Contributing Writer: Craig Fitzgerald
There’s only one feeling worse than having a flat tire: Realizing that your spare tire is flat, or worse, non-existent. Since the 1990s, fewer and fewer vehicles have been equipped with a full-size spare. In fact, a growing number of vehicles don’t have a spare at all. Many simply come with a tire repair and inflation kit instead. This isn’t necessarily bad news, but it definitely means you should be informed about what kind of equipment your vehicle has, and how to use it if your tire fails.
Do New Cars Come with Spare Tires?
According to AAA, approximately 30 percent of new vehicles aren’t equipped with any kind of spare tire at all. Back in 2006, that percentage was much lower and mostly limited to performance vehicles like the Chevrolet Corvette. That car had giant steamroller tires of staggered size – meaning the rears were wider than the fronts – with no means of carrying one spare tire and wheel, let alone two.
In an era when auto manufacturers are doing everything they can to make cars as light as possible for better fuel economy, the idea of saving 50 pounds of excess weight by ditching a spare tire, wheel, and jack is pretty attractive.
What Do They Have Instead?
The 30 percent of vehicles that have no spare tire at all are generally equipped with tire repair and inflation kits. These typically have a can of aerosol “Fix-a-Flat”, along with a tiny air compressor that you plug into a 12-volt outlet to inflate the tire once it’s temporarily sealed.
That’s super handy if you experienced a minor puncture, but it’s no good at all if you’re missing a chunk of the sidewall because you hit a massive pothole.
Somewhere around 65 percent of new vehicles on the road have a temporary, or “space saver”, or “donut” spare tire. These are small, narrow tires mounted on skinny steel wheels that are really just meant to get you to the next exit where you can have your normal tire replaced or repaired.
Only a tiny sliver of vehicles – mostly SUVs – still have a full-size spare tire. A minuscule sliver of the vehicle population may also come with run-flat, or “self-supporting” tires, with stiff sidewalls that will allow you to get to safety without air in the tire. They’re not common, and they’re not particularly popular, especially at replacement time, due to their significantly inflated price.
What Vehicles Still Have a Full-Size Spare Tire?
This list changes year to year, but there still are a number of vehicles that carry a full-size spare. Most – if not all – pickup trucks will carry a full-size spare, though most of those won’t have a matching wheel. They’ll often have just a steel wheel rather than the fancy alloy wheels you paid more money for when you bought the truck.
SUVs used to all come with full-sized spares, but that list is dwindling, too. The last remaining full-sized, truck-based SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban, Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Ford Expedition all have a full-size spare on a non-matching steel wheel. The all-new 2022 Jeep Grand Wagoneer also has a full-size spare tire.
It’s important to note, though, that in pickups and full-size SUVs, if you bought the top-of-the-line trim level with ginormous 22-inch wheels that the spare tire isn’t going to match in SIZE. Most “full-size” spares on trucks and SUVs are going to be smaller, sometimes by four inches. They’re only designed to get you off the highway.
About the only vehicles you’ll find with a full-size, fully matching fifth wheel are off-road-oriented vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler and the Ford Bronco, which carry the spare either on the tailgate or on a swing-out rack. Other vehicles from Land Rover have full-size matching spares that may be carried under the vehicle.
A very small number of crossover SUVs feature a full-size spare, and only a handful of those are matching, depending on the trim level. Most Subaru Outback trim levels have a temporary spare. The more off-road-oriented “adventure” trim levels like the Onyx XT and the Outback Wilderness feature a full-size spare tire that matches the other four tires.
It’s important to note that if you DO have a matching, full-size spare on your SUV you should incorporate it into your tire rotation schedule. We see Wranglers all the time that have dry-rotted, out-of-date matching spare tires hanging off the back because they were never rotated with the other four.
Sedans, coupes, and convertibles? 100 percent of what we’d consider a “car” built today is either going to have a temporary spare or a tire inflation kit.
How Long Can I Drive on a Spare Tire?
You don’t want to drive more than 50 miles on a temporary spare. Temporary spares are a completely different size than your normal tires. If you’re driving something with all-wheel drive, you can damage the driveline by traveling too many miles on a tire of a different size.
Second, they don’t have the same tread pattern, diameter, or rubber compound as your other tires. That can make steering and stopping pretty spooky. Think of a temporary spare as a last-ditch effort to get you safely off the highway. Get yourself to a dealership, a tire shop, or even a full-service gas station and get the tire properly repaired or replaced.
How Fast Can I Drive on a Spare Tire?
This information is generally printed on a warning label right on the temporary spare wheel: 50 miles per hour is the maximum speed you should drive on a temporary spare tire.
What Do I Do If My Spare Tire is Flat or Missing?
Changing a tire in the breakdown lane, while cars are whizzing by at 75 mph is becoming more dangerous by the passing day. A Google News search on August 7, 2022, revealed five news stories on the first page alone of Americans killed while changing tires beside the highway.
About the worst feeling is finding out that your spare is either flat or missing entirely. Even pickup and SUV owners with full-size spares mounted under the body – especially in places where it snows – find that the mechanism for lowering the tire is so badly rusted that the tire won’t come off, leaving them stranded.
You have options, though:
- Call your vehicle manufacturer’s roadside assistance number: Even if your car is 30 years old, most manufacturers have a roadside assistance number, and they’ll come flatbed you to the nearest dealership. That won’t necessarily help you get home if your flat occurs at midnight, but it will at least get you safely off the highway.
- Check your insurance policy: You may have roadside assistance covered as a part of your policy without realizing it.
- Call AAA: Even if you’re not a AAA member, most of the AAA regional offices will allow you to sign up on the spot and pay a nominal fee to have a wrecker come out and get you to a garage. We like the AAA Plus membership, which provides 100 miles of towing free of charge, so you can usually either get home or to your neighborhood garage. That beats being left to fend for yourself with some garage near the highway.
- Check your credit card: These days, roadside assistance is available to ALL Visa card holders. It only offers five miles of free towing, but that’s generally enough to get you somewhere safe.
- Check your extended warranty: You also may have roadside assistance if you’ve purchased an extended warranty.
- Drive – SLOWLY – on the flat: Drive slowly and carefully (we’re talking like 5 mph here) in the breakdown lane to the next exit and get yourself to a parking lot. It’ll be a lot safer than being stuck on the highway. Yes, you can damage an alloy wheel that way, but you’re safer doing that than you are crouched over the jack, inches from oncoming traffic.
It’s good to do some preventative maintenance to your spare BEFORE you need it. Have your spare tire checked when you go in for an oil change or a tire rotation. You’ll want to make sure it’s inflated and isn’t impossible to lower from the rack if it’s mounted under the body. And familiarize yourself with the jack, tools, or inflation kit so that you can use them if you end up with a flat on the road.
Be safe, be smart, and be prepared.
Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.