Each time first snow arrives in Chicago, and I get into a few conversations about driving in the snow and snow tires. So lets talk about why I have them on all my cars and why you might want to consider them.
2 4 Feet On The Ground
When you are driving your car, any car, regardless of AWD or 2WD, SUV or hatchback, there are only 4 tiny spots where your car actually touches the ground: your tires. And really, that contact patch is not particularly large. These are important pieces of real estate, as they determine your ability to go, stop, and turn. So I think we can all agree tires are important.
Tires are made of rubber, and rubber has a whole bunch of variables in it, one of which is intended temperature range. Like most things on our planet, they get harder when cold, softer when warm. So tires intended for driving on the racetrack have an optimal temperature that is pretty hot. I have track tires for my Audi, and I will attest to the fact that, when they are up to temp on the track, they are super grippy. When I get lazy and drive on them when it is 40 degrees and raining, they are hockey pucks, as they are far away from their intended temperature range. Snow tires, on the flip side, are really squishy and soft when it is 80 degrees and sunny out, not to mention they wear really fast in the summer.
But you might be saying to yourself ‘ummm, but I have tires on my car and I haven’t ever swapped them in the past!’ and I am sure that is true. You have the magical all-season tire. These tires are less ‘all’ season and more ‘no’ season. They are a compromise between everything such that they are good enough in the snow, good enough in the summer, and last decently long. They aren’t awesome at anything, but they get most everything done. And they are what most people drive on all year. But those of you living in places that have snow will agree, when you are trying to get your car out of a parking spot, that they are far from amazing in the snow. Enter the snow tire. They are designed for cold weather in that their temperature range is there. They sport thread deisgnes that are deeper and designed to operate in snow. They are siped to allow for better traction on ice and slippery stuff. They are crappy in the warm air.
I Have Fancy Electronics
Now you might be thinking ‘but I have ABS and ESP and traction control so I’m good’. These systems all try to do magical things to keep your car doing what you want it to do. And they really can do some amazing things. The Audi ESP system (by Bosch, also on other cars, but I have an Audi so I’ll talk to that) actually has an accelerometer in it and it compares your steering input to the actual direction of the car and can selectively apply the brake on one (or more) corners of the car to bring it back inline. It can even cut the throttle if it deems necessary. It is amazing. But it isn’t between your tires and the ground. It can only do so much if the tires have lost all traction and you’re sliding across ice. Traction control, often times, operates under lower speed conditions and just applies the brakes on the driving wheels when you floor it and start spinning the tires. ABS just pumps the brakes to keep them from locking up when you stand on the pedal. These are all great systems, and I am glad to have them, but they can only do so much if you don’t actually have any traction.
Heels In The Snow
The Tire Rack, a giant tire mailorder site, draws the analogy to footwear. If you are going to play basketball indoors on a smooth, clean, dry surface, you wear fancy gym shoes. And they are great. Then you go outside and it is cold and snowy and you find they are not as awesome. You wear boots. You wouldn’t wear boots on the court either. Ask any fancy lady about wearing heels in the snow.
Now you might be saying ‘ok, snowtires make sense, but I like easy and cheap. I have a feeling this is neither’. Well, you are somewhat correct. It isn’t free. But awesomeness is rarely free. Lets do a little case study, as we bought my wife a 2008 Mazda5 a few years ago. We bought the car near the end of snow season, so we just drove the all season tires for the rest of the winter. Meanwhile, I started trolling craigslist for deals for my master plan. Now our Mazda5 came with 17 inch wheels. I did a little research, looking on Mazda forums, Mazda sites from other countries where they sold the same car, and I looked at the car itself and it was clear that 16 inch wheels would fit no problem. Sure, they don’t look as cool as 17s, but I was ok with that. I secured a set of tires, a lightly used set that were sitting in my parent’s garage, left over from a recently sold car that were a compatiable size. I only had 6 months to find a set of wheels.
For wheels, I would just monitor craigslist looking for a 16 in the correct bolt pattern, width, and offset. A few people on the mazda forums were using 16s from the Mazda Tribute, and I found a used set in the suburbs, $120 for the 4. Done. The Mazda5, like many newer cars, has tire pressure sensors on each wheel that alert the driver to a low tire. To avoid an annoying light for the entire season, I picked up a set of tire pressure monitors on ebay. I took the tires, wheels, and sensors over to a local tire shop and paid $100 to have them mounted and balanced and put on the car. The 17s with the all seasons I cleaned and put in storage in the garage. In the spring, I jack up the car and put the summers back on. Most tire shops will do this for a nominal fee. In fact, I sometimes just pay the money and save myself the labor. I do this dance twice a year, usually thanksgiving in the fall, and once it starts to stay warm in the spring. It is pretty easy.
So it is obviously your call, and depends on your driving habits, needs, etc and how much snow you have to deal with, but it is really not that costly, and it might actually save you from an accident. But lets make a list just in case….
- A little more upfront money to acquire the wheels and tires, a little labor to mount an balance them
- Need a place to store the off season wheels
- Better performance by using the correct tire for the conditions
- Sell them when you are done or with the car for $$
- Less death
- Much lower change of crashing or getting stuck in a parking spot etc.
- You’ll feel like more of a ‘car person’