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.