“Should I buy snow tires?”, is a question that I get often and have answered several million times. Let me answer it once and for all.
All tires are a compromise for the consumer. Summer tires have great dry pavement traction but wear out very quickly; high-mileage (be that referring to gas mileage or tread life) last a long time and help get good gas mileage, but are generally hard riding and offer poor performance characteristics. Similarly, think about shoes. When you wear dress shoes you have made the choice that you are giving up lateral stability and cushioning for good looks. When you wear snow boots you gave up lightweight and running speed for the ability to tromp through slush and keep your feet warm. So go the compromises when you buy tires. There is no “best tire”. There is the best tire for certain vehicles and conditions, but no single tire is ideal for all conditions and vehicles. Anyone who says that there is just wrong.
So here is the deal with snow tires. First off, the term “snow tires” is antiquated and inaccurate. Generally “snow tires” referred to the TWO big lugged, bias ply tires that you put on your rear-wheel drive sedan. The modern, correct terminology is “winter tires”. Winter tires have a wonderful benefit – they are absolutely killer in the snow and cold. Bad news, they are completely marginal in virtually every other category you might want to judge a tire by. Bottom line, if you live where it snows you want and need winter tires. Regardless if you have all-wheel drive, four wheel drive, or grew up in Wyoming and think you know how to drive in the snow. Also, even if it gets cold where you live and doesn’t snow a lot, you should seriously consider winter tires (more on that shortly).
Winter Tire Basics:
1. Winter tires must always – no exceptions – be mounted in sets of 4. NEVER mount them only in the front or only in the rear. To do so is freaking crazy and dangerous. Why? Well winter tires stick to snow and your jack-of-all-trades-master of none all-season tires don’t stick to snow. You mount two winter tires to the front and all-seasons on the back and your car will be going backwards down the first snow-covered hill you tap your brakes on.
2. Winter tires are made out of different rubber than your normal tires. They are generally softer and more “sticky” which helps them stick to snow, but also makes them wear more quickly.
3. Winter tires are specifically designed to work at temps below 45 degrees F. Said another way, summer tires are NOT designed to provide effective traction at temps below 45 degrees F. (Summer tires are generally high performance tires that are designed for dry road performance (with some wet road capabilities) but loudly proclaim that they are not to be used in snow or temps below 45 degrees F. If your tires are low profile, unidirectional, are 18″ or bigger, are on a sports sedan or coupe, or your car has the “sport package”, the odds are that you have summer tires on it right now. )
Every car has 4 tires that contact the ground. Each contact patch is about the size of your hand. (Wider performance tires don’t provide more contact area necessarily, more importantly they provide a different shape of contact area but I digress. ) This contact patch is where “the rubber meets the road”. All braking, cornering, and acceleration inputs go through the tires to the road. Every car, regardless of whether it is AWD, rear-wheel drive, or front-wheel drive has FOUR tires that are involved with braking and cornering. The AWD or four-wheel drive only comes into play in the “acceleration” scenario. Don’t be misled by Suburu ads, when you slam on the brakes in the middle of a snow-covered corner it makes no difference if you have AWD or rear-wheel drive. The only thing that matters is traction, and winter tires provide traction in the winter. Period. AWD does not improve traction during braking or turning. If it did, it would be called magic. In fact, the AWD system generally adds several hundred extra pounds of dead weight that you have to haul around day in and day out. It has to be accelerated and stopped all year. You pay for gas to haul it around all year. I have a rear-wheel drive BMW and an AWD GMC Denali XL. In the dead of winter, with snow and ice covered roads it is a no-brainer to drive the BMW (with winter tires). The Denali has AWD of course, but all that means is that there are 4 tires accelerating, braking and cornering. The BMW also has 4 tires braking and cornering. During acceleration it has only 2 tires, but those two tires have far greater traction than the Denali’s 4 driven tires. Furthermore, the BMW weighs half as much and is far better balanced. Bottom line – I can go anywhere (where the road is paved) and go there better and more safely than anyone in their AWD/4-wheel drive with all-season tires. Ideally the Denali would have winter tires for it, but that hasn’t happened yet. On the other hand the Denali (and trucks, SUV’s, etc.) have higher ground clearance and more pliable suspensions which generally make them better for “off-roading”. So called “off-road” tires are also a compromise in that they provide great mud and dirt traction at the cost of pavement traction and noise. In fact those big lugged tires with the huge knobs are absolutely worthless in snow on pavement. The huge chevrons (that is what the tread designs are called) are basically like big ice skates when it comes to driving on snowy/icy pavement. That said, my car and its tires would be worthless in deep mud and in off-road situations.
