What You Need To Know About Winter Tires | Edmunds.com
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What You Need To Know About Winter Tires

What They Do, When To Use Them and Knowing When They're Done


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Back in the day, snow tires were called that for a very good reason: Unless the road was covered in snow, they were terrible.

Snow tires were sloppy handling and near-grip-free on dry and, especially, wet roads. A single emergency stop in the dry would ruin the tire's tread. Twenty years ago, as a test driver for a major magazine, I ripped whole tread blocks from a snow tire's tread in a single dry-road antilock brake (ABS) emergency-style stop. And that stop was roughly a third longer than the vehicle's original-equipment all-season tires took to stop.

Later, as a test driver for a tire company, I found emergency stopping distances in the wet were sometimes hard to measure: A vehicle equipped with snow tires would still be moving as the wet test surface was about to end.

That was then. This is now.

"If you've never driven on modern top-quality winter tires, it's hard to describe the feeling of liberation you get when you switch from half-worn original-equipment tires to new winter tires," says Woody Rogers, product information specialist for Tire Rack.

"With top-quality winter tires you're no longer at the mercy of the weather or drivers around you," he says. Further, quality winter tires give up almost nothing to original equipment all-season tires in emergency performance on dry roads or in the rain, Rogers says.

Those who live where the average yearly snowfall is 350 inches are in tune with modern winter tires, especially when they run a snow and ice driving school.

"It's eye-opening what winter tires will do today," says Mark Cox of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. "The best winter tires will sometimes squeal a little on glare ice during an emergency-style stop."

Good for Wet, Cold Snowless Roads, Too
There's also little compromise with winter tires if the weather is cold or wet but the roads are snow-free.

On such roads, top-quality winter tires are almost as good in emergency stopping and cornering as original-equipment all-season tires, says Rogers, who also does testing for Tire Rack.

In a recent test of winter tires, Rogers says, he used an original-equipment all-season tire as the baseline, just to limit wear on the winter test tires. "I was shocked when the winter tires came within a few feet of matching the all-season tire," he says.

"Years ago," he says, "the wet stopping test with snow tires was sometimes like, 'Whoa, are we gonna stop before the guardrail?' Today, if you buy top-quality winter tires you sacrifice very little as compared to an original-equipment all-season tire when the temperature drops below 40 degrees."

Rogers is referring to the fact that the tread rubber on winter tires is designed to excel when the ambient temperature drops below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Tire engineers call it "glass transition temperature."

As the thermometer falls, rubber stops being pliable. The rubber on winter tires, however, is designed to remain supple at incredibly cold temperatures. But that performance comes with a price: When the temperature rises, the tread on winter tires wears quickly and performance falls far short of all-season tires.

Stepped-Up Handling
Stopping power isn't the only thing that has improved in winter tires. Handling is better as well.

Snow tires were known for "squishy and imprecise handling" 25 years ago, Cox says. "They gave little feel and broke traction on dry and wet roads with little warning and almost no chance of recovering the skid."

Today's top-quality winter tires feel like all-season tires and offer about the same handling characteristics, he says. The handling characteristics are significant because every new passenger vehicle is equipped with electronic stability control (ESC).

Consider ESC a computerized version of a racecar driver: It "feels" the tires beginning to break traction and takes action designed to prevent the vehicle from spinning out or plowing straight off the road. The ESC will work better if the tire provides the same feedback and opportunity for recovery that would please a racer.

More good news: While increasing dry- and wet-road performance, winter tires are a lot better in the snow than were previous-era snow tires. "Every year I see improvements in traction on snow and ice," Cox says. "Not giant breakthroughs, but constant progress."

What's it feel like to replace top-quality all-season tires with the best modern winter tires? In this writer's experience, it's as if the snow-covered handling track suddenly turned into dry pavement.

Pick Top-Quality Tires
It is important to select a top-quality winter tire, says Tire Rack's Rogers. "The best winter tires are offered by Bridgestone, Michelin and Continental," he says. "Some of the other brands don't offer nearly the same performance."

Cox agrees with Rogers: "Those three brands are the 1,000-pound gorillas of the winter-tire world." What sets those brands apart, essentially, is the amount they spend on research and development and on employing extremely skilled engineers.

To know which tires are best, read reliable reviews such as those from Edmunds, Tire Rack and Consumer Reports (a subscription may be required). Expect to spend from $150 to almost $190 per tire, installed, for top-quality brands.

When To Install Them, When To Retire Them
While the tread life of winter tires has improved dramatically, it's not smart to wear out their rubber in hot months. So when should you install winter tires?

"When you can see your breath in daytime," says Cox. Rogers, whose company is based in northern Indiana, uses a calendar approach: "Install winter tires around Thanksgiving and take them off at tax time."

Also, winter tires should be permanently scrapped well before you'd consider retiring conventional tires. As with most passenger vehicle tires, winter tires start with 11/32-inch deep tread. By the time winter tires are down to a tread depth of 6/32-inch, they have lost almost all of their capability.

"At 6/32nds they're just nibbling at the snow," says Rogers. "They were taking great big bites when they were new."

When winter tires reach 5/32-inch deep tread, they will look barely worn to most people. But at that point, they should be on their way to the recycling center, Rogers says. Tread-depth gauges are not available in many auto-parts stores, but they're about $6 on Amazon. Also, good tire stores will gladly measure your tread.

