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  • Are Winter Tires Worth the Investment?

    Posted on February 22nd, 2007 ninarussin

    While all-season tires save the car owner time and money, they lack the safety and performance that winter tires can provide in cold, wet weather.

    By Nina Russin

    Photo courtesy of Volvo public relations

    Photo courtesy of Volvo public relations

    Back in my parents’ time, semi-annual car maintenance was a way of life. Every six months my father would take the family Rambler down to Joe Huber, our neighborhood mechanic. Joe would tune up our “bag of bolts” by changing out the spark plugs and wires, replacing the rotor and distributor cap, and rebuilding the carburetor. All of this saved my father, who was not at all mechanically inclined, a rash of headaches.

    Since these tune-ups typically took place in the spring and fall, Joe also swapped out the tires. Snow tires were the only thing that gave the Rambler a fighting chance when it came to climbing up our hilly street, and our even hillier driveway. Keeping two large sacks of cat litter in the trunk over the rear wheel wells didn’t hurt either.

    These days, semi-annual tune-ups have gone the way of the carburetor. So have semi-annual tire changes, thanks to the advent of all-season tires. However, the all-season tires don’t offer the performance and safety of winter tires, especially for drivers who live in cold, snowy climates.

    “Think of your tires like a pair of shoes,” said Matt Edmonds, vice president of marketing for the Tire Rack, an online tire retailer. “We have everyday shoes that allow us to walk around, and maybe even run a block or two if we need to rush to catch a bus. But to get the most out of our performance, we need special shoes. For winter activities, we wear winter shoes that keep our feet warm and give us better traction on ice and snow.”

    Winter tires are compounded for cold weather. They perform best at temperatures below fifty degrees. In warmer temperatures, winter tires get too soft and sticky. Leaving them on a car in the warm weather will make these tires wear out prematurely.

    But in the winter, they’ll be soft enough to provide adequate traction during emergency maneuvers and braking. In comparison, an all-season tire, designed to perform in both cold and warm temperatures, will be too hard in the cold to provide maximum traction.

    Winter tires also have a different tread design, so that the vehicle can maintain an adequate contact patch with the ground in deep snow. While all-season tires have relatively small tread blocks, the tread blocks in winter tires are larger. Void areas between the tread blocks are also larger, so that the snow can channel up and out of the way. Small blades on the tires called sipes give winter tires a biting edge in the snow.

    Off-road tires are similar to winter tires, in that they also have larger tread blocks and big void areas. But these tires tend to be noisier and cause more vibration when driven on paved roads. Winter tires are also compounded to wick a certain amount of water into the rubber for better traction on ice.

    As temperatures drop, drivers should also check their tire pressures, explained Edmonds. A decrease of ten degrees in temperature equates to a one-pound drop in tire pressure. A decrease of just ten percent in tire pressure can damage the inside structure of the tire, making a blowout more likely.

    Drivers in warm winter climates that decide to head up to the mountains for a weekend of skiing should remember to take the tire gauge along. If the pressure gets extremely low in a tire, have it checked by a qualified technician as soon as possible, to make sure that the inside structure is still sound.

    What is the cost of putting winter tires on your car?

    “Less than the deductible on your car insurance,” said Edmonds.  A set of winter tires costs between $350 and $600, depending on the vehicle. Edmonds recommends also purchasing a separate set of rims to mount the winter tires on. This allows car owners to swap their own tires out in the spring and fall, saving the costs of mounts and dismounts: about $60 for all four wheels. Car owners who upgrade their rims from the original equipment wheels can use the OE wheels to mount their winter tires. Otherwise, Edmonds recommends using an inexpensive set of alloy or steel wheels.

    One tire manufacturer that has led the way in winter tire technology is Bridgestone. Bridgestone recently introduced a new generation of its Blizzak studless snow tires, slated to go on sale next winter. The new Blizzak tires contain NanoPro-Tech: a proprietary technology that improves the tire’s tread flexibility and traction on wet and snow-covered surfaces.

    A multi-cell compound on the Blizzak tires wicks water away from the tire’s contact patch with the ground to improve grip. Bite particles bite into the surface of the ice to enhance traction on slick surfaces. The new Blizzak WS60 tires are available in R-speed rated sizes in the 70 to 45 series, ranging from 14 to 17-inch.

    Car owners can find a wealth of information about tire technology on the Tire Rack web site. In addition to selling tires, Tire Rack also employs over ninety test drivers that evaluate tires on a special test facility in South Bend, Indiana. Tire Rack surpassed two billion miles in data this year, including ongoing consumer surveys. Visitors to the site can search for results by tire make, vehicle make and model, or even driving styles, from over seven thousand tire SKUs in stock.


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