How To Shop for Winter Tires

January 18, 2010
Flickr user Geognerd uploaded this lovely photo of his Toyota Prius in the snow in December 2007.

Flickr user Geognerd uploaded this lovely photo of his Toyota Prius in the snow in December 2007.

Sliding around a little too much this winter? Investing in some good winter tires might seem like a pricey proposition, but it could pay off.

Winter tires are usually more expensive than all-season radials, but since you'll only be using your winter treads for a few months a year, they'll last three or four winters.

Think of it this way. Having a better grip and more control in, for example, the Toyota Prius, might help you keep that client or have a more productive day…and it might help you avoid winter accidents. Just the insurance deductible for one minor fender-bender could cost you more than that set of winter tires.

If you have all-season tires, particularly a model with the M+S (mud and snow) rating, you might be able to get away with them through the winter, but only if you typically set out after the plows and salt trucks have already done their thing. The simple advice is, if you frequently have to drive in fresh snow, packed snow, slush, or on icy roads—or depend on your vehicle for your job—you should be getting a set of good winter tires. They really do make a difference, no matter what the type of vehicle and whether you have all-wheel drive or not.

Here are a few important winter-tire dos and dont's:

DON'T count on studs and chains. In the past studded tires were a good solution to get you traction on hard-packed snow and ice, but true winter tires are replacing the need for them altogether. Modern winter designs provide better traction and control on ice than studded tires, without doing damage to the road surface. And chains are strictly a last resort; they can do costly damage to wheels and bodywork if improperly mounted, or if they break.

creative commons -

creative commons -

DO get winter tires, not snow tires. Snow tires give you some sort of nubby tread pattern that's better in the snow, but it doesn't assure a softer, grippier compound that makes a difference on ice or hard-packed snow. Some of the least expensive snow tires might actually be worse on glossy, packed snow than all-season radials, because of their lack of special siping to help channel surface water away. Tires sold for winter use often carry the M+S designation, but you want the extra winter-tire rating—marked with a "mountain snowflake" symbol—indicating it's a true winter tire with those more advanced compounds and design attributes.

DO get a cheap set of steel rims with your winter tires. Don't expect to mount winter tires on expensive performance rims. You don't want salt and sand grinding into them, or salty slush getting in and corroding them. If you have them mounted on another set of rims that you don't mind getting grimy, it makes swapping them out at the end of the winter for your shiny summer alloy wheels a lot easier and cheaper.

DO mount winter tires on all four wheels. Some tires stores won't even allow you to buy a partial set of winter tires, for good reason. Buying snow or winter tires for just the drive wheels is silly. It can cause the vehicle to be dangerously unstable in corners or during hard braking, and in newer vehicles with stability control and anti-lock brakes, you might be compromising the effectiveness of those systems.

DO swap them out as soon as spring arrives. The softer compound used in winter tires wears down much faster on dry tarmac—especially in warmer weather. So as soon as you're quite sure the snow and ice isn't coming back, swap them out for your summer set. Stow them in the garage, and you'll have them all ready to go by the time next winter rolls around.

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