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When Inspecting Tires, Check the Expiration Date

New old tires

Most of us know the year of our car. If not, it's clearly noted on the registration and insurance documents in the glovebox. When it comes to the food we enjoy at home, we know that if something doesn't taste or look right that we can check the expiration date on the package. It's not that different in the world of tires.

There's a four-digit code stamped on the sidewall of all tires sold in the USA since 2000. The first two digits note the week—1 through 52—and the second two digits note the year of manufacturer. Unfortunately, many of us don't even know about this tidbit of data when we purchase new tires or inspect a used car. This came to light recently when I ordered a new set of winter tires for this year's snow and ice attack in Michigan.

My 2017 Toyota 86 needed a set of winter wheels and tires as cold weather approached. While initially shopping for the rear-wheel drive coupe, I briefly considered a 2017 Subaru BRZ with the optional performance package, but I don't like the Fast & Furious rear wing and, more importantly, the upgraded Brembo brakes force you into 17-inch winter wheels and tires. The base BRZ and Toyota 86 are happy on 16-inch wheels, saving money and allowing you to go with Mad Max-look—black steel wheels. Plus, I never had issues with the brakes on my old 2013 Scion FR-S.

I ordered a set of steel wheels and 205/55R16 winter tires from Tire Rack. I went with a set of Dunlop Winter Sport 4D winter tires because I ran them on the FR-S and enjoyed the balance of snow grip and dry-weather handling. They also wore well, even though they were regularly pushed hard on dry pavement. While I enjoy the superior snow and ice grip of a multi-cell tire like the various non-performance offerings in the Bridgestone Blizzak lineup as well as other competing tires, I don't welcome their subpar dry and wet-weather grip.

When my winter wheel and tire package arrived from Tire Rack, I checked the sidewalls and noted a '3414' stamp—manufacturing date of August 2014. This meant that my brand-new winter tires were already three years old. While this may not be an issue to many people, I know that three years is half way into the recommended six-year life of tires that many car companies recommend. Tire Rack's tech articles will tell you that tires are good between six and 10 years and that properly-stored new tires age very slowly, extending ultimate service life. It's likely a valid point but if I'm paying for new tires, I'd like them to be less than a year old—or discounted.

I contacted Tire Rack and they were happy to take the wheel and tire set back despite the fact that they did nothing wrong. The company said that another shipment of the Dunlop winter tires was arriving soon. No problem. I had time. Unfortunately, when the new shipment of tires arrived they had the same date codes. Clearly, Dunlop has a load of older tires in this size sitting at their warehouse.

To be fair, 205/55R-16 isn't as common of a size as it once was due to wheels and tires growing larger and larger on newer vehicles. The only other performance winters Tire Rack had available was a set of run-flat Pirelli Sottozero tires—not the fight fit for the 86.

For many drivers, my OCD approach to tires isn't applicable as they'd likely wear out the tread on their tires before age becomes an issue. Plus I don't think 99% of people have a clue about tire age. My friend Luke is always juggling used items on Craig's List. He regularly buys and sells used winter tires and says that he's never had anyone ask him the age of the tires he sells. When he once asked a seller the age of the tires on the phone, he may as well have been speaking a different language.

So, if you're like me and don't put many miles on your car I recommend making sure you are fully aware of the date codes on your tires when you buy a set of rubber. As tires age, the rubber deteriorates and they can lose ultimate grip and traction. When it comes down to it, tires are the only thing between you and road. Take them seriously.