Winter Tires Can Beat All-Wheel Drive in Safety, SavingsNovember 20, 2019
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My brother lives in the mountains of Colorado, and with winter bearing down, he asked me if he should get an all-wheel-drive vehicle or just buy snow tires for his current car.
Good question. When I was a kid growing up in New England, snow tires had deep tread and sometimes steel studs that made a racket on dry pavement. But I suspected that tires had changed enormously, like so many things in the automotive world. So I called a few tire experts to find out.
Not your father’s snow tires
For starters, I learned that snow tires are now “winter tires,” so-named because they are designed to handle not just snow, but also ice and extremely low temperatures. The old waffle-like grooves have been replaced with sophisticated tread patterns that include small slits, called “sipes,” to better provide traction.
“Winter tires have just gotten a whole lot better,” says Woody Rogers, product information officer from Tire Rack, which tests and sells tires online. He adds that in winter driving, drivers need tires to grip on slush, black ice and snow-packed intersections. “That’s where winter tires can make a big difference.”
Winter tires are made of a compound that remains soft and pliable even in extremely low temperatures, says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for car site Edmunds.com (no relation). So even on dry pavement that’s very cold, winter tires will grip better than all-season or summer tires.
Gene Petersen, tire program manager for Consumer Reports, says his testing has shown that winter tires can cut braking distances in half when stopping from 60 mph, compared with all-season tires. “If you’re looking for the best advantage and peace of mind, if you must be out driving, then get winter tires for your vehicle,” Petersen says.
False sense of security
All-wheel-drive vehicles — which provide power to all four wheels, not just two — are a knee-jerk choice for many car owners in the frozen north, even though the option typically adds $1,500 to $3,000 to the vehicle’s cost, according to AutoTrader. The main advantage of all-wheel drive is that if one wheel begins to slip — perhaps because it’s on ice — the other wheels provide power.
But Petersen thinks all-wheel drive might give drivers a false sense of security and encourage them to drive beyond the safe limits of the vehicle. And, once the car is in motion, all-wheel drive doesn’t improve handling or braking.
In fact, Edmunds believes that if the driver feels the wheels spinning, it reminds them how slippery the conditions are and they will, hopefully, drive slower.
Tire choice is essential
Whether you decide to buy winter tires or drive on all-seasons year-round, it’s still important to get the right tires for…