What Do the Numbers on a Tire Mean?

By Sean Tucker 05/04/2023 4:01pm

How to read the tires numbers

Quick Facts About Numbers on Tires

  • Numbers on a tire include more than dimensions. The markings indicate maximum speed, load limits, and more.
  • Manufacturers strongly recommend you use tires equivalent to the originals in size, quality, and performance when replacement is needed.
  • Tire markings include a number for treadwear, but for consumers, it’s more helpful to look at the manufacturer’s advertised mileage estimate to know the tire’s life expectancy.

We rarely buy new cars, but we purchase new tires much more frequently.

According to the United States Department of Transportation, the average car on American roads today is over 12 years old. Americans drive an average of about 13,489 miles a year, and most new tires are good for between 40,000 and 70,000 miles.

That means most cars go through up to five sets of tires in their lifespan, even if their drivers somehow manage never to pop a tire in a nasty pothole. Some of us routinely go through tires faster than that, thanks to bad luck or a more aggressive driving style.

If you’re going to own a car, you need to know a few things about tires.

Thankfully, most of what you need to know about a set of tires is written on the tire’s sidewall. The sidewall of a tire explains everything from its size to its mileage rating to the type of weather it can handle.

Much of the marking is in code, so you’ll need some guidance to understand it all. This guide should provide an easy way to decode the markings and learn how to read tire numbers.

What Do Tire Size Numbers Mean?

Each number molded onto the side of a tire indicates something meaningful. Some figures tell the tire’s size, or its fundamental dimensions. Other markings give limits for how fast they should roll, how much load they can carry, how much air pressure they can hold, and more. One piece of code on a tire represents its manufacture date.

Importance of Tire Size

Automakers equip a vehicle with tires that provide a balance of characteristics suitable for that vehicle. Do not use a tire, wheel size, load rating, or speed rating that isn’t specified for your car. In addition to increased wear and reduced mileage, using unapproved combinations for your vehicle can cause suspension and performance issues that affect safe steering, handling, and braking.

How to Read Tire Size and Numbers

Tire numbers infographic

A series of numbers and letters on the sidewall explains many details about your tires. Car owners should know how to read a tire size to ensure they’re shopping for a suitable replacement. The numbers on the side of the tire might seem like jibberish at first glance. However, the code follows a left-to-right pattern that you can decipher. Read on to learn what the numbers on tires mean.

Let’s break down this example:

P 245/50 R 20 102 V M+S

Tire Type: (P)

The first letter or letters of the code on some tires explains the type of tire. The types include Passenger (P), Light Truck (LT), Special Trailer (ST), Commercial (C), and Temporary (T), used only for spare tires and not intended for regular use. A type code is not displayed on every tire.

Width: (245)

The first numeric portion of the code is the tire’s width, given in millimeters. It’s best to replace your tires with new tires of the same width since your car’s manufacturer tuned the rest of the vehicle to best operate with tires of that width. While it is possible to mount tires of a different width than the ones your car came with, doing so safely requires additional adjustments that can get costly.

Height to Width Ratio: (50)

The next item in the code is the ratio of the tire’s height to its width. In this example, the height is 50% of the tire’s width. Mounting tires of different height ratios can change the way your car’s suspension behaves. This is rarely worthwhile in daily drivers, but off-road enthusiasts can find the added ground clearance worth the adjustments.

Construction Type: (R)

Following the ratio is the code that specifies how the tire is constructed. Almost all tires available today are built with radial construction. This means cords of rubber were laid out radially, 90 degrees from the direction of travel. Bias-ply tires (where the cords are crisscrossed over one another) are sometimes used on trailers.

Diameter: (20)

This part in the code explains the diameter of the wheel the tire is mounted on in inches. It’s not possible to mount tires of a different diameter without also buying new wheels.

Load Index: (102)

The next number in the tire code indicates the load index. This is a measure engineers use to show the maximum amount of weight the tire can support when fully inflated. Tires sold on passenger cars typically range from 70 to 126.

Tires with a load index of 70 can hold up to 739 pounds. A load index of 102 indicates the tire can hold 1,874 pounds. Those with an index of 126 can carry 3,748 pounds. Multiply the tire’s load index by four tires to get the maximum load-carrying capacity.

Speed Rating: (V)

The next letter in the code is the tire’s speed rating — the maximum speed the manufacturer says the tire can safely travel. A speed rating of V means this tire can travel up to 149 mph. It is important to note that speed rating is tested on a healthy tire. A tire with a puncture (even if it has been professionally repaired), a weak spot from rubbing against a curb, or a tire that is not properly inflated may not be safely driven at its certified speed.

