CLICK & CLACK : Time to Re-Tire?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Q Dear Tom and Ray:

My husband and I share a 2002 Subaru Baja. We often drive it on tough four-wheel-drive roads in the mountains and deserts of Southern California, and it has never let us down. However, I have noticed that the sidewalls of the tires are becoming worn, and in one place, the black "rubber" coating has been scraped away and a white underlayer is exposed. This patch is about an inch by a half-inch, close to the outside edge of the tire. My husband and I disagree about the seriousness of this. He thinks the injury is cosmetic and should be ignored. I think it is serious and could result in the tire delaminating on the highway or somewhere in the remote outback. Could you put my mind at ease?

-- Daphne

A RAY: No, we can't, Daphne. I'll tell you a little story. One time, I had a terrible ringing in my ears. And after a week or so, it was driving me crazy.

TOM: So he went to the hospital and saw a world-famous eye, ear, nose, throat and wallet specialist named Dr. Patel. Dr. Patel did a thorough examination and asked a bunch of probing questions. And then he announced his diagnosis, which was that my brother had tinnitus: ringing in the ears.

RAY: And I said: "Tinnitus? What causes that?" And he said, "Well, Raymond . . . it could be nothing." Then a look of excitement lit up his face and he added, "Or, it could be a brain tumor!"

TOM: That's the story with your tires, Daphne. It could be something cosmetic, or your tires could be falling apart.

RAY: When a tire has raised white letters, they often are produced by building up several layers of rubber, then buffing off one layer and exposing a white layer of rubber below. So that would be the "it could be nothing" explanation.

TOM: On the other hand, there are white-colored structural elements in there, like the carcass ply, which is the polyester "ribcage" that holds the whole tire together. And there are the steel belts themselves, which would look more metallic or shiny, but could appear to be white. Those are the tire equivalents of brain tumors and would need to be addressed immediately.

RAY: So, one thing to look for is the texture of the white material that's been exposed. If it's exactly the same texture as the rest of the tire's exterior rubber, that increases the likelihood that it's just another layer of rubber.

TOM: But if the texture is any different, if it has any kind of fibrous feel or if you see any crisscrossing material, you may have exposed something much more important.

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