Rotating tires is important (and always has been) for car maintenance. If you rotate the respective wheels and tires on a given axle, tire wear is even. The result is almost always balanced traction and handling over a period of time. Most tire warranties demand the tires be rotated on a specific mileage schedule. And many tire manufacturers recommend rotation at between 3,000 and 5,000 miles.
Making each tire function in as many of the vehicle’s wheel positions as possible makes evening out tire wear feasible. Naturally, this can’t make up for tire wear caused by tired or malfunctioning mechanical components or improper inflation. When considering the mechanics of a motor vehicle, keep in mind that the front end often has a more difficult task than the rear. For example, in a front-wheel-drive car, the tires are tasked with steering, stopping, moving up and down, and, of course, pulling the vehicle forward. In a high-performance rear-wheel-drive car, you’ll likely find that the rear tires take more abuse than the front. Four-by-four vehicles and all-wheel-drive models bring their own tire wear peculiarities to the party. The bottom line: No matter what the car or truck, the wheel position can cause different rates and types of wear on a tire.
Replacing four versus two
As a tire wears, the tread depth is reduced. If all four tires wear out at more or less the same time, you can replace four tires at once. This is actually advantageous when compared to replacing tires in pairs, simply because you’ll always have equal fresh rubber on all four corners. Additionally, you have to consider that the manufacturers are constantly releasing new and improved tire configurations. The result is that your old tires could become obsolete by the time they’re worn. If replacing only two at once, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with mixed tire technology that could negatively affect how your vehicle drives.
Tire rotation pattern
So far so good, but tire rotation isn’t anything like it was a few decades ago. Way back when, most cars had identical wheels and tires on all four corners, and the spare was also a full-size job that matched the road wheels. That’s a difficult combination to find today, with space-saver spares, spare tires mounted on dedicated steel wheels (with the rest of the rolling stock on aluminum wheels), different wheel offsets and sizes front and rear, mixed tire sizes, and so on. Because of this, the rotation process differs. Here’s a look at some of the many different tire rotation pattern options.
Four same-size tires, non-directional
If the tires are non-directional and the tires and wheels are all the same size, there are three different four-tire rotation patterns most commonly used:
1. Front-wheel drive : Rotate the tires in a forward cross pattern. This means that the left front goes to the left rear and the right front goes to the right rear. The left rear goes to the right front and the right rear goes to the left front.
2. Rear-wheel drive or AWD/four-wheel drive : Left rear goes to right front. Right rear goes to the left front. The right front goes to left rear. Left front goes to the right rear.
3. (Alternate) Rear-wheel drive or AWD/four-wheel drive : The left rear goes to left front. The right rear goes to the right front. The left front goes to the right rear. The right front goes to left rear.
Different-size directional tires, or different offsets
What if the vehicle in question has different-size directional wheels and tires or is equipped with wheels with different offsets (wheel backspace) front and rear? In this case, the tires will definitely require dismounting, remounting and rebalancing in order to rotate the tires. Four other typical rotation patterns are as follows:
1. Same-size directional wheels and tires: The left front goes to left rear. The left rear goes to left front. The right front goes to the right rear. The right rear goes to the right front.
2. Different-size directional tires with different-size wheels: Tires must be dismounted and remounted on the appropriate wheel/direction of rotation.
3. Non-directional wheels and tires with different sizes front and rear: The left front goes to the right front. The right front goes to the left front. The left rear goes to the right rear. And the right rear goes to left rear.
4. Five-tire rotation: Yesteryear, a five-tire rotation was possible, simply because the spare was full size. That’s seldom the case today. Even many light trucks are equipped with spare wheels that do not match the drive wheel combination. If, however, the spare matches the drive wheelsand tires, and all tires are the same size and are not directional, then you can perform a five-tire/wheel rotation as follows:
Front-wheel drive : The left front goes to the left rear. The left rear goes to the right front. The right rear goes to the left front. The spare goes to the right rear. The right front goes to the spare.
Rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive: The left rear goes to the left front. The left front goes to the spare. The spare goes to the right rear. The right rear goes to the right front. The right front goes to the left rear.
The idea here is to distribute the wear over five tires throughout their life. This is particularly important on many all-wheel-drive vehicles in that all tires, including the spare, are, in theory, worn identically.
When it’s not so easy
You’d think tire rotation is a piece of cake, but in some applications tire rotation isn’t exactly simple. This Camaro is a good example. The front and back tires are similarly sized, but they can’t be swapped from front axle to rear axle. Here’s why.
The wheels found on these cars look identical, but they’re not. You see the wheel offsets on the front (first photo) differ from the wheel offset (backspace) on the rear (second photo), plus the tires are directional. With cars like this, there isn’t a lot of choice when it comes to tire rotation. The tires have to be dismounted and remounted on the appropriate side of the car in the proper direction of rotation.
Something like a (common) pickup truck often allows for simple four- or five-wheel rotation. It gets tricky with a five-wheel rotation where the spare is mounted on a steel wheel (and the truck, such as this one, has chrome clad aluminum wheels). If you want to keep everything looking good, the spare tire has to be dismounted and swapped out with the last tire/wheel in the five-tire rotation.
If this still sounds confusing (and it sure can be!), check the owner’s manual for several different tire rotation combinations recommended by the vehicle manufacturer.