You still need winter tires in the northern half of the US. That’s true even though nine in 10 cars sold here today are either front-drive or all-wheel-drive/four-wheel-drive. Even those can be challenged by snow, ice, or nothing more than below-freezing weather.
The best solution is to fit a set of four winter tires, which is another name for snow tires, on all four wheels, during the four to six coldest months of the year. Take a look at our slideshow of the car types and why they could use winter tires, starting with cars with high-performance tires. The first three really need winter tires.
Why’re They’re Called Winter Tires Now
“Snow tire” means a tire for use in snow. You kind of figure such a tire is good in ice and slush (correct.) But there’s a need for snow tires in winter even on clear pavement, which is why the industry is rebranding snow tires as winter tires.
An increasing number of cars are sold with low-profile summer or performance tires, often with larger, costlier, and more easily damaged alloy wheels. The rubber compound on those tires gets hard around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Traction, cornering, and braking become compromised even on snow-free roads.
Tips for Buying Winter Tires: 4 Not 2 Plus a Second Set of Rims
You need four winter tires, not two. If you really must cheap out and go with two, they always go on the back. Always. Even if you have a front-wheel-drive car. Here’s the science: Winter tires grip better than all-season or summer tires in the cold. If you put the winter tires in front, you’ll accelerate better with a front-drive car. But let’s say you then slam on the brakes, or take a slushy corner a little too fast. The front of the car sticks to the road and the back end doesn’t. Stability control and ABS may bail you out. If they don’t, the back end breaks loose and the car spins — all because you were too cheap to buy four winter tires.
The best way: Buy a second set of wheels (rims) at the same time. They can be steel or aluminum alloy; both are fine. By the second season, the cost of removing, remounting, and balancing is more than cost of a second set of affordable wheels.
If you have low-profile original equipment tires, anything 50 series or less, consider going to a wheel size one or two inches smaller and matching the tire’s overall diameter top to bottom (including the hole in the middle). Say you now have a 225/50R17 tire. The tire is 225mm (8.9 inches) wide at its widest point (sidewall to sidewall), the tire cross-section or aspect ratio is 50 percent as high as it is wide (the lower the number, the wider the tire), the tire is 25.9 inches top to bottom, it rides on 17-inch wheels, and revolves 804 times per mile.
A narrower tire does a better job in snow. As a rule of thumb, for winter tires you can reduce the width 10mm, increase the aspect ratio 10 percentage points, and get a wheel one inch smaller — in this case 215/60R16. This is called Minus One sizing. You can also go Minus Two, to 205/70R15, if the smaller wheel still fits over the brakes. All that matters is the number of revolutions per mile remains within 1-2 percent. If this is confusing, any tire dealer, car dealer service department, or online seller knows this cold. So to speak.
Any tire that meets the industry definition of a winter or snow tire will have a mountain and snowflake symbol on the sidewall.
Most tire makers sell winter tires as well: Bridgestone, Continental, Cooper, Dunlop, Firestone, General, Goodrich, Goodyear, Hankook, Kumho, Michelin, Nitto, Pirelli, Sumitomo, Toyo, Uniroyal, and Vredestein. There are also some makers known most for winter tires, such as Falken and Nokian.
A handful of winter tires are still studded. These are for severe conditions, mostly on ice. The improvements in compounding of winter tires, plus restrictions on when studded tires can be used, make them less popular than a generation ago. On dry pavement, the noise is significant.
The cost of the tire varies based on quality, the ability to drive at high speeds on dry roads, and current sales promotions. If you don’t need the tires today, you can shop online and get a package of tires and wheels, mounted and balanced, and delivered in 2-3 days to your house or to a nearby service shop that has a deal to do the installation. Before you stick the summer tires in the garage, clean off the grime and spray the rubber with a protective spray such as Armor All. If you live in a condo or apartment, some dealers will store your out-of-season tires for a fee.
Another good idea: Keep up with changing technology. It’s possible all-season tires in the future will be formulated to give decent performance in both summer and winter, even in moderate-snow states.
Personal Experience: Old BMW Now Goes in Snow
In 2000, I bought what Consumer Reports said was the best car it ever tested (at the time), a rear-drive BMW 528i with navigation (4-inch screen). We lived in a New Jersey town with relatively little terrain change and I got by on all-season tires. On snowy days, we left the Bimmer parked. When we moved to a hilly town on a ridge-line street that gains 200 feet of elevation in the mile from the town center to our driveway (and a view of southern Manhattan), it was time for winter tires.
Knowing the rules above, I wound up adapting them. The summer tires were 225/55R16. Because of concerns about brake clearance, I stayed with 16-inch wheels and chose a set of well-regarded 215/60R16 Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 tires, about $ 110 a pop in that size, which have about the same rolling diameter. All these details are things the tire-seller will work out with you. I wanted steel wheels to save on cost, but quality BMW steel wheels were about $ 100 apiece and quality German-made alloys (Rial) with a five-star spoke design, non-BMW, were $ 110 apiece. So I went with the alloys.
The improvements in snow driving were significant: A car that spun its tires helplessly at the base of the hill now climbed it with no issues and without needing to add any weight over the rear wheels. Subjectively, it was better than our aging Honda Odyssey front-drive minivan with all-season tires. In my case, the choice was to buy winter tires or park the car for the winter. We now feel equally comfortable driving the Bimmer in winter as we do an all-wheel drive crossover yet to be outfitted for winter. The winter tires/wheels will come off in mid- to late-March, when I’m pretty sure there’s no more snow in store, since winter tires do wear at a faster rate in warm weather.
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