Motor City Blogman: With Tires Like These, Who Needs a Snowboard?

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It was the E39 BMW M5. I worked for a different car magazine when we finally got one in the office, shortly before the 1999 Detroit auto show, if memory serves. The editor-in-chief couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel and drive it to his home in one of the Grosser Pointes, but a snowstorm began just before closing time, so he handed me the keys.

I lived less than a mile from the office, in an apartment building just off the Detroit River. I barely made it home on the M5’s summer tires.

Last Friday morning, I jumped in a BMW 328i M Sport for my 45-mile morning commute. The winter storm that hit southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois the previous day had made itself known in southeast Michigan. I was running a bit late, so I quietly cursed the car for being bereft of an ice scraper, but I got behind the wheel without looking at the tires. Defroster and bunwarmers were set at full blast. Before I reached Woodward Avenue, a few doors down from my house, I knew that this car didn’t even have all-season tires.

I pulled on to Woodward for a “Michigan Left” (a right turn and then a U-turn) before I could find the traction control button. There wasn’t much there, what with all the nannies on. I turned it off -- later settling in to the “dynamic” mode -- andit was clear that this was going to be a long, fun drive to work. In such very slick snow, traction control can bring the car to a virtual stop if the computer figures that neither rear tire is getting traction. I believe that traction control was off completely when I merged onto I-696 West. When I moved a lane over, the Bimmer got seriously sideways, but it was easily corrected. This is where a car’s feel and feedback come in handy. Before I had gone half a mile on the freeway, I could see nothing but brake lights, and a banked high-rise ramp several miles ahead might have put the car into the guardrail no matter what I did with the wheel. I jumped off the freeway and drove south to 8 Mile Road, then headed west.

Playing with the t/c switch, I found the Dynamic Mode, which slipped the drive wheels and let the tail slide liberally. I perhaps bumped the stability control limit in this mode once. Mostly, it was slow and steady going, but once I got out of the city and into the rural section of 8 Mile between Detroit and Ann Arbor, I had to worry more about the cars behind me -- each one that got too close was an SUV or a CUV, of course -- than curves, oncoming traffic, or the ditch. Standing starts from stoplights went like this: light but steady throttle, enough to slide the tail, usually to the right; dial in a bit of oppo; then lift slightly as it settled in. After I turned left in a controlled slide onto Pontiac Trail heading south, I came upon a couple of banked esses that I worried might put me into the ditch. The car slid laterally, but not enough to keep from saving it.

What’s usually a fifty-minute drive took more than ninety minutes, in part because I’m still not completely familiar with the surface roads between Detroit and Ann Arbor.

When I got to the office, I finally took a look at the 328i’s tires. Yep, there’s your problem: Bridgestone Potenza S001s.

Manufacturers, including BMW, equip all vehicles in the Metro Detroit press fleet with winter tires -- usually Bridgestone Blizzaks or Continental ContiCrossContacts --

this time of year. Road test editor Chris Nelson drove this Bimmer back from the East Coast last weekend, and somehow BMW missed this one. And we weren’t expecting this kind of storm in southeast Michigan. Before I left for work, my wife texted me a photo from behind the wheel of her Blizzak-shod Mazda Miata, which was behind another Miata on I-696, one that obviously also has winter tires.

Four- and all-wheel-drive automotive suppliers hate it when I say this, but those tires are far more important than which -- and how many -- wheels are driving your car forward. I’m loath to suggest the type of laws regarding seasonal tires that Germany imposes on its driving citizenry, although it probably says something about American drivers that most of us can’t be bothered to spend a thousand dollars or so on an extra set of wheels and tires. This is why German automakers don’t trust us with diesel urea after-treatment refills.

With all the premium brands emphasizing “luxury experiences” and going out of their way to make the dealership experience “special,” why is no one offering a winter tire package that folds in the wheels and tires with monthly payments? A local Audi dealer, on its own, offers such a swap and, for a fee, stores the off-season wheels/tires for its customers. At least, for the ones who understand that it takes more than Quattro to get you safely through a big winter storm like this.

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