Why You Need Winter Tires: Tips for Driving in Cold Weather

Did you put off thinking about winter tires until there’s a snowstorm bearing down? No problem. What you need to know can be digested in a couple of minutes. Winter tires, the tire-industry-preferred term for snow tires, make a significant difference in driving when it snows. Or when there’s snow on the ground, or slush, or ice.

If a set of winter tires costs $ 500 and your collision damage deductible is $ 500, a set of tires and wheels doesn’t cost anything if you save yourself from an accident. Here’s more on what to know, based on a half-dozen treks to winter driving schools and dozens of new car tests in snowy, icy, and muddy conditions (some of which weren’t what the automaker intended). Note: Some of our recommendations seem to cost more. There’s a reason.

The Basics on Winter Tires

Most mainstream cars come with all-season tires, and they’re every bit as effective as a single-piece bathing suit for surfing, competitive swimming, and showing off (or hiding) your body: There are compromises. They do reasonably well in snow, and less so going up or downhill, or braking hard, or maintaining grip if you go around a corner too fast.

Performance cars often come with high-performance tires, also called summer tires. The rubber is designed to be soft at summer temperatures. The same rubber gets hard, too hard to maintain grip, at 40 degrees and below. If your car came with a special performance tire and wheel package, you may have summer tires. You need a second set of tires for the colder months, all least all-season tires. It’s unsafe to drive on summer tires at below-freezing temperatures.

Winter tires, or snow tires, are designed for cold as well as snow. A winter tire is made from a softer rubber compound that retains grip in below-freezing weather. It also has a more aggressive tread. You don’t need a tire with huge, chunky treads to grip the snow. If they’re not studded, they can even be used year-round, but they wear much more quickly in the summer.

Buy a Minus-One Wheels-and-Tires Package

It’s possible to have snow tires mounted on your existing set of wheels (rims) in fall, and then reinstall the regular tires in spring. But after three or so years, the cost to unmount and remount may be more than the cost of buying a second set of wheels. Even if you have aluminum alloy wheels, inexpensive steel wheels are fine for the snow tires.

The aspect ratio (50, 60, 70, etcetera) is the height of the tire (gray) divided by the width. 70 series tires withstand potholes better than 50 or 60.

So many cars come with low-profile tire/wheel sets now (55 series or lower) that the risk of pothole damage is great. If this describes your car, you should consider buying winter tire-wheel combos in a smaller wheel size with higher-profile tires that keep the rolling diameter the same. You find this on a tire specs chart that cites a tire’s revolutions per wheel.

Here’s how it works: The most common tire size on the road today on a new car is P215/60R-16: a passenger car tire (P) that is 60 percent as tall as the tire is wide (the aspect ratio); it’s 215mm wide, a radial tire (R) and mounted on a 16-inch-diameter wheel. It makes about 800 revolutions per mile.

The same car would probably work fine with a 15-inch road wheel and a tire aspect ratio that increases 10 points to 70 series. So the tire you’re buying would be P215/70R-15. This is called going minus-one, or down one wheel size. You could also go minus-two with a P225 (or 220)/R75 or R80. Your shop needs to check fitment notes to make sure the brake calipers (red in the photo below) and rotors will clear the new wheel. There’s almost always room to go minus-one.

Miscellaneous Winter Driving Tips

Always buy four winter tires. Always, always, always. I’ve driven a car with two winter and two summer tires and handling is squirrelly. If you cheap out anyway, remember that the winter tires always go on the back. Even if you have front-drive. Why? The end with snow tires grips better and the back end might swing around.

Buy a couple gallons of windshield washer fluid now. Refill the washer fluid bottle (usually milky white plastic) now and every time you fill up. Don’t confuse the radiator cap (with scalding hot water inside) or engine oil filler cap with the washer fluid cap. The color of the washer fluid isn’t an indicator of freeze resistance.

Carry a snow brush, snow scraper, and maybe a kitchen broom with soft bristles in high-snow areas.

The winter handling of a Ford Mustang improves immeasurably with 50 or 100 pounds of sand (still in the bags, okay?) in the trunk. Or any car with rear drive.

If you’re moved to buy a new car, get it with all-wheel-drive, heated seats, heated outside mirrors, a rear camera washer (very few have this) and — a true blessing — heated steering wheel, if it’s available. If you’re in an accident, onboard telematics automatically calls for help. If that accident makes a three hour trip to grandma’s house take five, telematics with Wi-Fi works well to keep the back-seaters happy.

Every car has anti-lock brakes and automatic stability control. No matter how hard you panic-brake, you won’t skid off the road unless the car’s mass was already committed in that direction.

In winter, safety assists such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, emergency auto braking, and auto high beams won’t work unless you hop out and clean the sensors. The windshield wipers clear the camera controlling lane departure warning and forward collision warning/braking. I have found the electronics will see the snow-obscured lane markers better, in some cases, than your eyes will.

Replace your wiper blades once a year. Sunlight and air pollution make them lose effectiveness. (Tires are good for 6-8 years, tops, and need to be replaced after that no matter how much tread is left, especially if this is your main car.)

Keep a flashlight with lithium single-use batteries in the car (unused, the flashlight will work in 2030), gloves, a safety vest, and a blanket in case you’re stranded.

There is no cure for stupid. Watch your speed. Or better, stay home until the roads are plowed.

If you have a snow blower, feed it ethanol-free gas (good look finding it) or canned ethanol-free fuel (such as TruFuel) in home improvement centers or garden shops ($ 20 a gallon!). If you use gasoline, use the lowest ethanol concentration a gas station has, typically E10 (10 percent ethanol), which may be on the premium fuel. With other gasoline types, mix fuel stabilizer into the gas can; Stabil is one brand name.

If you’re storing a summer car, it too should be stored with ethanol-free fuel or with fuel stabilizer added. If you’re adding it now in mid-winter, run the engine for 5-10 minutes to mix it through the tank and fuel lines.

In the spring, lose the winter tires when you’re sure it won’t snow again, probably in April. Winter tires wear out something like twice as fast as regular tires in warm weather.

Taking My Own Advice

The last-mile problem: 200 feet of vertical over one mile.

I have a classic rear-drive BMW sports sedan almost ready for classic car plates. It has always had summer or all-season tires, and it wasn’t a daily driver in winter since we had an aging minivan for local commutes. When I upgraded wheels and tires two years ago, I opted for the same winter tire size as the summers, P215/60-R16, using Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 tires. A 60-series wheel isn’t in danger from pothole damage the way 30- to 55-series wheels are. At the same time, we moved from a gently sloped suburban-road home to one where the street to our house climbs 200-plus feet of vertical in little over one twisting mile. The difference in hill-climbing and confidence is exceptional.

We added a compact Mazda SUV a year ago with all-season tires. It was quite good, but not great, in its first year in the snow on our hill. It’s getting winter tires this year, probably down two wheel/tire sizes from stock P225/55-R19 to P225/65-R17, maybe even P225/70-R16. We also have a Lincoln MKT (hey, we like variety) with all-season tires that are fine for a car parked most of the winter.

Note that if you check tire reviews, sometimes they are based on tires available 12 to 18 months ago. In some cases, the recommended tires may have been superseded by a more advanced model. Consumer Reports’ (paywall) most recent ratings of winter tires have models recommended from Cooper, Hankook, Continental, Michelin, and Nokian, and performance winter tires recommended from Yokohama, Michelin, Bridgestone, and Hankook.

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