounted and remounted to preserve your set of 4 matching wheels. I’m in the camp that believes it’s better to rotate just the 4 main tires to ensure ideal tire performance and traction balance and efficient tire wear, but if you want to rotate 5 that’s fine – you do what is best for you.
What About: Suspension Alignment?
You don’t have to get an alignment each time you rotate your tires; in fact, this is why anyone can do a basic tire rotation in their garage with minimal tools (safely, of course). However having a proper alignment is a big factor in tire wear, so keep that in mind. The wrong toe setting alone can eat up tires in weeks, or even days if not corrected. Having some negative camber can also affect tire wear. Alignment is a separate thing that can affect tire wear if you neglect it, but again – this is about rotating tires, so let’s stick to the subject.
What About: Tire Pressure?
If you’re on your stock wheels and tires, the safest bet is to stick to what the manufacturer specifies; on our Frontiers, you can find the recommended tire pressure rating on a label that is stuck inside the driver’s side doorjamb area. When it comes to aftermarket tires and recommended tire pressure, you’ll hear a lot of responses. Some say use OEM tire pressure; some will suggest the “chalk method” to determine correct tire pressure; some say an SL tire requires a different pressure setting than a Load-E tire, etc. ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 answers. Are any of these right? Only the one you choose to follow… but regardless, you should always keep tabs on your tire pressure, as the wrong tire pressure can easily accelerate tire wear.
Conclusion: Tire Rotation = it’s Worth It!
Vehicle manufacturers and tire manufacturers both recommend tire rotation to prolong the overall lifespan of your tires. It’s not marketing, and it’s not some trick to get you to do extra work or pay extra money to a shop to get your wheels and tires rotated. The fact that there are differences between what each tire does based on what position they are on the vehicle already tells you that they do not wear evenly, so tire rotation is a way to reduce this “unevenness” to prolong the effectiveness of the tire set as a whole, increase available traction, keep your vehicle handling as balanced as possible, increase the time between tire replacements, and ensure that the tires wear similarly together =)