What Does It Mean If My Tires Rub When Turning?

Whether you’re an adept mechanic, or know little more than how to gas up your vehicle and check your tire pressure, the sound and sensation of wheel rubbing triggers a universal “that isn’t right” reaction.

What does it mean when you hear tires rubbing when turning? What are the likeliest causes, and how can you work to diagnose the situation? Is it normal, dangerous, or somewhere in between?

Here’s some guidance on understanding and solving some of the most common tire rubbing issues.

Potential causes of wheel rubbing

Upsized wheels and tires

For appearance and/or performance reasons, an increase in wheel and tire size is a common modification for a variety of vehicles. However, the arrangement of the wheel well, its liner, the fender/body of the vehicle, and components like springs, struts, steering linkage, and tie rods were “packaged” (sometimes tightly!) around the stock wheels and tires. Increase the wheel and tire size, and bumping into any of these close-proximity components is possible.

If you haven’t changed the wheel or tire size yourself, but own the vehicle secondhand, evaluate whether your wheels and tires are stock size or aftermarket. If the latter, you might have identified the source of your tire rubbing.

Change in wheel offset

Wheel offset specification moves the wheel and tire left to right (laterally) within the wheel well.

Wheel offset positions
Wheel offset positions

Even if no increase in wheel or tire size has occurred, a change in wheel offset can position the tire differently enough that rubbing occurs.

It’s a relatively common misconception that swapping for an aftermarket wheel that’s equal to OE wheel size (diameter and width) will fit the vehicle the same, but that’s not necessarily the case. Wheel offset is a critical specification to consider as well. If the wheel offset isn’t a match, then tire rubbing is very possible.

Wheel spacers

Wheel spacers can be used for aesthetic, performance, and fitment purposes. Spacers allow a larger wheel and tire to be fitted without rubbing by creating clearance to interior wheel well components.

However, spacers can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes by moving the wheel and tire assembly outward from the hub, interior clearance is gained, but rubbing can then occur on the vehicle fender and/or wheel well liner.

What a rubbed liner looks like
What a rubbed liner looks like

New, OE replacement tires

Where original wheel and tire gaps are very limited to start with, slight variations in tire dimensions between OE and aftermarket tires can result in rubbing. Basically, tires that are expressed as the same size (e.g., 225/35-18) are effectively equal. But differences in tire shoulder construction and other tread design elements can create a different, sometimes larger profile in the wheel well.

If the tolerance is minimal to start with, a few tenths of an inch difference in tire dimensions can create tire rubbing under certain steering angles and driving conditions.

Tire rubbing with no tire or wheel changes

Suspension component issues

If tire rubbing occurs when driving over bumps, or taking corners where the weight transfer compresses one side of the vehicle’s suspension, you might have failing suspension components.

Vehicle shock components have a finite lifespan. Over time shocks can fail, springs lose elasticity, bushing and shock mounts wear. The result is a sagging suspension, or (less dramatically) suspension components that no longer have the damping capacity to manage road bumps or vehicle load transfers. In these dynamic driving conditions, tire rubbing can occur even if the vehicle’s suspension and ride height look normal when stationary.

A sagging suspension
A sagging suspension

If your vehicle is getting up there in age or mileage with all original suspension components, then consider this area as a potential cause of tire rubbing. A professional mechanic will be able to spot and diagnose failed suspension elements quickly.

Extreme misalignment

Alignment issues are most associated with abnormal tire wear, but in extreme cases, an out of alignment vehicle could also create tire rubbing.

For example, if caster angle is way out of spec, this can be a source of tire rubbing.

Caster angles

How to check for tire rubbing

If you own a truck or SUV with significant wheel gap, you might be able to ferret out tire rubbing contact points when parked. Make sure you’re on level ground with the vehicle in park and the parking brake engaged. Use a light if necessary to check for any areas in the wheel well where the tire is making contact.

Wheel wells are generally quite dirty. A contact point where the tire has been swiping the wheel well liner will stick out like a sore thumb. In extreme cases, a hole in the liner can occur.

You can’t miss a rubbed spot

With a sports or performance car where the wheel well isn’t easily accessible and viewable, wheel removal will likely be necessary to get a full look.

Identifying the location of the tire rubbing can give you/your mechanic a head start on identifying the cause(s).

The risks and dangers of tire rubbing

In many cases of tire rubbing, wheel well liner damage as pictured above is as serious as the problem will get. Some enthusiasts actually accept this as a means to an end in exchange for upsized wheels and tires, and any associated performance benefits.

However, more serious concerns have to do with suspension and steering components contact. This is to be avoided – hazardous tire damage, including slicing of the tire sidewall, and/or damage to expensive vehicle components can occur. These tire rubbing scenarios can become serious problems out on the road.

Whether self-inflicted with upsized wheels and tires, or tire rubbing that developed seemingly overnight and out of nowhere, a proper mechanical diagnosis is required. Sometimes the cure for tire rubbing is as simple as an alignment, replacement of economical suspension components. But first, you need full information to make the right call on dealing with the tire rubbing issue.

If we can be of assistance with your tire rubbing problem, give us a call at 866-961-8668!

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