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Snow Tires: Do I Really Need Them?

Fall is here and it's time to start thinking about preparing your vehicle for the winter season. 

To Snow Tire, or Not to Snow Tire?

Winter has already arrived in some parts of the county, and with it comes a decision: Do I need snow tires, or are my regular tires good enough? The answer depends on where you live and your travel plans, plus the condition and type of your current tires.

“If it’s cold enough to see your breath, it’s time to start thinking about winter tires,” says Justin Hayes, a product manager with Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations.

Deciding when to put your snow tires on is a bit of a balancing act, you don’t want to have them on too early, as you don’t want to give up any dry pavement performance. However, if you’ve seen the crowds at a tire shop when there’s snow in the forecast, you know that waiting too long can leave you unprepared for the weather.

But My Car Has All-season Tires

They’re called all-season tires, but experts will tell you that they should be called “all-but-one season” tires. All-season tires give you some inclement weather performance when they are fairly new, but they don’t have the technology or tread design necessary when the weather really gets rough.

All-season tires are really a compromise of several tire traits. They need to have good dry weather performance, have grip in the rain, be quiet enough that you can carry on a conversation with your passengers while you’re driving, and provide maximum fuel economy. Adding exceptional snow and ice performance simply asks too much of the tires.

If your car has summer tires or high-performance tires, you’ll definitely want to get winter tires if you’re going to head off into the snow. While performance tires are great in warm, dry weather, they simply don’t perform well in winter conditions. If you are even able to get a car with summer tires going in icy conditions, good luck getting it stopped.

“If your car is equipped with summer tires, we would recommend switching to a winter tire,” says Hayes. Bridgestone and others now produce lines of winter tires with sports cars and performance cars in mind.

How Are Snow Tires Different?

Winter tires are different than all-season or summer tires in a number of ways. The rubber compounds used in the part of the tire that contacts the road is formulated to stay flexible, even when the weather gets colder, to maximize grip. Tread designs are optimized for winter traction.

“If you look at winter tires, they’re typically more cut up than all-season tires to maximize snow traction,” says Hayes.

Extra slots and cuts into the tire surface called sipes provide edges that grab onto snow and hold it against the tire surface. Your best traction is achieved when snow on the tire sticks to snow on the ground, according to Hayes.

Tires like the Bridgestone Blizzak and some other studless winter tires use special tread compounds to provide maximum traction when driving in ice that has a thin film of water on its surface. The ice itself isn’t all that slippery, it’s the commonly found layer of water that makes it super-slick.

My SUV Has All-Wheel Drive. Why Add Snow Tires?

All-wheel drive or four-wheel drive systems do a great job of getting you moving in snowy or icy conditions, but we ask more of our tires than to just get going. Those four contact points with the road also have to steer us and stop us.

As SUVs and crossovers have become more refined than their truck-based predecessors, their tire designs have become more carlike to minimize noise and maximize efficiency. Unfortunately, the cost is winter performance. However, by adding a full set of winter tires, you can have the best of both worlds: the traction of all-wheel drive and the inclement weather performance and grip of winter tires.

The higher center of gravity and weight of SUVs and crossovers place particular requirements on their tires. Most tire makers produce lines of winter tires specifically designed for the class. 

What About Studded Snow Tires?

Before the advent of high-tech studless winter tires, most snow tires had a series of small studs embedded on their face. Studded snow tires are still available, though the damage that they do to non-snow-covered roads has forced most states to ban them or severely limit their use.

They still have a place for severe-duty applications, however, and many users swear by them as the best solution in unexpectedly icy conditions. Studded snow tires tend to be very noisy and can compromise wet weather vehicle performance.

Snow Tire Alternatives

If you choose to forgo snow tires, there are several alternative traction devices that you can use to gain grip when the going gets tough. Tire chains that fit over your stock tires are perhaps the best known of these tools, providing even more traction than winter tires.

In fact, even if you have winter tires on your car, in some cases you can still be required by local authorities to use tire chains. If you’re planning a trip into California’s high Sierras, for example, the California Highway Patrol can enforce a requirement that all vehicles, including those with winter tires or all-wheel drive, use chains when the weather is at its worst.

