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

November 4, 2009
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.
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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.
My tires say "all-season" on them. Doesn't that mean anything?
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Sure, but it's not really going to do much when the snow starts to fly. These days, most new cars are fitted with all-season radials -- tires that are designed to do most things well but few things superbly. By sacrificing a bit of warm-weather performance, they gain a small amount of cold-weather talent. Think of it as the difference between a band-aid and a tourniquet -- the band-aid can help if things aren't too serious, but it's not going to save your life. The best all-seasons can limp you through a mild winter, but they pale in comparison to purpose-built snow-and-ice rubber.
Want some perspective? According to The Tire Rack, one of America's largest tire and wheel outlets and a respected tire tester, winter tires can provide up to twenty-one percent more traction than all-season tires in similar conditions. That's nothing to sneeze at.
Hey! I've got a four-wheel drive truck! I spent last winter hauling yokels out of ditches with my F-950, brute strength, and bare American hands! I don't need this junk!
As my smart-aleck Jewish grandmother used to say, "sure you don't." Four driven wheels can help you accelerate in slippery conditions, and most all-wheel-drive systems can instill a surprising amount of confidence in the average driver. What they can't do is defy the laws of physics. All-wheel drive rarely provides a useful cornering or braking advantage for the average person. In addition, because most four-wheel-drive vehicles weigh more than their two-wheel-drive brethren, they ask more of their tires when it comes to turning or stopping. Your F-950's weight and ground clearance may have kept you from harm's way and let you play good samaritan, but imagine where you could go with a little extra traction. (Monster truck with snows on it? May we suggest the North Pole?)
Hey! I've got electronic stability control! I spent last winter driving around on rubber balder than a crazy Britney Spears and I never went off the road once! I don't need this junk!
First off, Crazy Britney was pretty dang bald, so you either got really lucky or you barely left the house. Second, while electronic stability programs (ESP) are wonderful, lifesaving devices, they can't work the impossible. Like four-wheel drive, ESP is entirely dependent on your tires -- it merely maximizes the traction of the rubber you have. It can't magically add extra grip.
Hey! I'm broke! I can barely keep my car on the road, much less spring for a second set of special winter tires! I can't afford this junk!
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Fair enough, but consider this: You may not think you can afford winter tires, but can you afford to fix your car after you stuff it into a snow-filled ditch? How about the hospital bills after you slide into the back of a parked bus? (Remember, grip is grip, whether you're trying to get moving or trying to stop.) Winter tires are relatively cheap insurance, and compared to what you get for the price -- massively improved vehicle performance for anywhere from two to six months out of the year - -they're a literal bargain.
Specifics? Prices vary with tire quality, but figure on spending between $120 and $400 for a set for the average passenger car. If that seems like a lot, remember that you're likely to get several seasons of use out of even the lowliest winter rubber. On top of that, every mile you drive on your white-weather tires is a mile that you're not driving on your summer boots. It's almost like money in the bank!
My name is Petter Eriksson Grönholm McRae. I'm an aspiring rally racer and amateur drifter. I've nicknamed my neighborhood streets "Special Stage Zero" and I use the winter months as practice. If I can drive my way out of anything, why in blazes would I want my car to slide less?
Hold on a second, hotshoe. Think you've got the stuff to make it in the WRC? Great. Wanna get all slideways on public streets despite the fact that it'll terrify the locals and get you in trouble with Johnny Law? Please don't. If you want to try this stuff on a closed course, however, then read on: Despite your massive talent, you're still going to need traction, control, and the ability to claw out of the occasional snow bank. (Never made a mistake while drifting? Don't worry -- you will.)
The dirty little secret of winter driving -- what the cops won't tell you and what your driver's ed instructor was too smart to mention -- is that it's fun. Big fun. Few things are more entertaining than pitching a car sideways and adjusting its attitude with a crafty combination of steering angle and throttle. Laymen label this kind of driving "fishtailing." Racing drivers call it "oversteer." The teenage kid down the block just thinks it's hella awesome.
While it may seem like such hoonery would benefit from a lack of grip, the opposite is true. No matter what you're driving -- two- or four-wheel drive, big horsepower or little -- there's never a shortage of slip on snow. Ordinary tires just make controlling the car more difficult. Because they offer less traction for braking, steering, and accelerating, they limit your ability to drive out of a problem; because they make a car's at-the-limit snow handling more dicey, they can increase risk and hamper the entertainment. (If you're afraid of going too fast for safety, don't worry -- even the best winter tires on the planet will let you slide at relatively tame speeds.) All things considered, good snow tires are likely to help your car control, not hinder it.
DISCLAIMER: Automobile Magazine does not condone or encourage reckless driving. If you're going to drive like a jackass, the responsibility for your actions is yours and yours alone. The above advice is meant for use on a closed course with appropriate safety measures. If you feel the need to get drifty, please do it far away from civilization. We have families, and we don't want to die just because you're a moron.
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This is all well and good, but I still don't need these things for every vehicle in the house. My wife/husband/son/daughter is the only one who drives our second car, and he/she is the most reserved driver on the planet.
Great! Winter tires are perfect for cautious, reserved drivers. Aunt Edna afraid of the slip-'n'-slide? Want to give your 16-year-old daughter more confidence on the road and grant yourself some peace of mind? Because winter rubber offers additional cold-weather grip regardless of road conditions, it's like buying extra insurance. Ideally, you should have snow tires on every regularly driven car you own, but if you can only afford one set, give it to the people you care about most.
OK, you've got me convinced -- what now?
