Snow Sneakers: The Best Equipment Investment Is For Your Car

Winter driving can be both fun AND safe with the right tires (Tire Rack photo)

Winter driving can be both fun AND safe with the right tires (Tire Rack photo)

One of the best things about Eastern skiing is that it’s close to home:  within a few hours driving time for most of us.  Odds are that you’re  going to be making trip to the mountains in your own vehicle.  You look out the window, see snow falling, and start frothing at the mouth.  Assuming that some overeager policeman doesn’t shoot you, thinking that you have rabies, you’ll be on your way as soon as you can!  The problem, though, is that the trip is the dangerous part.  Ideally, you’ve already prepared yourself and your car for an emergency.  But…how to avoid that emergency?  Ah, grasshopper, THAT is the secret of life!

Okay, I can’t solve that problem entirely.  But, there’s a step-by step approach to safety, starting with an emergency kit (for more on that, go here)Now it’s time to talk about the rubber meeting the road…literally.  There’s no more arcane or misunderstood part of vehicle safety and control than tires.  I was lucky (so I claim) to grow up in Vermont on top of a very steep hill on a dirt road.  Back then, the best snow tire available was something called a “sandpaper retread”…yup, let’s throw a handful of sand into the bubbling vat of rubber and call it good.  “Good”, it wasn’t.  They were terrible.  On the other hand, I stayed in good shape since I walked up that miserable mountain anytime it snowed, so I guess that’s a bonus.  But that experience definitely made me VERY interested in snow tire technology as it evolved, and having a job for 9 years where I drove 50,000 miles every year in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, snow or no snow, made it a necessity for me to keep up on what would keep me moving in lousy weather.  Combine that need, my natural tendency to be a nerd, some really good and smart mechanics at the shop my car was worked on at, and the wonderful information available through Tire Rack, and it became easy to sort through all of the misinformation out there.

What’s wrong with my all-season radials, anyway???

Forget the “wisdom” you’ve heard from friends and the salesman who sold you your vehicle, claiming that all-season radials are a good year-round choice.  They aren’t.  They’re a compromise that works for the car manufacturers, and works in some areas of the country that see a little snow once in a while, but NOT in snow country.

First, why do car manufacturers put them on as OEM tires?  Okay, think like an manufacturer for a moment.  You don’t want to have to try to figure out what car is headed where in the country, and stock tires for all the possible needs.  Sure, some summer tires are fine, but better to use all-season…that way, if a dealer ships to another dealer, the car still works fine.  Snow tires not only give a somewhat rougher ride, but they don’t last as long…and the manufacturer doesn’t want to give the customer any reason to be unhappy while the vehicle is still under warranty!  Now, if they really cared, they’d put summer tires on EVERYTHING, and offer a really great deal to people in the north country along with a warning that the car isn’t safe in snow and ice without snow tires.  That would make sense, right?

Hmm.

Go ahead, find a manufacturer who will put anything on their car suggesting that it might not be save in any and all conditions.  While it would be the right thing to do, it wouldn’t be smart.  Some idiot (oh, wait, they keep telling me not to use that word…um…”common-sense challenged”) wouldn’t pay attention to the warnings, would find the kind of attorney that gives the rest a bad name, sue the manufacturer, collect an insane judgment, and force car prices up for all of us.  Rats.

Looks like we’re back to you fending for yourself.

The Bridgestone Turanza is a popular all-season tire.  It LOOKS pretty agressive...but in snow, it's a 98 pound weakling (Tire Rack photo)

The Bridgestone Turanza is a popular all-season tire. It LOOKS beefy and agressive...but in snow, it's a 98 pound weakling. (Tire Rack photo)

So, why aren’t all-season radials a good choice?  What’s actually wrong with them?  Well, every tire has tradeoffs.  Racing slicks are great if you’re on a racecourse, but they’re horrible in rain and on the pockmarked road, it feels like you’re riding on concrete blocks because of the low, stiff sidewalls.  Passenger car summer tires are quiet and comfortable, but put them on your top-heavy SUV, and you’ll be looking at the world upside down after taking your first offramp on those soft sidewall tires.  All-season tires are the ultimate compromise; they work OK on dry pavement, and have wide channels to push water away and avoid hydroplaning.  Unfortunately, this means that they compromise dry pavement grip AND snow performance.  They’re made of a nice, hard rubber compound for longer tire life, but because of that they really stiffen up in the cold.  Soft rubber compounds provide better traction on ice and cold, hard roads.  Real snow tires have dedicated rubber compounds (often called “hydrophilic) that are meant to grip that nasty cold stuff.

