I'm alive to tell you the tale of a speed rally race I drove last year in upper Michigan. The race took place at night on narrow, muddy mountain roads, and it was on-the-edge scary—like skiing way too fast on a rocky double-diamond in poor light. In my borrowed Subaru WRX STi, I finished 15th out of 50 racers—proud not to have killed myself or my co-driver. But after the race, a competitor brusquely dismissed my mastery of foul-weather driving. "You had good tires," he said, gesturing at my crew from Vermont SportsCar, who had changed my tires as race conditions changed.
The guy was a jerk who didn't place well. But he had a point about the tires. An athlete can have the best legs in the world, but put him in flip-flops and send him out for a trail run, and things will go poorly. It's the same with tires: A car can have the finest traction-control technology the industry has to offer, but with the wrong tires, ice and snow are needlessly hazardous. A vehicle is only as good as those four small patches of rubber that touch the road.
Put simply, the single best winter safety measure you can take for you and your passengers is to put on snow tires. All-season rubber is good in many conditions, but master of none. If you expect to see 20 or more days of snow and ice—and those of us who live in the snowbelt are likely to see a heck of a lot more—snow tires are the best investment you can make, regardless of whether you own a Navigator or Corvette.
What's the difference? First, a snow tire's tread is designed to bite beneath that first slick layer of snow and slush on the road, getting down to the firmer foundation. Added bite makes a big difference when you want to, say, stop suddenly. Second, and perhaps more important, snow tires are made of rubber compounds that can handle the cold. As temperatures drop, all-seasons get rigid, but winter tires remain pliable and better able to grip the road.
"Drivers on snow-covered roads often find that the steering wheel has suddenly been taken out of their hands and that they're a passenger, not a driver anymore," says Matt Edmonds of The Tire Rack, an Internet dealer that performs extensive testing. "We've found that vehicles equipped with snow tires will come to a stop far more quickly than those without. The difference is often the length of school bus." In an emergency, those extra feet can be the difference between a mild scare and catastrophe. Edmonds adds that autos equipped with the latest antilock and traction-control safeguards are used in testing. "For those safety innovations to work, you need good traction," he says.
There are two types of tires: Snow-and-ice, which are fit for trucks and SUVs, and performance snow tires, for sedans and wagons. Beyond that, there's a wide array of prices and designs, so a little research will help. What kind of driver are you, and what conditions are you likely to face? Traditional, heavy-lugged snow tires—the Army boot—are ideal for that SUV you use to blast through storms on powder days. The chunky tread blocks are like miniature shovels. But radials aimed at traction on ice and control on snow—trail runners for your sport sedan—are more likely to suit us average civilians navigating slick asphalt. These often look similar to all-seasons, with more aggressive siping (slits cut across the tread blocks). The real secret, though, is in their compounding. Goodyear, for instance, uses a silica grit in its rubber, which roughs up ice in a manner similar to spreading sand. Studded tires are mostly relics of the past. The latest friction tires perform as well or better.
It's also worth remembering that bigger is not better. Those massive, custom 19-inch all-seasons just aren't necessary come winter. Rather than shelling out big bucks for the same width in snow treads, trade down to a sensible size. Look at your owner's manual; it lists tire-size options for your vehicle. Narrow tires grip better in snow because they bite deeper, though they give up performance when cornering on dry surfaces.As far as specific brands, Consumer Reports has an excellent guide every year, and The Tire Rack posts the results of an online customer survey that is helpful (tirerack.com). The site also leads you through questions about the make of your vehicle and the driving conditions you're likely to encounter, then makes suggestions.
Buying a wheel along with each tire is a good, if more expensive, idea. It's easier to keep them mounted and simply bolt them on in the fall rather than having the tires remounted on the same rim. Wheels start around $50. (Shop around on the Internet. Many companies, including The Tire Rack, will pre-balance tires and deliver them to you directly.) Always buy all four tires to ensure proper traction on all sides. The days of throwing two snow tires on the rear wheels are over.
How much will it all cost? Say you're driving a full-size SUV. A decent ice-and-snow tire will run $75—$125. So, with rims, you're looking at an investment of about $500—$700. Not cheap, but perhaps cheaper than your insurance deductible from a single fender-bender—and a reasonable price to pay for safety and the ability to get where you need to go.
The appropriate snow-tire season is from around Thanksgiving to tax time. When the temperatures creep up to the consistent 60s and 70s, return to all-seasons. You'll find that by rotating seasonally, all your rubber will last longer.[NEXT "Tread Trends"]
Tread TrendsOver the past few years, Bridgestone's Blizzak series has reinvigorated the American market at a time when snow tires seemed rather quaint. The company (bridgestone.com) has been aggressive with technology improvements, especially in the use of new compounds. The Blizzak DM-Z3 is specifically designed for light trucks and SUVs. Finnish company Nokian (nokiantyres.com) is famous for its hallowed Hakkapeliitta brand, which has cachet among the tire aficionados (yes, they do exist) and is known for excelling in both performance and durability. The best-selling brand in Europe, where snow tires are mandated by law in certain areas, is Continental (conti-online.com). Their ContiWinterContact is ideal for sport coupes, and can turn even a BMW M3 into a snow machine.