The tires of your car shouldn’t be underestimated. They have an important job and can make or break your vehicle’s overall performance. Within the category of tires, there’s a matter of what type of tread you have.
The best way to tell if your tires are directional is by reading the sidewall. There will be an indicator arrow with text that reads “left”, “direction”, “rotation”, or comparable words. You may also look at your tires head-on and examine the tread. If the tread features repeated V’s that point towards the center of the tread, you have directional tires.
If you’re shopping for new tires or just want to know more about your car, then this guide is for you. I’ll discuss how to tell if your tires are directional, what directional tires are, and why they’re so great.
How Your Tires Work
I know people who have driven 500,000 miles over their lifetime and never thought about how the tires work (hi, George).
The simple fact is that your tires are the only thing that comes in contact with the road as you drive along. The tires are responsible for applying power from the engine, moving you, stopping you, taking a corner without sliding, and supporting the weight of your vehicle.
Have you ever looked head-on at a tire and noticed those weird little grooves and notches? That’s called the tread, and it’s the driving force behind everything I just listed, no pun intended.
When your tire is too thin and you have bald tires, you need to replace your tires. If you don’t, then your car is a safety risk and your vehicle’s performance will be ruined.
Your 0-60 time in “performance” tires, versus all-season tires, versus bald tires will be three dramatically different times.
Why am I mentioning all of this? The tread is the heart of this guide.
Types of Tires Treads
You guessed it, now it’s time to introduce the different types of treads that you might experience. Remember, the tread is responsible for how the grip is established between the road and your vehicle. Different tread means a different performance altogether.
In fact, this is the same science that explains why off-roading tires have massive, deep treads.
If you look at a tire head-on and draw a line along the circumference through the center of the rubber, you’ll be able to tell if your tire is symmetric.
As the name suggests, symmetric tires have the exact same tread pattern that’s been mirrored along this imaginary axis you just drew.
This gets trickier as you look at tires with an odd number of tread blocks. The official definition is this: symmetric tires repeat a similar pattern from edge to edge of the tread.
These are the most common option for everyday commuter cars. They don’t offer great performance, but they’re inexpensive to make, quieter to drive on the road and offer a longer life.
Asymmetric tires are more commonly found on sportier cars, and they offer a boost in performance. They’re somewhere between symmetric and direction tires in almost every comparable category (performance, cost, road noise, longevity, etc).
The telltale sign that you have an asymmetric tire is how the edges look. The inner edge likely has a lot of different patterns, sweeping cuts, and smaller tread blocks.
The outer edge of the tire has thicker, blockier chunks of “tread.”
Why is it set up this way? Well, it allows the inside of the car to be built for performance and speed while the outside focuses on grip through corners. More technically, the inside edge is built for icy conditions and the outside edge is built for dry conditions.
Finally, you have directional tires. If you look at the tread, it often looks like arrows with the heads pointing along the center circumferential axis you drew earlier.
As a science guy, I really love how these tires work. The arrow-like grooves are used to speed up the tire in the direction that they’re turning, forward. The V shape is seen in nature a lot, and it’s synonymous with going fast — think of the hull of a speedboat, the wings of a plane, the nose of an F1 car, or the side-profile shape of your spoiler.
Directional tires provide the most forward momentum and performance. At the same time, the shape will repel water from the center of your tires, away from the rubber. This prevents hydroplaning and ensures the center of your tire has a good grip. After all, the center is the most critical when it comes to overall traction.
If you see a car with directional tires driving on wet roads, each tire will look a lot like the wake of a boat: a rooster tail of water spraying.
The treat of a directional tire can be either symmetric or asymmetric. It follows the same logic that I explained in the previous sections, so I won’t waste your time re-explaining it.
How To Tell If Tires Are Directional
Now that you know the different types of tread patterns, let’s figure out how to tell if your tires are directional. There are a few simple inspections you can do.