Go out to your garage now and look at your all-season radials.  They look  pretty good…nice and wide, with a short sidewall.  Pretty meaty and agressive looking…not race tires, but they’ve still got an attitude.  Problem is, that configuration is good for dry roads but the worst possible for snow and ice!  A good snow tire is the exact opposite:  narrow, with a tall sidewall.  That narrow tire bites into the snow better and helps on ice, too.  Think about wearing skates vs. sneakers on a skating rink.  Which provides you with more control?  Yup, you’ve got it.  Good snow tires don’t just have a different shape…they also have a different tread pattern, one that’s designed to clear the snow and slush out of the treads so that they don’t pack up and turn into de facto racing slicks.  If you really don’t believe what a difference that makes, check out the videos on this Tire Rack winter vs. all-season test.  Pay particular attention to the “Testing on Ice” video, and let me know if you can watch the red car sliding at you without wincing or ducking!

Here's the real thing.  The Bridgestone Blizzak has both a more agressive tread designed for grip in snow, but also has a soft tread compound that sticks to ice, helping you with acceleration, cornering, and most important, BRAKING. (Tire Rack photo)

Here's the real thing. The Bridgestone Blizzak has both a more agressive tread designed for grip in snow, but also has a soft tread compound that sticks to ice, helping you with acceleration, cornering, and most important, BRAKING. (Tire Rack photo)

One more thing.  A salesman might tell you that because you have a rear-wheel drive vehicle, you only need snow tires on the back.  Wrong.  When you put on your brakes, up to 70 percent of your braking power is in the front, and you want those tires to grip when you need them the most.  Front wheel drive?  It’s even worse…put snow tires on the front, drive happily down the road, take a corner, and feel your car swapping ends.  Trust me, that is NOT fun…I did it once back in the 80s in my boss’ car.  I managed to bring it back in one piece, but my hands still shake when I remember how that felt!  Whatever you have, have all 4 tires be the same.

But if I put tall, narrow tires on my SUV, won’t it sit high up in the air like “Bigfoot”?

To paraphrase W.C Fields, “monster trucks are like elephants; I like to look at them, but I wouldn’t want to own one.”  Yes, if you get a wicked big and tall tire and stick it on your Escalade, it’ll look stupid and you won’t be able to crawl up into the thing.  Here’s the dirty little secret of snow tires…if you want to get the best results, buy a tire/wheel package.  Okay, I’m ducking now to avoid the things being thrown at me…”you want me to spend how much for a wheel and tire package???”  Look, it’s really not as bad as it sounds.  First, snow tires typically cost significantly less than summer tires…so, as you spend the winter driving safely, you’re saving money there.  Second, you save the cost of every year swapping tires off the rims.  Third, rims aren’t as expensive as you might think.  Fourth, think about the last time winter came and you looked at your, um, all-season radials, noticed the sort of marginal tread on them, and threw them out so you’d have some new tires with better tread for winter.  Yup, you wasted some significant money there.  Bizarrely enough, it can be cheaper in the long run for you to have a dedicated snow tire/wheel package.  If you’re handy or have a relative who’s a mechanic, have them come over at Thanksgiving and swap your wheels around while the turkey’s cooking and save even more.

Now, here’s a term for you:  “minus-1 sizing”.  If you had a British sports car back in the 80s (and the thing was actually running), you often went for “plus-1″ sizing.  That means a bigger rim with a tire with the same diameter as the original, giving you a lower sidewall, a wider tire, and better handling on dry road.  For snow tires, think the exact opposite.  If you get a smaller rim, but want to have the same diameter tire (so your speedometer still works), you have to get a tire with a taller sidewall and narrower tread.  If this is making your head hurt, go talk to the experts at the Tire Rack, or look through some of their excellent information.  Just for the record, I’m not affiliated with them in any way, but their customer service and expert advice has been invaluable to me over the years.  Not only can they help make this more clear for you, but you can use their website to choose and evaluate winter wheel/tire packages.  Follow that link above and watch the videos…believe me, you’ll be a believer!

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About David Shedd

David Shedd is a lifelong resident of New England, and has been skiing, kayaking, mountain biking, and trying anything that anyone throws at him for most of his life. A 2001 Maine Mountain Bike Association State Champion, his current goal is to learn to break fewer bones.