Common Speed Ratings

Here we break down how to read common tire speed ratings using the letter code and its corresponding maximum speed.

  • L: 75 mph
  • M: 81 mph
  • N: 87 mph
  • P: 93 mph
  • Q: 99 mph
  • R: 106 mph
  • S: 112 mph
  • T: 118 mph
  • U: 124 mph
  • H: 130 mph
  • V: 149 mph

Severe Weather Rating: (M+S)

Some, but not all, tires will show a severe weather rating code after the speed rating. It may read M+S, meaning mud and snow. Some tires may have a snowflake symbol in this location. If your tire’s number code ends with the speed rating indicator, they are three-season tires not intended for use in heavy winters.

Treadwear, Traction, and Temperature

Typically in smaller font, often close to the tire’s inner edge, you’ll find a rating number for treadwear, traction, and temperature grades.


Treadwear is given as a three-digit comparative rating, established by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations. Manufacturers test how quickly their tires wear on a test track compared to a standardized test tire.

A rating of 100 means the tire lasts as long as the test tire. A rating of 200 means it lasts twice as long. However, this rating system is not particularly useful to you as a buyer. Manufacturers will generally advertise a tire as being built to drive a set number of miles, which is a more useful measure.


Traction grades reflect the tire’s ability to stop on wet pavement when tested on concrete and asphalt surfaces. The government-mandated traction test does not take into account anti-lock braking systems (ABS). ABS is legally required on all new cars in the U.S., but older cars may not have it. It can significantly improve stopping distance on wet pavement.

In order from best to worst, Traction grades are AA, A, B, and C.

RELATED: Traction Control: How It Works and When to Use It


Tires heat up as you drive. An overheated tire can fail and rip apart, which can quickly turn into a safety hazard. A tire’s temperature rating measures its resistance to overheating at high speed.

Temperature Ratings:

Code/Maximum Speed:

A: 115+ mph
B: 110-115 mph
C: 85-100 mph

Maximum Allowable Inflation

Usually located on the inner rim of the tire, in fairly small font, is the maximum inflation pressure. It is unsafe to inflate the tire beyond this point. However, it’s best not to use this as a guide when inflating your tires. Tires perform differently when carrying different weights, so your car’s weight affects the proper inflation level.

You’ll find an inflation chart on the driver’s side doorsill of your car. This shows the proper inflation level for best performance, which is usually lower than the maximum rating listed on the tire.

Inflate your tires to the pressure listed on the car or in your owner’s manual, not on the tires.

Maximum Load Rating

You will find the maximum amount of weight the tires can support also listed on the inner rim in small font. While you should never exceed this weight, it is only one factor in how much weight your vehicle can carry. A vehicle’s payload capacity is also affected by its suspension, its frame, and its own weight.

See our payload capacity guide for more information.

RELATED: Towing Capacity Guide: Everything You Need to Know

U.S. DOT ID Number

Each tire model gets assigned an identification number by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This is listed in small print on the inside rim of the tire. DOT Identification numbers are generally not something consumers need to know.

Even when the government orders a safety recall for a particular tire model, they will do so by referring to the manufacturer and model.

Manufacture Date

The date the tire was manufactured is listed after the DOT ID number. However, it is not presented in the usual fashion. Rather, the first two digits specify which week of the year the tire was made, and the last two digits specify the year.

A tire with a date code of 1421, for instance, was manufactured in the 14th week of 2021 or between March 28 and April 3.

Other Text and Warnings

Tires are not required to carry any additional information. Tire manufacturers occasionally write warnings against common errors on some of their tires, such as “do not install on 16.5-inch wheels,” but these are usually aimed at the technicians installing them.

Tire Manufacturers

The largest font on the sidewall of a tire is usually reserved for advertising who made it. Megabrands like Goodyear, Michelin, and Yokohama make most of the tires for sale in the U.S. today.

Some smaller manufacturers operate in niche categories. For example, consider Gladiator, makers of off-road tires, and Pirelli, best known for ultra-high-performance tires found on some high-end sports cars.

Model Name

Tires have model names just like cars do. The model name will usually be listed after the manufacturer name, as in Michelin Pilot Sport or Yokohama Advan Apex.

When You Should Replace Your Tires

Tires must be replaced when they are damaged or when their tread has worn to an unsafe level. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all figure for how long tires last because many variables affect their longevity. Warranty coverage typically ranges from 40,000 miles to 70,000, depending on the brand and quality of the tire. Tire cost also has a broad range. For more detail, use our tire price repair tool to get estimates.