What Are Radial Tires and How Do They Work?

Radial tires have inner cords that are laid perpendicularly to the direction of travel, which improves fuel economy and durability.
Written by Melanie Krieps Mergen
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
In a radial tire, the inner cord plies are laid from sidewall to sidewall, or perpendicularly from their direction of travel. A radial tire’s design helps reduce friction, which helps improve fuel economy.
There’s a lot more to a tire than meets the eye. A good tire is more than just rubber wrapped around a rim—it’s also designed in a way that gives it the durability and performance capabilities your vehicle needs. 
The most commonly used type of tire used in vehicles today is a radial tire. Never heard of it? Allow
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What are radial tires?

These days, there are two main types of designs for tires: radial ply and bias ply.
A radial tire employs radial ply—the cord plies (the tire’s layers of inner material) are arranged perpendicularly to the direction of travel, or radially from the center of the tire. 
To put it another way, they’re arranged and laid side-to-side from one of the tire’s sidewalls to the other. Those cord plies help reinforce a tire’s strength to give it the shape and durability it needs on the road. 
To further reinforce a radial tire and help it keep its shape, manufacturers surround the tire structure with belts made of materials including steel or polyester in addition to those cord plies.
Before the use of radial tires became ubiquitous, bias ply (or cross ply) tires were the norm, in which cord plies are overlapped and lain diagonally in relation to the direction of travel.
In a bias-ply tire, this arrangement of the cord plies creates friction when they’re in motion on the road, and as a result, contributes to heat buildup. In contrast, a radial tire’s design reduces friction and, as a result, reduces heat buildup and improves fuel economy.
Radial tires grew in popularity across Europe and Japan during the 1950s and 1960s, then eventually became standard use for vehicles in North America in the 1970s.

Radial tire pros

There’s a reason radial tires are considered the norm these days: their design offers plenty of benefits for performance and durability. 
Compared to bias-ply tires, a radial tire offers the following advantages:
  • Less friction, more flexible sidewalls, and reduced heat buildup: A radial tire’s structure reduces friction that can lead to excess heat buildup.
  • Improved fuel economy: As a result of reduced resistance and more flexible sidewalls, vehicles that use radial tires can notice an improvement in their gas mileage.
  • Smoother ride: Thanks to added sidewall flexibility, driving with radial tires usually means less vibration and a more comfortable ride.
  • Longer tread life: The way plies are laid in a radial tire helps reduce the rate of tread wear while maintaining contact with the road, which reduces uneven tread wear.
  • Lower maintenance costs: The increased durability the design of a radial tire allows means they’re less likely to develop problems that would otherwise require more frequent maintenance. 
  • Increased longevity compared to similar bias ply tires: Reduced friction and heat buildup, as well as belts that offer reinforcement help radial tires last longer.
MORE:

Radial tire cons

While radial tires have a number of advantages, they aren’t without their own setbacks. Some of the cons that come with radial tires include:
  • More difficult to repair: When maintenance is required on a radial tire, the structure only allows for repairs on the tread center. Repairing a radial ply’s sidewall isn’t recommended, and patching radial tires is more difficult when compared to bias-ply tires.
  • Low lateral stiffness on a radial tire can mean more difficult handling at increased speeds.
  • More vulnerable to damage when over- or under-inflated: An over-inflated radial tire is more prone to bulging sidewalls that could be easier to damage. 
  • Tend to be more expensive than bias-ply tires, although the longer lifespan of a radial tire and reduced maintenance needs could balance things out in the long run.
MORE: How often to check your car’s tire pressure

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FAQs

A radial tire is a type of tire in which the cord plies (the tire’s layers of inner material) are arranged perpendicularly to the direction of travel—or radially from the center of the tire.
Yes. Radial tires are the most commonly used type of tire in North American vehicles today.
One of the main differences between radial tires and bias ply tires has to do with their design and how their cord plies are arranged. On a radial tire, cord plies are arranged perpendicularly to the direction of travel, while bias ply tires are arranged diagonally.
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