Car Buying

Winter Tires Really Do Improve Handling and Traction on Snow and Ice

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author photo by Russ Heaps October 2016

If you're a carpenter, plumber, mechanic or dentist, the right tool for the job was drummed into your head during your training. Not only does the right tool produce better results, it makes the task easier. It's the same with your car's tires. There are huge differences between winter tires, all-season tires and summer tires. The more severe a particular season in the region where you drive, the more important it is to have a tire engineered specifically for that season, be it summer or winter.

Many drivers don't put much thought into their tires until one of them goes flat or the tires become so worn that the cords begin to show through the rubber. When it comes time to replace one or all four tires, any round, black hunk of rubber will do, right? Wrong.

All tires are not created equal, and I'm not talking about name-brand tires versus cheap knockoffs. There's more than just a difference in price between, let's say, Michelin and Brand X. I'm assuming you understand that cheap tires can kill you and yours. Unlike handbags and watches, where knockoffs are common, tires aren't accessories. They're a core element determining how your vehicle performs. Some experts argue tires are the most critical piece of performance/safety equipment on a car.

There's a reason why when speaking about translating theory into real-world practice, you hear the phrase: Where the rubber meets the road. Tires can maximize or minimize your vehicle's ability to accelerate, steer and brake. Your car's only contact with the pavement is the small portion of each tire touching the road at any given moment. Having the right tires for winter isn't just important, it's critical.

Compounding the Issue

You probably don't give much thought to the composition of your car's tires; I can't say I've lost much sleep over it myself. Again, a tire is a tire, right? The fact is, though, a quality winter tire is made from a much different compound than a summer tire, or an all-season tire, for that matter. The ideal tire compound for winter driving is one that remains flexible in sub-freezing temperatures but still provides a natural resistance to sliding on ice.

At a recent event at an ice rink, the online tire-and-wheel retailer Tire Rack provided a telling demonstration of just how important tire compounds are when driving on ice. Using hockey pucks made with the same Michelin compounds found in either its summer, all-season or winter tires, we were challenged to push a puck of each compound down the ice. The summer puck skidded nearly out of sight, while the all-season puck traveled about half as far. The winter-compound puck went less than half as far as the all-season one.

The differences in distance were startling. Tire composition alone makes a huge difference in maintaining control on ice, which is why four winter tires are more effective than two. It's as much about stopping as it is going.

Sipes and Micro-Pumps

Another key ingredient providing grip on ice and snow is the tread design. Other than racing slicks, every tire, no matter its intended use, has a tread composed of grooves, blocks, little zigzag impressions called sipes and tiny depressions known as micro-pumps.

In a winter tire, each tread feature provides some function to increase grip while pushing the water from melted snow and ice off to the sides of the tire and away from the tread. The size, number and arrangement of all the tread features determine just how effective a winter tire will be in performing its two key functions.

Comparing the tread of a good winter tire to a good summer tire shows a clearly different arrangement of all the tire elements.

Who Needs Winter Tires?

Anyone living in a region where temperatures drop consistently below 44 degrees or that receives more than a couple feet of snow each winter season will benefit from tires specifically engineered for winter.

What it means to you: Although buying a set of tires that you might only need four or five months each year might seem an expense you can skip, avoiding even one fender bender could more than cover the price.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Winter Tires Really Do Improve Handling and Traction on Snow and Ice - Autotrader