Slip, Grip, and Jack Frost's Nip: A Snow Tire FAQ

Sam Smith

They're round, they're black, and they might just save your life. They're not just for truckers or ski bunnies, and they're not just for snow. Winter tires are one of the most misunderstood components you can buy for your car -- most people have no idea how useful, and how affordable, they really are. Herein, then, is a primer on new winter shoes.

Winter tires? What the heck are those?

Winter tires are exactly what they sound like: a special set of tires designed specifically to cope with low ambient temperature and snow- or ice-covered pavement. Purpose-built winter rubber trades warm-weather grip and dry-road steering feel for enhanced cold-weather traction. Sound boring? It's not. What we're talking about here is a piece of equipment that all but transforms the average passenger car into a take-no-prisoners snow machine.

The nitty gritty: Winter tires combine flexible rubber compounds with small tread blocks and hundreds of small cuts, or sipes, in tread itself. These blocks and cuts are designed to keep the tire's carcass constantly flexing and biting at the road surface, which in turn helps maximize grip on dynamic and unpredictable surfaces like snow or ice. (For this same reason, if you can keep them cool enough and get the pressures right, modern winter tires often work remarkably well on dirt and gravel roads.)

We'll use the phrases "snow tire" and "winter tire" interchangeably here, but remember: Unlike snow tires of yore, the rubber we're talking about is by no means single-purpose. These are tires that are designed to operate effectively and provide maximum cornering, acceleration, and braking traction in a wide range of winter conditions. The right winter rubber will not only make you safer on the road, it'll make winter driving less stressful and more entertaining.

Neat! But wait -- if these things are so great, why doesn't my car come with them from the factory?

Like most things grand and wonderful, winter tires aren't free. Many areas don't see enough winter precipitation to justify the cost of an extra set of tires, so vehicle manufacturers stick with less focused equipment, tires that are useful in most regions for most of the year, in order to keep prices down. Winter tires are also fairly specialized; because they're designed to provide the most traction when the going is cold and slippy, they don't work as well when the weather is warm and the pavement is grippy. Unless you live somewhere like Finland or Alaska, you're probably not going to see many new cars fitted from the factory with snow rubber.

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I love to defy conventional wisdom: I've had great luck with winter tires in the SNOW, but I now live in an ICE area. I've found that well-siped all-season radials do a good job on ice. But here's where conventional wisdom fails: I've found that, as with summer tires, good ICE traction comes from the WIDEST CONTACT PATCH. After doing some research I found some super-wide all-season tires that have far superior grip on ice than any winter tire I've ever used. Too bad Continental doesn't make them any more, after two years of hard driving they're beginning to lose the excellent grip I've been so proud of.Of course when it does snow, I'm out of luck...
Finally an excellent article on the benefits of winter tires... Especially for all the California folks and desert dwellers who have no clue what to do when snowflakes start falling. I'll tell you one thing though, fair weather-only drivers look at you like you're a maniac when you blow by them in an Evo on studded Hakapeliitas :)

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