When the warm summer air gives way to the chill of an impending winter, some of you are probably thinking more about fading tans and lost beach days than you are about car care. We understand that anything related to cold weather might be a sore subject. However, snow tires (also known as "winter tires") are tremendously important for your safety if you live in a snowy climate, and it's important to know when to switch over to them.
Winter tires, marked with a snowflake symbol, are made with special low temperature resiliant rubber compounds and have deep treads that grip unplowed snow, ice and other inclement conditions under your wheels. All-season tires, regardless of being branded with M+S for Mud and Snow, might not be suitable in heavy snow.
Robert Abram, product planning manager at Yokohama Tire Corporation describes the difference: "The compounding and tread designs for winter tires are altered from traditional all-season tires to maximize grip. Even the best all-season tires have compounds that get more brittle as the temperature drops, and when that happens, the tires tend to grip less. The winter tire compound remains pliable when temperatures are low, retaining grip."
Without grip, most of your car's safety functions - like all-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes - can't do their jobs correctly.
Doug Brown, brand category manager for BFGoodrich Tires agrees. "Having a second set of dedicated snow tires gives you a margin of safety and a sense of security to get where you're going," he says. "You will increase your ability to start on a hill, stop the vehicle and to maneuver in deep snow that can't be achieved with conventional tires."
Winter tires also come in studded form. Adding 100 little studs to your tires makes for a safer ride on ice; however, the use of studded tires isn't always allowed due to the damage they cause on clear roads.
Even if you have two-wheel drive, you should put snow tires on every wheel of your vehicle. Putting them only on the front wheels of a front-wheel drive car can cause spinouts or result in diminished steering capabilities in a rear-wheel drive car. Trust us, it's worth the extra dough to do all four wheels at once.
When To Change Them
There are no clear answers as to when you should put on your winter tires, mainly because every area is hit by weather at different times and different severities. Aim for changing them when the weather worsens, but don't wait too long. The earlier you get them changed, the less waiting at the shop you'll have to do. Better to have them on too soon than leave it until you wake up to a few feet of snow on the ground and your car stuck for the day.
While you can technically leave winter tires on your wheels year-round, we recommend against it.
"One of the real downsides to keeping your winter tires on in the summer is that they wear out very quickly," Abram says. "In most conditions, you can usually get three or four seasons out of them before you have to replace the winter set when you're swapping them out with an all-season or summer tire. If you drive them year-round, the heat will wear away the specific winter tire compounds. You'll also sacrifice some cornering and grip if you leave them on throughout the year."
How To Change Them
When you buy winter tires, we suggest you put them on another set of rims. They don't have to be new, or identical to the ones you already have, but they need to be the same size and have the same bolt pattern. Doing this will save you tons of time when you need to change them. Having a second set of wheels for the winter also means your nice, clean wheels will be protected during the rough weather months.
If you've got them on wheels already, the transition to winter tires is just like changing a tire; it's a quick and inexpensive process. Considering that winter tires can save your life in severe winter weather, a little hassle twice a year seems largely insignificant. And if you put them on before the winter weather hits, you'll ensure a safer winter season for you and your passengers.