Are Winter Tires for You?
If you wonder whether to get winter tires at all, listen to snow-driving instructor Cox: "Some people can go a year, or even lifetime, and never seriously lose traction on dry or even damp roads," says Cox. "And it's a really big, scary deal if they do."

But in places where the snow really comes down and ice is an everyday thing for several months a year, the average driver will step over the "grip limit" multiple times on the way to work or school. (Studies have shown that people radically underestimate grip on dry roads and radically overestimate it in the snow.) Each one could be an accident waiting to happen. And that's why you should give winter tires your consideration.

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Comments

  • antcrid antcrid Posts:

    Great article, we definitely take Winter tyres fore-granted, most people think they’re just for snow, but they’re not, you can use winter tyres all year round. I read the other day that 1 in 6 people have an accident over the winter months because of the conditions on the road this statistic is scary and maybe winter tyres might help to lower this number!

  • guitarzan guitarzan Posts:

    People do not understand that all-season tires, while they do everything, they do everything in a very mediocre fashion. They have acceptable dry traction, but not great. They have mediocre winter performance but not great. People also think that the largest, heaviest vehicle they can buy is "safer." It is not, as is evidence by the upside-down SUVs I see on our freeway once a winter or so. The extra weight actually acts against safety. More weight means more forward momentum. More momentum means a great deal more energy to stop. That stopping energy applied to the tire on snow and ice results in failure to stop in time. Every consumer vehicle should have winter tires. I also encourage people by explaining that the cost of a set of winter tires is not a great deal more. Go to Tirerack.com. Purchase an extremely aggressive winter tire like Blizzak's and if they are available, have them mounted to cheap steel wheels. The cost is about 40% less than a tire dealer. These will be dropped off at your door mounted and balanced and all you need to do is jack the car up, unbolt the old wheel, and bolt on the winter wheel. Caution: Use anti-seize on the hub area for steel wheels or you will not get them back off! Now, your summer tires are in storage and are not depreciating. Instead the winter tires are depreciating. See the trade-off? The only cost is in the extra set of wheels, and you have some control over that.Otherwise you are still wearing just one set of tires at a time. Nothing, NOTHING keeps you as safe as an aggressive snow tire. Do not be fooled by any other claim. Also, if you have a car that you think is terrible in the winter, and afraid to use it, be advised that tire traction is everything. I have a Celica which is a couple hundred pounds lighter than a Honda Civic. I can barely get the anti-lock to kick in on ice. Thus a car you may assume to have terrible winter performance has flawless winter performance. The performance is all in the tires.

  • zandor zandor Posts:

    Tire design in always a trade off. I strongly prefer having two sets of tires, but I don't like studless snow and ice tires on all cars. They give up too much dry and wet performance for my usual winter conditions. I live in Chicago, so we have snow on the roads just a few days a year. Streets & San plows away most of the snow and salt bombs anything that looks like a road, then traffic grinds the salt into what's left. Once the snow is out of the way I have to deal with the usual hazards - Chicago drivers and potholes. For me "performance" winter tires are a much better compromise than full on snow and ice tires.

  • nsbio1 nsbio1 Posts:

    Where would you keep the spare set of wheels and tires? It is not realistically possible unless you have an extra stall in a garage or a heated shed. Also, if you have a car, not a pickup truck or an SUV, how would you carry the spare wheels and tires with you from the tire shop. I would have liked to change tires seasonally, but I simply have no way of transporting them to and from the shop. And no, I am not willing to change tires myself.

  • thecardoc3 thecardoc3 Posts:

    They fit in the back seat, and/or the trunk especially if the rear seat folds down and opens the trunk to the passengers compartment. Now of course you take some risk getting some dirt, salt,, or what-ever into the car. To mitigate that have 30 gallon trash bags to put the tires and wheels into for carrying them to the shop and back home.

  • kyfdx kyfdx Posts:

    They fit in the back seat, and/or the trunk especially if the rear seat folds down and opens the trunk to the passengers compartment. Now of course you take some risk getting some dirt, salt,, or what-ever into the car. To mitigate that have 30 gallon trash bags to put the tires and wheels into for carrying them to the shop and back home.
    I have an '06 BMW coupe... I got a set of 17" tires/wheels, plus four more unmounted 17" tires in my car, on my last trip to the tire store. Not great for visibility and I had one tire that wanted to do the shifting for me, but other than that, no problem. It just takes practice. (only one tire will fit in my trunk.. so, 7 upfront.)

  • stever stever Posts:

    I used to have a set of mounted winter tires. I'd swap 'em myself and store them in my crawlspace. Big pain doing that twice a year and I don't miss it. Going to the tire shop to swap tires out, mounted or unmounted was a pain too, and often took several hours. If I had to do that now, I'd at least try to find a mobile tire service. Storage of the spare set is a hassle. My last stint in snow country I just got some "all-weather" tires (WR-G2s) and they did fine on my Subaru, and drove them year round. They didn't help the minivan in the snow all that much though, but were good in the rain.

  • kyfdx kyfdx Posts:

    The Nokian WR-G2 isn't exactly an all-season tire.. They have the snowflake symbol and qualify as winter tires for those areas where required. Great tires, though... I highly recommend them.

  • stever stever Posts:

    Nokian advertises them as "all weather" tires good for snowy and dry roads. I'm a bit surprised to see that there's even one dealer who sells them here in the high desert. And yeah, I really liked them too, even on the dry pavement.

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