Good call. You have several decisions to make. First, you have to decide which type of winter tire makes the most sense for you. While branding and tire compounds vary between manufacturers, there are three basic approaches to winter grip:
Performance Winter (Mild): The type of tire that will carry you from early fall to deep spring. Best suited for long-term use and areas of the country that see little precipitation but huge temperature swings. Usually trades some deep snow and ice grip for dry and wet grip and a higher speed rating.
Studless Ice and Snow (Aggressive): The middle of the road, and the best option for most people in the rust belt. Best installed when the nights get below freezing and removed when the frost stops. These tires offer maximum unstudded snow and ice grip but sacrifice some dry-road handling and high-speed stability for winter performance.
Studdable Snow (Hard-core): These are the big dogs. These tires are designed to accept optional metal studs that enhance traction by literally digging into ice and packed snow. Low noise and ride comfort are traded for maximum -- and we mean maximum -- attack. (If you go to an ice autocross and see a car cornering on two wheels, then that guy's on studs.) In the right situation, studded tires can provide eye-watering grip, but they're not legal in all areas, so check your local ordinances.
While you're considering those options, also consider what your area is like from October to April. Many winter tires are targeted toward a certain type of performance -- grip on packed snow, grip on ice, grip that can last you into the warmer months, etc. (If you don't get a lot of winter precipitation but just want something happy in cold weather, there are tires for that, too.)
Feel a bit overwhelmed? Don't worry. Chances are, your needs are fairly simple. Most of the nation's better tire shops, dealerships, and wholesalers can help you make an educated choice as to what kind of tire will be right for you and yours. If you need a place to start, we suggest direct-buy wholesale house The Tire Rack ( The staff there is friendly and well-informed, shipping is remarkably quick, and the company performs its tire-testing in-house.
I don't have all-wheel drive. Do I need four winter tires? Can't I get by with winter rubber on my two driven wheels?
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Yes, you need four winter tires. We cannot say this enough: YOU NEED FOUR WINTER TIRES. YOU NEED FOUR WINTER TIRES.
Driving around with half a car's worth of snow rubber is like going to work without any underwear on -- it probably won't bite you, but that doesn't mean that it's not risky. Your car's suspension is a finely tuned instrument, and its handling balance depends on a number of things, not the least of which is the type and size of tire that you use. Mixing and matching tires can alter that balance in unpredictable ways, leaving you with a number of undesirable outcomes. At best, you'll have a car that is slow and difficult to drive; at worst, your vehicle will be grossly unsafe and prone to pitching you into the weeds at the slightest provocation.
Why should I buy tires now? Why not just wait until the first snow?
The early bird gets the worm. Better safe than sorry. A penny today, a pound tomorrow. Clichés exist for a reason, and tire manufacturers don't exist to cater to your every whim. Most tire companies spit out a handful of winter-tire production runs at the end of summer, and those stocks are intended to last consumers through the entire winter season. Because demand usually increases as the season progresses, the best deals on -- and the best selection of -- snow tires can usually be found long before the first snowfall. It's not uncommon for popular brands to sell out long before spring arrives. Buy, and install, early. (Few things are worse than being stuck by the side of the road in the season's first blizzard with your snow tires safe at home.)
How long will a set of winter tires last?
Winter tires are like any other replaceable component on your car -- their lifespan is directly related to the quality of the product that you buy and the type of use that it sees. Rubber softness, UV exposure, tire construction, and vehicle weight all figure into the equation. And because winter tires are usually designed to work best within a narrow temperature window, their durability is often drastically reduced when they're operated outside that window.
In other words, what you get out of a winter tire has a lot to do with what you put into it. Buy a super-soft Finnish ice tire and drive it year-round? You'll be lucky to see two winters out if it. Throw your expensive Bridgestone Blizzaks into the back yard for the kids to play with and the sun to bake all summer? Ditto. But if you store your winter tires properly (indoors, away from light and heat) and limit them to winter use only, then several seasons of safe driving isn't unheard of.
That said, there is one caveat: Unlike most summer tires, which actually become grippier in the dry as they wear, winter tires require tread depth to work. The average snow tire produces its maximum traction on snow and ice when it's brand-new. There's no hard and fast rule, but once a tire reaches 6/32" of tread depth, it's probably due to be replaced. You can still benefit from the tire's softer compound and winter-oriented construction -- in other words, a snow tire at 4/32" is better than an all-season or summer tire at 4/32" -- but there's no sense in purposely handicapping yourself. Remember, too, that most tire manufacturers design their winter tires so that the rubber gets harder as the tire wears down; this feature helps dry-road longevity but ultimately hampers winter traction as the tire ages.
Do I need a separate set of wheels?
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Strictly speaking, no, but there's a catch. Most dealerships and tire shops will swap tires on the same set of wheels for a minor (often less than $100) charge, but regular swapping can grow tedious. And if you use the wheels your car came with, you'll find yourself limited to stock tire widths. (Unlike dry-weather performance tires, winter tires work better in narrow sizes; the narrower the tire, the more efficiently it cuts through packed snow.)
For these reasons, it's often best -- and when you factor in the cost of repated tire swapping, cheapest - to buy a separate set of narrow, winter-only wheels. These don't have to be costly; inexpensive steel wheels can often be found at your vehicle's dealer. And if you're handy with a lug wrench, keeping your winter tires on a spare set of wheels allows you to change from winter to summer rubber at home for free.
C'mon, I can get by without this stuff, right? Isn't this just a bunch of hokum paid for by the tire companies in an effort to sell me stuff I don't really need?
Your call, Bunky. All we're saying is that it's better to be the guy in control than the guy in the ditch. But then, we like driving -- anywhere, any time, and under any conditions. Maybe you like ditches?


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