I remember driving in eastern Pennsylvania one winter following my brother home on an hour-long trip. It had snowed earlier that morning, and by the time we got on the road the plows still hadn't reached the back roads we were on. I was driving a front-wheel drive Acura Integra with all-season tires while he had a 4WD Grand Cherokee with the proper tires for the road conditions. The idea was that he'd plow me a path to drive through as best as he could. We were just asking for something to go wrong.
Not even a half hour into the drive home, I came around a corner too fast, briefly lost control and steered myself right into the front yard of a farmhouse. Luckily I didn't hurt myself or anyone else, but that day I learned what it meant not to have proper traction for the road conditions.
Recently, I talked with Woody Rogers from The Tire Rack to learn about the differences between all-season tires and winter tires along with the basics to consider when purchasing a set of tires designed for the harsh winter conditions.
All-Season vs. Winter Tires
Rogers explained that all-season tires are a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. "All-season tires aren't really tuned for any one area, and suffer from not being optimum for any one area because it is compromised to be capable in all areas," he said. He explained that winter tires (they're just not for the snow) focus their attention on the exact conditions you'll most likely be facing during the winter season.
"They key of a true winter tire's capability is that you have a specialist, he said. "A product that is designed to work the best in the cooler winter season temperatures, say below 45 degrees, a tread pattern and tread compound that are designed to take bites out of the snow and work well on packed snow and ice; something that an all-season tired just isn't optimized to do."
He explained that today's winter tires have come a long way: "They go beyond the deep aggressive lug 'snow' tire that many of our parents put on the back of family station wagon." Rogers said today's winter tires are available for certain conditions or are ideal for a particular region of the county.
It's best to determine what conditions you'll be driving in and then determine the type of winter tire you will need. Rogers said it's a good idea to talk with a local retailer or do some personal investigating to choose which tire has the right characteristics for your location.
"The typical image [of a snow tire] is that very aggressive, knobby zig-zag tread pattern that isn't far removed from the farm implement tire or a piece of off road construction equipment tire," he said. "No longer is that loud knobby, gnarly off-road style tread pattern required to provide good traction on snow, slush and ice."
What to Look For When Buying
When looking for true winter tire, Rogers recommends using the Canadian and American Rubber Manufacturer's standard symbol of the snowflake-on-the-mountain. Only tires that are tested in packed snow and exceed other reference tires by 10% are given the industry standard symbol. The presence of that symbol is typically a good indication of a true winter tire. Some tires barely meet the requirement and still have the symbol. Rogers said it's best to look for dedicated winter tires in addition to looking for the snowflake symbol.
"The industry really intended that symbol to be a merit badge for true winter tires, not for a multi purpose or multi use tires like on-/off-road all terrain or highway all-season," he said. "I don't think we're going to see many more or many new non-winter tires coming out with the snowflake-on-the- mountain symbol." He said presently there's no comparison between a winter tire with the snowflake symbol and an-all season tire without one.
"The symbol doesn't distinguish between the two, not yet," he said. "The industry is talking about some type of grading scale. We're encouraging them to have multiple snowflakes or a 1-2-3 scale. Something that gives the consumer a real idea of how good a winter performer the tire really is."
Traction Control, All-Wheel Drive and SUVs
It seems as if there are more all-wheel drive cars and SUVs than ever, and even if you don't have those features, an increasing number of cars have some sort of traction control. So why the need for winter tires when our cars can do so much work for us? "The winter tire really helps you get the most out of those safety features that are built into your car," Rogers said. "These electronic systems are only as capable as the traction that's provided to them by the tires, because the tires are the only thing connected to the ground."
He said the all-wheel drive capability gives SUV owners driving on all-season tires a false sense of security. While they'll be able to accelerate better than 2WD vehicles in wintry conditions, they don't have an advantage when it comes to stopping or turning in those conditions. "Ultimately, how quickly you can stop or how sharply you can turn on the snow or on the ice is determined by the grip that your tires provide," Rogers noted.
Rogers uses snow tires on both his 2WD Toyota pickup and his Mini Cooper S and says that he can accelerate better with his two-wheel drive vehicles with snow tires than 4WD SUVs with all season tires. "And I know I can stop better than they can, and turn better than they can," he added.
Two Tires or Four?
Rogers recommends putting four winter tires on your vehicle, even if your vehicle is two-wheel drive. "Today's tires offer significant traction on snow and on ice, more than even good all season tires do," he said. "And, because of that, our testing has shown and the industry testing has shown that the mix of two winter tires and two all season tires is a very dangerous combination. It may seem like you are spending an extra few hundred dollars to buy two more tires, but I can assure you its less than the deductible on your insurance once you have a wreck."
He has a separate set of tires for most of his family cars so that he can change them over easily in his own garage before a snowstorm comes. If you're considering purchasing a set of winter tires and rims, Rogers said that Tire Rack and other retailers generally will do the tire and wheel mount and balance for no additional cost when you purchase certain packages.
"Once you drive in the snow on a modern winter tire, you'll never want to do anything else. I find that's it's much more like driving in the rain than driving in the snow," Rogers said. "I'm no longer clenching the wheel, holding on and hoping, I just drive around. The difference is stunning, when youre driving in 3-6 inches of snow and they haven't plowed the roads, you just go. And that's even in a two wheel drive vehicle," he said. "When you drive an all wheel drive or SUV with winter tires, it's virtually unstoppable."