I take joy in so many little things. One of the most gratifying moments in my life came a few years back when I came to the rescue of a stranded motorist who had become stuck during a nasty snowstorm. I dutifully came to the rescue like a lifeguard on Baywatch, but wearing a parka instead of a Speedo and prancing through two feet of heavy snow instead of golden sand. What made this particularly rewarding? The fact that the hapless victim was driving an ostentatious Cadillac Escalade and I, an aging station wagon. My little wagon could quite literally drive circles around his four wheel drive behemoth, and he continued to slip and slide after I helped get him going as I drove away without even the slightest hesitation. The reason? My aging car was outfitted with decent winter tires, while his SUV was shod in all seasons. The look on his face was truly priceless, as was the smug grin on my face.
In winter driving, snow tires are the difference between careening off road and making it home safely, and the time to buy your snow tires is now. Not next month, not when the first snowfall hits, not the day after you flip your car and end up in an icy ravine- now. I know that many people don’t like to think about winter when the leaves are still on the trees, but preparing early will save you money and time. Come December, you’ll be glad that you planned ahead.
The first reason for looking into snow tires early in the game is that you can often get much better sales and promotions before the real buying frenzy starts. Sales may not be aggressively advertized, but a quick call to your local tire dealer may net you some nice savings as they compete for your business in what is an otherwise slow time between seasons. You’re also assured of the best selection of tires, and just because you buy now doesn’t mean that you have to get them installed now, either- you can book a time in November or December that’s convenient for you and not have to worry about having to fight the crowds and deal with long waiting periods to get your tires installed. When you show up on Nov. 15th to get those snow tires you bought a month ago installed, you’ll get the velvet rope treatment and be ushered to the front of the line, while the procrastinating peons in the back glare at you with envy. The coolness factor alone justifies an early purchase.
On a more pragmatic note, it’s particularly important for Canadians to consider buying early this year for one big reason- Quebec’s new mandatory snow tire legislation. Tire suppliers are predicting a surge in demand from la belle province, and local retailers are expecting that there may be supply issues with some of the more popular brands. By buying early, you can ensure that you’ve got your rubber in time for winter.
Do you really need snow tires?
For some people, the answer is an obvious “no”. If you live in an area where it rarely snows and enjoy a temperate climate, buying snow tires is just dumb. Here’s a quick test- if you see palm trees outside your window, don’t waste your money. But, if you live in a northern climate where you get to experience a true winter wonderland, the answer is yes.
There are lots of people who will tell you that they don’t need snow tires for any number of reasons. “I’ve got all season tires”, they say, or the even more emphatic “My all seasons are brand new!” But all season tires are a compromise solution, and not a particularly good one at that. In reality, they should be called “three season tires”, because their winter capabilities are marginal when compared with real snows.
Let’s look at the two ways in which all season and winter tires differ- first, winter tires have deeper tread grooves with more aggressive tread patterns, to effectively deal with snow, ice and slush. Most winter tires are also siped, meaning that they have small grooves designed to increase grip on slippery surfaces. Even a brand new all season tire will not offer the same tread advantages as a snow tire. Second, and perhaps more importantly, winter tires are made of a different rubber compound that stays softer and more flexible in cold weather. More flexible rubber means better grip, every time. It’s a matter of simple physics- winter tires will outperform all seasons in winter conditions. End of story.
Now there are those who swear that they’ve driven for 30 years in an unbalanced RWD vehicle with nothing but balding summer tires and never had a problem. They may be right, but that doesn’t mean that doing so is reasonable or that these results are typical. Just as the fact that my grandfather has smoked like a chimney for over 70 years and still doesn’t have lung cancer doesn’t prove that cigarettes are safe, anecdotal evidence from those who drive without snow tires doesn’t negate the major benefits of having suitable tires for winter weather conditions- the physics and accident statistics don’t lie. You yourself may even have made it through past winters without killing yourself or others, but that’s not much of a reason to continue to take the risk. Winter tires are an integral piece of winter safety equipment, and should be treated as such.
