Reminder: If You Live In Colder Climates, You Need Winter Tires

Don't call them "snow tires" anymore, they're so much more than that. No excuses.

Bradley Brownell

If there is one automotive hill upon which I will choose to die, it is the debate over winter tires. I am a passionate proponent of winter rubber, having spent much of my life in heavy snow regions, including the lake-effect snow area of Michigan, the blustery wide open plains of Ohio, and currently in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. I know what real snow looks like, and I know just how cold it gets at night in the high desert. I know from experience just how cold a semi-slick tire needs to be to effectively become a hockey puck. I've driven sports cars, SUVs, and giant American RWD sedans in snow, on all manner of tires. I know what works, and what doesn't. 

The fact that only about 6% of northern state Americans purchase winter tires for their commuter vehicles, while just across the border 100% of Canadian drivers are legally mandated to do so is a disturbing statistic. I've seen the horrendous state of Michigan drivers' daily-driven cars, I can only imagine how disheveled their four black rounders can be. 

Recently I had the opportunity to test a few tires back-to-back on a giant sheet of ice in an interesting event that saw me behind the wheel of a few Kias on the ice of Notre Dame University's Compton Family Arena. Tire Rack partnered with Michelin this year to get a few folks out to test braking and acceleration in their annual "Winter Driving Experience", and I must say, it was an informative and eventful trip. With two full days of driving activities, we had a lot to cover, The ice rink made for an interesting setting to drive cars, I can't say I've ever done acceleration tests inside a building before, so it was definitely a surreal feeling.   

Myth #1 - AWD is all I need for winter driving

First thing in the morning, I was popped into one of two identical Kia Sportages to test braking distances. One of the most common excuses I hear from people who don't have winter tires; "I have AWD, so winter tires would be redundant". All wheel drive, or 4-wheel drive might help you with acceleration traction by virtue of all four wheels moving you forward - AWD with winter tires is still better, check out the Instagram post below - the fact remains that extra driven wheels don't help you brake quicker or in a more controlled manner. Both Kias featured hellacious wheel hop under braking, but the winter tire cars felt remarkably more composed. 

The course set up for the Sportage test saw a straight line of acceleration of 70 feet, simulating driving from a stand still 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 was fitted with its original equipment Hankook Kinergy GT all-season (245/45R19). With the X-ice tire, I was able to manage a max speed of 20.1 miles per hour (the highest of everyone who tested that day, in case anyone was curious), 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, and by being alert I can compensate for less traction

First of all, it's a proven fact that more than half of US drivers feel that they are "above average" drivers, which is statistically impossible. Chances are, in fact, that you are a below average driver. Regardless of your talent level, working with a better platform only helps you make use of your phenomenal self-ascribed talents. You never know what you're going to encounter out there in the real world, and your heads-up driving and superior reaction times aren't going to help prevent you from hitting a deer or an abandoned car in a snowstorm if your tires aren't up to snuff. At regular driving speeds, you could see a difference of twenty feet or more in stopping distances, winter tires over all-season tires. 

I recall a moment when I was 16 and had just started driving. I thought I was hot shit, and my false bravado likely contributed to a comfort in driving well above my limits and those limits of my tires. My parents didn't teach me about snow tires, because their parents didn't teach them about snow tires. I'd agreed to meet a friend at the ski hill for a nice afternoon on the slopes, and when I got half way to the destination I realized I had neglected to strap my skis to the roof, and instead had left them behind. In my fervor to get home, I increased my speeds to try to make some time. In my ass-hauling manner, I came around a curve in the road at about 45 miles per hour and promptly skidded into an embankment on the opposite side of the road, sliding through the oncoming lane just a few feet from an oncoming car. While my built-like-a-horrible-tank Pontiac Grand Prix was essentially unharmed, I was very close to ruining a bunch of people's days, and potentially lives. Whether this is a testament to the idiocy of my youth, or to the importance of winter tires I'm no longer sure. 

The fact remains, no matter how good an inclement weather driver you think you are, you're not

Bradley Brownell

Myth #3 - It costs too much money to buy two sets of tires

Look, I get it, tires aren't cheap, especially when you consider that you will either need to dismount/mount/balance your tires twice a year to make it happen, or purchase an extra set of dedicated wheels for your winter tires to sit on all summer. We're all dealing with some pretty expensive stuff when it comes to car care, and tires are one of the things most drivers prefer not to think about for most of the time they own a car. If you own two sets of tires on two sets of wheels, one of the major benefits is that you will have to think about them even less often. 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 stretch your tire purchases about twice as long in between. The extra expense of two sets of tires is really minimal when you consider both sets will last twice as long when only used in their correct seasons. 

Also take into consideration the potential cost savings of being able to prevent an accident. If your winter tires help you stop, say, 30 feet shorter than a good set of all seasons in a panic stop, that could be the difference from ending up with your radiator where the car in front of you used to have a bumper, and coming to a stop just shy of bending sheet metal. What's your insurance deductible? 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.  

Bradley Brownell

Myth #4 - It doesn't snow where I live, so I don't need winter tires.

Don't get me wrong, there is a place and time for all-season tires, but if you regularly see temperatures below 44 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, you should definitely have a set of winter tires. The fact is, winter rubber is more than just optimized for grip in the slick stuff, as it was constructed out of 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 the 44 degree mark, your car is going to stop, accelerate, and corner better than an all-season tire or a summer-only tire.  

Bradley Brownell

Whatever you do, don't be this moron that I saw last winter.

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.