Chains can be a pain to install and remove, plus they can also break and damage your vehicle. Some car makers, including Subaru, don’t recommend that you use tire chains on your vehicle at all. If you have large wheels with low-profile tires, tire chains can damage the face of your wheels.

Easier to install, but much more expensive than tire chains, is a product developed in Europe called Spikes-Spiders. Before the weather gets bad, you install a disk on the hub of your vehicle. When you get to the bad roads, you then snap spiked arms to the pre-installed hub that reach over the tire tread.

Recently, a couple of manufacturers have introduced winter tire socks, which are fabric tubes that stretch over your tires to latch onto the snow and enhance your traction. 

Should I Buy Wheels for My Snow Tires?

You can spend a lot of money on large tire and wheel packages, but in winter driving conditions they can be damaged by gravel, road salt, and curbs that are hidden in the snow. If you buy an extra set of wheels for your winter tires there are several advantages.

First, if you have your tires mounted on a second set of rims, you’ll simply have to pull your normal tires off, and bolt your winter tires on, without the expense, time, and potential tire damage from repeatedly remounting tires on the rims. Rims prices can range from far less than $100 each for simple steel wheels to several hundred dollars apiece for complex alloy wheels.

Low-profile, high-performance winter tires can be significantly more expensive than other winter tires. Going to smaller-diameter wheels that fit your vehicle and tires with a taller sidewall can save you money, are less susceptible to road damage, and can potentially provide more traction than wide, low-profile designs. All other things being equal, narrower tires typically provide better snow traction than wider ones. You’ll lose some handling performance, but wintertime is generally not the time that most people push vehicle performance to the edge anyway.

Bridgestone’s Hayes suggests talking to your local authorized tire dealer to find out what your options are and to help sort out the pluses and minuses of each.

The Downside of Snow Tires

Of course, installing snow tires has some trade-offs. First, there are the costs of buying and installing the tires, plus the annual installation and removal. Winter tires, especially aggressive studded snow tires, typically reduce your fuel economy when compared to all-season tires.

Although there are some performance-oriented winter tires available, most winter tires don’t have as high of a speed rating as all-season or high-performance tires. That’s normally not a problem, as most people reserve their more spirited driving for the good weather months.

You’ll also want to pay attention to your tire wear. Many all-season tires are only snow-capable until they get a couple of millimeters into their tread wear. Similarly, some of the advanced tread compounds used on studless snow tires are only on the outer few millimeters of the tread. After they’re worn, they have standard rubber compounds below. Studded tires will start to lose their studs as they age.

In other words, you’ll want to protect your snow tire investment by putting them on only when the weather starts to get cold, and taking them off soon after the last storms of the season pass.

Other Considerations

You’ll want to check with your local authorities to see when you can – and when you must – use traction devices. In most cases, snow tires qualify as traction devices. Some states have outlawed the use of studded tires or limited the months that you can use them.

In many mountain areas, you are required to carry traction devices at all times.

As the weather gets colder, you need to pay attention to the pressure in your tires. According to Bridgestone, for every 10 degrees the temperature drops, you lose 1 pound of pressure in your tires. If your tires were fine when you checked them in 80-degree weather in Phoenix last September, for example, they could be down 6 PSI when you make the drive into the 20-degree weather around the Grand Canyon. 

Learn Winter Driving Skills

Winter tires simply expand the range of conditions in which you can retain traction, giving you control when other tires would lose grip. However, they are still reliant on the skill of the driver. Improper throttle application, braking, or steering can push any tire beyond its limits.

Would you drive onto a racetrack without any knowledge of how to drive at high speed? Probably not, but most drivers venture out into the snow without knowing car control skills or how to recover traction when things start to go bad.

Fortunately, there are many driving schools across the country that can teach car control by using low-friction surfaces to simulate slippery conditions, or SkidCars that can simulate a loss of traction by lifting any combination of the wheels so that grip is reduced. Prices for a car control class typically start at a few hundred dollars. Comprehensive multi-day winter driving courses can cost a few thousand dollars.

If you're thinking about getting snow tires for the coming seasons, give us a call today.


This article was originally published on U.S. News Best Cars