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Do You Need Winter Tires?

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On: Sat, Sep 17, 2011 at 9:45AM | By: Peter C Sessler

Do You Need Winter Tires?

With winter just around the corner and the possibility of heavy snowfall, the question arises—do you need a dedicated set of winter tires? The answer is, it depends. It depends on how bad this coming winter will be and how often you must drive in the snow. Purchasing a set of winter tires is an expensive proposition; on the other hand, it’s the best way to go if you don’t want to end up in a ditch.

Except for certain high performance cars, most cars are equipped with M&S (Mud and Snow) or “all-season tires.” Although these tires meet the M&S definition because they comply with a certain formula, that formula is a loose one. When radial tires first became popular, it was found that they delivered better snow traction and the term “All Season” was born—the product of a tire company’s marketing department. I know of tires that simply appeared one day with the M&S rating when they didn’t have it before. In fact, almost any tire can be branded M&S.

The typical all-season tire is designed to last for a long time and to deliver generally acceptable performance over a wide range of driving conditions. However, they don’t really excel in any. That is why winter tires (they’re also called snow tires) will outperform an all-season tire. They are made from special compounds with unique tread designs. They have tread designs that dig into the snow and grip ice, and their tread compounds are designed to stay pliable at below freezing and below 0-degree temperatures.

Most people think that snow tires work better because they have a pronounced knobby tread pattern. That is partially true. If you take a snowball and rub it on one of those yellow rubber dish gloves, you’ll note that the snow easily slides on the rubber glove. Now if you take a snowball and roll it on snow, it will grab the snow. That is also how snow tires work. The rubber treads don’t “grab” any better in the snow, but they are designed to be packed with snow—and it is the snow on the tires that grabs on the snow on the ground. That is why the tread area on snow tires is always white and packed with snow. It’s snow against snow. To get the most out of a snow tire, they should be installed in sets of four. The reason is that the snow tires have quite different handling characteristics from all-season tires and should not be mixed.

So, while winter tires work best in snow and ice, they do have certain drawbacks, besides the additional cost. First, it makes more economic sense to also obtain another set of wheels than to have the regular tires dismounted and later remounted in the spring. The tread design on winter tires, which works great on snow, isn’t as effective on dry roads. They cannot match the handling and traction characteristics of all-season tires on dry roads. The tread compound is much softer so the tires will wear out much sooner if you continue driving them. And they also should be rotated more often—every 3,000 miles or so. You’ll find that a set of snow tires will last about two seasons.

The latest development in winter tires is the use of a new sidewall symbol to be used on winter tires. This snowflake-on-the-mountain symbol appears next to the tires M&S symbol if it meets new performance standards. This standard helps differentiate dedicated passenger and light-truck winter tires from all-season tires.

So do you need winter tires? If you can avoid driving during snow storms, and the tread on your all-season tires is better than 50%—probably not. But if you’re in a situation where you have to drive—no matter what the weather is—they may be a good choice.



AutoHistory | 6:28PM (Mon, Sep 19, 2011)

It seems like buying a set of chains might be more cost effective...thoughts?

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