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Only six percent of northern-state Americans purchase winter tires for their commuter vehicles. Most believe their all-season tires are just fine for, you know, all of the seasons. As it turns out, they're not. While all-season tires provide decent traction in rain and light snow, they're not the safest option in temperatures that fall below 45º F consistently, and are practically useless in deep snow.
Having spent much of my life in heavy snow regions, including the lake-effect area of Michigan, the blustery wide open plains of Ohio, and in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, I'm a big proponent of snow tires. I've driven sports cars, SUVs, and giant American RWD sedans on snowy roads on all sorts of tires, and learned from experience what works and what doesn't.
Recently I had the opportunity to test a few tires back-to-back on a giant sheet of ice at Notre Dame University's Compton Family Arena. Tire Rack partnered with Michelin to test braking and acceleration at their annual "Winter Driving Experience." With two full days of driving activities, we had a lot to cover. I've never done acceleration tests inside a building before, so driving on an ice rink was surreal.
Myth #1: All-wheel drive is all I need for winter driving.
One of the most common excuses from people who don't have winter tires is "I have all-wheel-drive, so winter tires would be redundant." All-wheel drive (a center differential sends torque to whichever wheel has the least grip) or four-wheel drive (torque is split 50:50 front-to-rear evenly) might help with acceleration traction by virtue of all four wheels moving the vehicle forward, extra driven wheels don't help you brake quicker or in a more controlled manner.
The course set up for the two Kia Sportage test vehicles test saw a straight line of acceleration of 70 feet, simulating driving from a standstill across an intersection. Once we got to the 70 foot mark, we were instructed to slam on the brakes and let the ABS do its work. One Sportage was fitted with Michelin's X-ice Xi3 (245/50R18) winter tire, and the other with its original equipment Hankook Kinergy GT all-seasons (245/45R19). With the X-ice tire, I was able to manage a max speed of 20.1 miles per hour and came back to a complete stop with just 75 feet of braking distance. When I switched over to the all-season-fitted Kia, the best I could manage was 15.4 miles per hour and skidded to a complete stop in 64.7 feet. From the driver's seat, I could feel significantly more wheel spin with the all-seasons, and on braking, the car was much less controlled, with some attempts even ending with the back end of the car stepping out a few feet.
The Takeaway. Even with AWD on your side, the car can only do so much with limited grip. If you're dealing with glare ice and very cold temperatures, a good set of winter tires could really save your ass.
Myth #2: I'm a better than average driver.
Are your driving skills above average? One-half of US motorists feel they are "above average" drivers, which is statistically impossible. Mathematics says most of these drivers, confident in their abilities, are actually average or below-average drivers. Regardless of talent, however, winter tires offer a shorter stopping distance on ice and snow at regular driving speeds compared to all-season tires. That's a significant, and perhaps life-saving, difference.
The Takeaway. No matter what your driving skills are, average, exceptional, or otherwise, winter tires offer better stopping distance in cold, inclement weather.
Myth #3: Two sets of tires aren't worth the money.
Tires aren't cheap, especially when you consider that you will either need to dismount/mount/balance your tires twice a year or purchase an extra set of dedicated "winter wheels." But think about this: Your summer tires will only be on the car for a little over half the year, and the remainder of the year you'll have winter tires on, so you'll be able to extend the time between tire purchases about twice as long. That is, if you store your tires in a climate-controlled environment, you can get many years of total life (not including wear).
Also take into consideration the potential cost savings of being able to prevent an accident. What's your insurance deductible? Five-hundred bucks? A grand? A good set of winter tires and steelies will cost you about that.
The second test, shown above, was a standing drag race across a 60 foot "intersection", this time with Kia's front-driver full-sized sedan Cadenza. The Cadenza on the left has a set of Michelin X-Ice XI3 winter tires (245/45R18), and the one on the right is fitted with Michelin Primacy MXM4 OEM fitment all-seasons (245/40R19). I managed to cut a 5.6 second 60-foot time with winter tires, while my runs in the all-season-equipped car were around 9 to 10 seconds. You're not only saving money, you're saving time for you and everyone else at the stop light on your commute.
The Takeaway. Having two sets of tires built for separate weather conditions is essentially paying upfront for tires you would have bought anyway. You can also save on insurance deductibles from winter-sliding accidents that didn't need to happen.
Myth #4: It's cold in winter here, but it doesn't snow much, so I don't need winter tires.
Snow or no snow, if you regularly see temperatures below 45º F in winter, you should have a set of winter tires. The fact is, winter rubber is made from a high-silica compound rubber that stays flexible and pliable in cold temperatures. Even if the roads are clear and dry, if the temperatures drop below freezing, your car with winter tires is going to stop, accelerate, and corner better than it would with typical all-season tires.
Takeaway: Don't call them "snow tires." Sure the treads are designed for inclement weather, but the rubber compound that stays sticky in cold weather is the real winter beater.
In the interest of full disclosure, Tire Rack and Michelin provided travel to and from South Bend, Indiana, and provided excellent food, lodging, and entertainment for three days.