It’s also important not to fall into the 4WD/AWD trap. Many drivers of trucks, SUVs, and other four wheel drive vehicles think that they don’t need winter tires because their vehicles already provide a winter weather advantage. While AWD does offer definite winter advantages, it’s useless without the proper tires. Those four small patches of rubber are the only connection between your vehicle and the road, and if they’re not offering sufficient traction it doesn’t matter how many wheels you’ve got spinning. And while AWD will help get you moving on snow and ice, it does virtually nothing to help you stop, and this is why decent snow tires are essential. Both my vehicles are AWD, and I can notice a significant difference in winter handling between my relatively new (and expensive, I might add) all seasons and my snows. It’s a night and day difference, like the difference between soccer cleats on a grass field and wool socks on a freshly waxed floor.
But don’t take my word for it- check out this comparison video prepared by Transport Canada in conjunction with the Automobile Protection Association that shows the clear differences between stopping and handling between AWD, RWD, and FWD vehicles equipped with all season and winter tires. On average, the vehicles equipped with snow tires are stopping 30-40 percent quicker than those with all seasons. That’s the difference between coming to a safe stop and plowing into another vehicle- hard.
Studded or Studless?
The next question is whether you should get studded tires or so-called “studless” winter tires. In some jurisdictions, the question is already answered for you, as studs may be banned. But assuming that you have the choice, you can be faced with a tough decision.
In icy conditions, studded tires will perform better than even the best studless tires. However, there are tradeoffs associated with using studs, including reduced gas mileage, increased road noise, and somewhat reduced dry pavement grip. You need to look at what kind of weather and driving conditions you’re likely to face, and decide if the tradeoffs are worth the additional traction. For me, I decided to go with studded tires on both my vehicles. I live in one of the snowiest and iciest cities in Canada, and we are particularly prone to freezing rain and sleet, so the disadvantages of snow tires were outweighed by the benefits. If you’re in a more hospitable winter climate, studs may not offer the same advantage.
On Dedicated Rims?
A final question is whether to install your snow tires on your existing wheels or whether it’s best to buy dedicated winter rims. I’m a big proponent of dedicated rims for three reasons- first, for winter I can use sturdy steel wheels rather than exposing my pretty alloy rims to harsh winter conditions, as salt can do a real number on alloy wheels. Second, you may be able to select a different tire and rim size for your winter tires to give better clearance and quite possibly save you money. A low profile 17″ winter tire may cost a fair bit more than a higher profile 16″, and the 16″ might actually be a better winter choice. If you’re not familiar with tire sizing and plus/minus fittings, be sure to consult with your tire shop to get the right fit. Finally, having your winter tires mounted on their own rims saves the wear of constant changes and lets you swap your tires yourself. With a portable jack and my impact gun, I can change from summer to winter tires in less than 30 minutes. This saves me time and money, and also lets me feel like I’m in the pits at Indy while sitting in my suburban driveway. I’ve asked my wife to time me, but she won’t. She tries not to encourage my foolish ways.
How Much to Spend?
Winter tires can range in price from about $50 to $250+ per tire. If you want them mounted on steelies, add about $50 per wheel. The cost will depend largely on the type and size tire you’re looking for- the bigger the tire, the bigger the bill. Rare and low profile tires will also cost more than more common configurations. There are countless tests comparing different brands and models of winter tires, so do a little research to find out what is best suited for you, but don’t let yourself get paralyzed by information overload. For about $400, you can get a set of very capable winter tires, but even the cheapest winter tire is going to put you well ahead of those sliding around on all seasons.
So there you have it- if you live in a place with real winters, you need real winter tires. Buy now before the crowds hit and you’ll enjoy a safe and traction-filled winter. Remember folks- do what you can to keep the shiny side up!
Photo by Travelling Steve.