Read the Sidewall
The easiest way to find out is to read the sidewall. This might sound like a sarcastic answer, but I’m being serious.
Directional tires will have an arrow and text indicator that tells you where that tire belongs. You might see words like “rotation”, “left”, or “direction” embossed into the rubber of the tire.
Asymmetric directional tires might have text on both walls that also indicate which side is the inside and which is the outside.
The tricky part is if you’re looking to replace tires that are worn. The text on the sidewalls might be worn out and hard to read.
Look at the Tread
If you can’t read the sidewall, then you should look at the tread and use some detective skills. I mentioned earlier that there are different styles of tire tread, and you can use this knowledge to figure out which you have.
If you notice very obvious V-shapes with the arrowhead at the center point of the tread, you’re likely dealing with directional tires.
It’s easy to confuse this with symmetric tires, so I understand if it takes some time. Compared to a symmetric tire, the directional tires have a much more obvious V, and less of a crisscross shape with straight, angled cutouts.
Check All Four Tires
It’s very important that you check all four tires. It’s possible that someone only changed one tire on your car, and they put on the wrong one. If you have three directional tires and one symmetric one, then something is wrong.
If this is the case, you don’t want to call it quits after inspecting the lone symmetric one — you’ll wind up with the wrong tires.
If you ever had a tire professional change your tires, you bought your car used, or you park outside in an unsecured area overnight, check all four tires before buying a new set.
Ask a Tire Expert
Finally, check with a tire expert. It might seem like an obvious answer, but it’s worth mentioning that these guys really know their stuff.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a tire mechanic told you what type of tread you have in just a few seconds. They know this industry inside and out, so it’s wise to defer to them if you’re not sure.
I would suggest that you avoid using a discount tire shop that seems seedy. They might try to upsell you directional tires just to make more money out of you. Stick with a well-known chain or a mechanic that you trust.
Be Careful How You Mount Directional Tires
Directional tires are useless if you don’t install them correctly. Remember, the direction plays a huge part in how the tire performs.
If you have a directional tire on backward, then your car’s performance will suffer and you’ll basically be using symmetric tires that you paid too much for.
Mind the arrows and take note of which side is the inside or outside of an asymmetric directional tire.
If you’re not positive, ask a mechanic to install the tires for you.
Are Directional Tires Worth It?
Maybe you don’t have directional tires — should you splurge for this upgrade? In this section, I’ll determine if directional tires are worth it.
Improved Car Performance
Above everything else, directional tires are a great boost to your car’s performance. These tires impact things like your 0-60 time, how well you can take a high-speed corner, and how quickly you can stop.
For the everyday driver, this might not make a huge difference. However, if you want to lay down a hot lap or crush your local quarter-mile, you might consider getting performance tires.
As far as improvement per dollar, tires are typically touted as the lowest ratio between cost and performance improvement.
Typically, you’ll only consider getting directional tires if you want to boost your performance for any number of reasons.
Better Overall Safety
When it comes to quick reactions and stopping on a dime, your tire choice matters. Again, since directional tires will stop you sooner and allow you to take faster corners, you’re left with a better overall safety level with these treads.
Fewer Gas Stops
In my guide about saving money on gas, one of my big suggestions was changing your tires. This concept comes to mind here, because that’s one of the biggest selling points of directional tires.
Since the grip is so focused and your car’s performance is boosted, you’ll enjoy better fuel efficiency. This means you can drive more miles between fill-ups, and you’ll save money on gas overall.
Better Handling in Inclement Weather
Finally, consider your car on a wet or snowy road. Directional tires will take rain and rip it away from the center of your tires. This means you can drive without hydroplaning or skidding, even if the roads are saturated.
If you’re a year-round Seattleite, you frequent Mobile, or you like to drive to Pensacola, then you’ll feel a lot better with directional tires on your car.
Now you know all about directional tires, how to tell if your car has them, and whether or not you need them. If you want to learn more about your car, then explore my blog. Also, be sure to check out what car products I highly recommend.