Winter Tires: Here's Why You Need Them

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 30, 2015

QUEBEC, CANADA—I am 75 minutes north of Montreal, behind the wheel of a BMW 320i X-Drive, and I’m doing a full-lock power slide on ice around the Mecaglisse race track. It’s all for a good cause—learning how to drive on snow and ice.

Putting one of the BMW X-Drives through its paces: slippin' and slidin'. (Jim Motavalli photo) The BMW, one of two with its dynamic stability control disengaged, is sporting winter tires from Cooper Tires, the trip’s sponsor, up against an identical car with Continentals. Here's what that looked like on video:

Yes, having driven both, the Cooper WM-SA2 tires seem to have better grip than the Continental Winter Contacts, but I’m realizing three things here: 1) good winter tires really are a quantum leap better than most “all-season” options; 2) having the right in-season rubber is at least as important, if not more so, than having all-wheel drive; and 3) nothing will help if you drive like an idiot.
 
I realized the limitations of AWD last winter, in another snowy landscape, when I was slipping and sliding all over the place in another BMW X-Drive. That car sported performance tires, and they were hopeless on ice. On the other hand, in the middle of our Northeast snow storm, I went out in a 2015 Mitsubish Outlander 3.0 GT with Super All-Wheel Drive Control (and with the right winter tires), and it made all the difference. The thing just plowed through snowdrifts and kept its cool on ice.

The Mitsubishi in the teeth of February's winter storm: good grip. (Jim Motavalli photo)Winter tires are optimized for traction, braking and acceleration when the weather gets inclement.

A Tahoe with an all-weather Discover X/T4: So far, for trucks and SUVs. (Jim Motavalli photo)Edmunds.com points out, “AWD, by the way, will help you accelerate in the snow, but do little for your stopping and steering. And on ice, it’s really all about the tires.” Rubber gets hard in the cold, for instance, and stopping distances can double without more pliable winter tires.
 
An Edmunds test showed all-season tires taking 16 to 18 percent more space to stop on snow and ice compared to winter tires, and summer tires taking 120 percent longer. Acceleration is similarly better with the right rubber.
 
North America’s tire habits are changing. In the old days, the “snow tires” (two of them, for the rear wheels) were kept in the garage and swapped out when the snow fell. The advent of front-wheel drive and the all-season radial changed that; today, most people have one set of tires, and run them year around. They’re all season, right? And most people now know it’s not a good idea to have mismatched tires on the front and rear axles.

I did a big 270-degree spin in this Jeep. (Jim Motavalli photo) Jonathan Thomas, a Cooper Tire product segment manager, told me that only 3.5 percent of U.S. drivers have a second set of winter tires. In the snow belt, that number climbs to 26 percent, and in wintry Canada, it’s 38 percent. People store their winter tires in “tire hotels” so they can be quickly installed when the short summer is over.
 
Unfortunately, buying the winter tires is only half of the investment. Tom and Ray weigh in on this: “Because it's such a pain to get your snow tires remounted and balanced every year, splurge and get yourself four steel rims and mount the snows permanently on those rims. That'll make the changeover in the fall and spring a snap.”
 
Of course, winter is the season that never rolls around in much of the U.S. You don’t need winter tires in San Diego or Tallahassee. But if you live in Michigan, Wisconsin, Connecticut, or a dozen other states, a set might be a good (but unfortunately expensive) investment.
 
Cooper has introduced a new Discoverer A/TW tire for the U.S. market that claims to be an all-season option that actually does the job, but right now it’s only available for large SUVs and pickups. Reading tire reviews isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Tire Rack is one source where you can check out the ratings for this potential $450 investment (plus wheels, of course).
 
Now to that driving like an idiot thing. On the Montreal track, no matter what tires were on the cars (which included Tahoes and Jeeps as well as the BMWs) I slid all over the place when I drove too fast. Period. I did a 270-degree spin in a Jeep at one point, and narrowly escaped hitting the iced-in snowbanks. I also lost grip on acceleration if I was too leadfooted, even with great winter tires.
 
State troopers tell me they meet a lot of overconfident AWD SUV drivers who lost control in snow or ice. Car Talk has some great winter driving tips here, including: putting bags of sand in your trunk only makes sense if you have a rear-wheel drive car; a block heater is a good investment if you happen to live in northern Minnesota or other chilly climes; carry basic supplies; “Clear off the entire car, not just a little peephole in the windshield,” they say—it’s actually illegal in some states to drive with snow on top of your car.
 
AAA has a lot of experience giving wise counsel about winter driving. Here are a few useful behind-the-wheel ideas:
  • Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas slowly to accelerate is the best method for regaining traction and avoiding skids. Don’t try to get moving in a hurry.
  • The normal dry pavement following distance of three to four seconds should be increased to eight to 10 seconds.
  • Know your brakes. Whether you have antilock brakes or not, the best way to stop is threshold braking. Keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
  • Don’t stop if you can avoid it. There’s a big difference in the amount of inertia it takes to start moving from a full stop versus how much it takes to get moving while still rolling.
  • Don’t power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads just starts your wheels spinning. Try to get a little inertia going before you reach the hill and let that inertia carry you to the top.
  • Don’t stop going up a hill. There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road. Get some inertia going on a flat roadway before you take on the hill.
  • Stay home. If you really don’t have to go out, don’t. Even if you can drive well in the snow, not everyone else can. Don’t tempt fate.
I got a wild ride in this Subaru that I'll never forget. (Jim Motavalli photo)I like that, don’t tempt fate. Good advice at almost every key moment in your life! Incidentally, Mecaglisse is run by a young Frenchman named Franck Kirchhoff, who has a long racing history. He says, “Learning the techniques to get control of a car going sideways on ice … that’s so much fun. More fun than driving on a road course at 150 mph.” I’m still waiting for my stomach to catch up from the brief but vivid ride he gave me around the track. Here’s the video proof:


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