Ten years overdue for new tires

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 1995 Honda Accord wagon with 128,000 miles and 16-year-old tires. Do I have to worry that my tires are going to split apart one of these days? The car is in excellent condition otherwise. I am a member of the Old Ladies Club! – Ronda

RAY: If you never drive more than about 6 mph, Ronda, you'll probably be fine with those 16-year-old tires.

But if you ever drive at high speeds, like 8 or 10 mph, I’d strongly suggest you pony up for a new set of tires.

Tires wear out in two ways.

One way is through use: The rubber creates friction with the road surface. That friction is what allows you to do things like turn and stop. As the rubber creates that friction, it literally gets scrubbed off the tire. So, every time you drive, your tires give up a tiny bit of their surface. Eventually, they wear down to the point that there’s not enough tread left to provide sufficient friction or channel away water. And at that point, it’s time for a new set.

But tires also degrade due to exposure to the ozone in the air. If you left a brand-new tire outside, even if you never put it on a car, the rubber would eventually degrade, dry out and crack. And once it dries out and loses its pliability, the tire becomes dangerous and is a candidate to blow out.

I don’t know how many miles you have on your tires, but with 16 years of exposure to the atmosphere, I’m pretty sure they’re cooked. If you look at the side walls, you’ll almost certainly see hundreds of little cracks.

Tire manufacturers recommend you buy new tires every six years, whether you’ve worn them out or not, due to the degradation of the rubber. Now, even assuming they’re a little overeager to sell new tires, you’re still well outside any reasonable life expectancy for a set of tires, Ronda.

So, take the car to your regular mechanic and ask them to recommend some new tires for you. Based on how long you’ve waited to buy tires, ask him to do a complete safety check on this 25-year-old car to make sure there’s nothing else (brakes, steering, ball joints) that’s a good 10 years overdue for replacement.

Romanticizing cars of decades past

Dear Car Talk:

Even in new cars these days, I can feel every bump on the road. The type of car doesn’t matter.

Remember cars from the ’70s and ’80s? Not only could you not hear the engine or the road, but the ride was comfy, quiet and nice. Are there any cars like that made in the U.S. today? The last cushy ride I had was in my 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan minivan.

But now you spend $20,000 and the ride is worse than in my 1985 Chevy. What a car! Even without a muffler, the 6-cylinder engine was quiet. And the ride! It was a pleasure to drive. You could drive 79 mph on the highway and whisper to your passengers.

What car would you recommend so the ride will not shake my brains out and make me lose my hearing after a few hours on the highway? – Andy

RAY: You forgot "And get off my lawn!" Andy.

I think you’ve got a bad case of selective, nostalgic memory. Or a serious ear infection. Overall, carmakers have made great progress with reducing noise and vibration in the past few decades.

I had a 1990s Dodge Grand Caravan. And while the ride wasn’t bad, the rattles and squeaks alone in that thing nearly drove me off the deep end. Not to mention the road and tire noise.

It’s true that a lot of cars from the 1970s had very cushy rides. And that’s true of cars that were designed in the ’60s and ’70s and soldiered on for decades, largely unchanged, like the Lincoln Town Car and some Cadillacs.

GM, in the 1970s, in particular, was known for its famous “squish” suspension, and Jello-like handling, which I think they developed in collaboration with Betty Crocker. You turned the wheel left, and about 90 seconds later the car would list to the right and then come about. And the oversized engines in some of those cars (before we cared about gas mileage) had to work so little that you didn’t hear much noise from the engine.

Today, several factors can make some inexpensive cars noisier. We have smaller, more fuel-efficient engines that rev higher. And as Americans demanded better handling, we got tires with shorter sidewalls that create more road noise. When you pay more for a car, those things can be mitigated.

And there are plenty of cars now that do a great job with ride comfort and noise suppression. Lots of cars now have much better cabin insulation, insulated glass, fewer squeaks and rattles, and even electronic noise canceling systems.

And there are some buyers who – like you, Andy – still want a living room on wheels. In our experience test driving new cars, the manufacturers that seem to prize isolation and quiet the most are Lexus, Buick and Lincoln.

So, go visit a few dealers and tell them your priorities are a soft, isolating ride and a quiet cabin. And avoid anything with the word “sport.” You might drive a Lexus ES350, a Buick LaCrosse or Enclave, or a Lincoln MKZ or Aviator, and see what you think.

Then tell the dealer you’re looking to spend $20,000 and watch them frog-march you out to the far end of the used car lot.

For real luxury cars that prioritize a truly isolated cabin, you’ll probably end up spending twice that. But look on the bright side: Then you can legitimately whine about everything being too damn noisy and expensive these days, Andy.

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