How do I buy winter tires?
There are two ways to equip your vehicle with winter tires. First is to simply have your existing all-season or summer tires removed from your wheels and have a similarly sized winter tire mounted to those same wheels. This might be cheaper in the short term as you aren’t buying another set of rims but then again it might not as the downside is that you have to buy the same diameter winter tire as your summer tires. For those of you with 18″ to 22″ rims, you’ll have a slight heart attack when you see the pricing for winter tires in those sizes. Once spring arrives you go back to the tires shop, and they remove the winter tires and remount your other tires. Generally most shops charge about $40 per car per season. Therefore, you need to calculate $40 in the fall and $40 in the spring for every year you own the tires. The second way is the right way. This is of course how I did it. Focus on a tire size that is one or two sizes smaller than your summer tire size. My car had 18″ OE rims so I focused on 16″ rims and tires for winter. Smaller rims and tires are not only cheaper than their big brothers, they also work better. Yes, you heard that correctly. The smaller (and more narrow) winter tires are ideal for cutting through the snow and getting the best traction. (Occasionally, you can have your cake and eat it too!). It is easy to buy a cheap set of rims. Most tire stores have a “no-name” selection of alloy rims or even steel rims with hubcaps. I’ve bought from Tirerack.com or Smitty’s Tire. They come mounted and balanced, ready to put on the car. Then each spring or fall I swap them out. My average time is nearing NASCAR (ok, not quite) speed of about 27 minutes for all 4 tires. I can do this anytime I want, no driving to a shop, no $40/change over.
How big a difference does it make?
I talked a neighbor of mine (actually two of them) into buying 3-series BMW’s. One winter he had mounted his winter tires before I did. It snowed alot. So of course we did an “A – B” test. We started in my car. I almost wreaked coming out of the driveway (remember the specifics – rear wheel drive sedan, 18″ summer tires – Michelin Pilot Sport 255/35-18). The road was covered with about 2-3″ of snow, and was very icy. My car was virtually undriveable. The traction control basically made it so that no throttle was available – meaning that even though I had it floored we just sat there. There was simply no traction. I slid down my driveway and curled into the street. We had to shovel the driveway and put icemelt on it to eventually get the car back into the garage – and my driveway is only very slightly inclined. Bottom line – there is no way I would have even considered driving my car any distance at all. We then moved to his car, equipped with Dunlop WinterSport 3D tires 205/55-16. The differences were night and day. We pulled up and then backed out of the same driveway. We drove down the road and then easily went around the block. We could tell that the road was slick, but only because the traction control occasionally flashed. You could slam on the brakes – and while the ABS would pulse – the car would quickly de-accelerate. Bottom line – the car was safe, and driveable. In fact, it had so much traction that when we went to a nearby (empty) parking lot, it was difficult to slide the rear of the car even when trying.
I bought 4 Dunlop WinterSport 3D tires mounted on some generic brand of alloy rim from TireRack.com for a grand total of $940 (included shipping, mounting and balancing). They are currently mounted for the 5th winter season and look like they have a season or so left in them. Your mileage may vary of course. They don’t look nearly as nice as the OEM 18″ rims do, but they serve their purpose. They also extend the life of the expensive, summer tires that I drive on the other 8 months of the year.
If you want to read more, visit tirerack.com and see what they have to say about the subject - http://www.tirerack.com/videos/index.jsp?video=23&tab=winter