How to prepare for slippery, potentially dangerous winter driving
It has been 40 years since Goodyear introduced the very first all-season tire with its Tiempo line. Before the launch of all-seasons, mainstream tires were designed for most wet and dry conditions, but if you wanted to prepare for winter driving on snow and icy roads, you’d need something more aggressive: either snow tires or chains wrapped around your daily tires to provide winter traction.
These days most vehicles are outfitted with all-season tires from the factory. All-season tires feature extra slits (called sipes) and a tread designed to give them better gripping ability on snow and ice. They can handle most weather situations, but they don’t deliver the best performance when conditions get really bad. That’s because no one tire can perform perfectly in every situation.
“Even though all-season tires offer good traction in most weather conditions, they are a compromise,” says Gene Petersen, CR tire program manager. “They neither perform as well in the dry and wet as summer tires nor give as much traction in snow as winter/snow tires.” Consumer Reports’ tests show that when roads get nasty, winter/snow tires easily outperform most all-season tires.
Engineered specifically for winter driving, winter/snow tires tend to have a deeper tread to grip snow, plus rubber compounds designed to remain pliable in the cold.
If you regularly drive on snow-covered roads or if you have to be at work regardless of the weather conditions, we recommend getting four winter/snow tires for balanced traction and handling. On the other hand, if you rarely get snow—or if it’s gone quickly—stick with all-seasons, preferably a set that is rated highly for snow traction and ice braking.
Spare wheels. If you live in a snowy climate, it’s prudent to buy a set of steel wheels for your dedicated winter/snow tires. Although there is some initial cost, you can usually get at least two to three seasons of use out of your winter tires. Then the same wheels can be used again for a new set of tires. Steel wheels generally cost $50 to $75 apiece, but if they aren’t available for your model, you’ll be forced to buy more expensive aluminum wheels.
Tire-pressure monitors. These have been standard equipment on all new cars since the 2008 model year. Many systems use a sensor in each wheel to communicate with an onboard computer via radio frequency. We recommend installing these sensors on your replacement wheels if your car came with the system. The sensors vary in cost, but expect to pay around $30 per wheel.
Store the wheels and tires inside, out of direct sunlight, to maintain their longevity.
Know Your Snow
No single tire handles every type of winter weather. Here’s how each type deals with snow, slush, and everything in between:
Deep, packed snow. This is where winter/snow tires shine. They’re engineered to provide optimum traction here, with rubber that stays soft and pliable in bitter temperatures (which improves grip). These tires also have slits that act as biting edges to help maintain control.
Slick, icy roads. Stud-able and studless winter/snow tires work well here. Stud-able ones have holes in the tread to hold metal studs; the studs claw the ice, improving grip. Studless tires have rubber that has been formulated to enhance grip on snow and ice, and therefore don’t need studs. They work like a squeegee on ice; you can actually hear that sound when you stop.
Melted snow and dry pavement. In these conditions winter/snow tires generally do not grip as well as all-season tires, and their tread wears faster. You’ll want to swap them for your regular tires when spring rolls around.