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Here's the two-part dilemma: Lisa hates driving in the snow. Lisa's car needs tires soon (but they're not bald). I've always been interested in getting snow/winter tires, but it never seemed to make sense to have them put on and then taken off every year. However, when I looked into even the least expensive options, her new all-season radials would have been roughly the same cost as cheap rims and a decent set of winter tires. With 4+ months of winter driving in Wisconsin, I figured it was an opportunity to give the experiment a try. I mean, do winter tires really make a difference? Do snow tires really work?

Tire Rack recommended a step-down size for the winter package. That's good because the rims and tires are slightly cheaper. Their online tool for seeing how the car would look allowed me to decide it was a decent match, so I went with silver painted wheels, which cost about $20 more than the black steel option (per wheel). Still, saving about $100 over the 17" wheels and tires overall allowed it to make sense, and I don't think Lisa would have liked driving around with cheap-looking wheels all winter. Two $50 rebates also helped, since the shipping would be $100. (Tire Rack does offer distribution center pickup to save that $100 in shipping...be sure you look to see which distribution center the tires and wheels are coming from if you think you're close enough to take a road trip). 

The hope is to extend the life of the summer tires for a couple more years while providing optimum winter performance when it's needed most. However, the summer tires will have to be replaced at some point, at which time I can look for summer-only versions that might provide better performance or be slightly cheaper than the all-season tires now on the vehicle. While I know this is what people used to do, it's not standard procedure for most of us. However, I also know that all-season tires have to have some trade-offs, so the hope is to limit the snow performance trade-off so Lisa feels more confident driving to work when the snow flies.

Probably the biggest concern I have is the treadwear and how the use of winter tires in summer affects it. None of the winter options I looked at had any kind of guarantee, and swapping tires every year makes the one-year warranty seem pretty useless. This is where you have to rely on online reviews, I suppose. Tire Rack also does its own testing, so I watched a few of their videos before making the choice. I guess we'll see this winter if the purchase was overkill that will end up costing more for just a little piece of mind or if it was a wise investment.

I actually did more research AFTER the purchase, but it confirmed my first conclusions. I'll add some basic facts that I learned from various tests auto sites have done on tires.

  • Winter tires are more important than AWD or stability control. A FWD or RWD car will outperform an AWD vehicle on snow and ice if the AWD does not have winter tires.
  • AWD vehicles will outperform RWD and FWD cars with the same tires, so that means if you have both AWD and winter tires, that will be the best setup.
  • Braking is the same in any kind of vehicle, so only tires make a difference there (unless you don't have ABS). Winter tires are best for winter driving when it comes to braking.
  • There seems to be evidence that winter tires are better on wet roads at around 45 degrees F or lower. When I looked our (Wisconsin) average temperatures up, that means running winter tires from mid-October until mid-April would make sense. That's half the year.
  • People will refute all evidence in order to justify their own purchases. Therefore, they will say others are worse drivers or that not enough variables were tested to prove anything. These people are wrong. Tires matter more than anything else on a car. The only way to fix the problem is to get new tires, not to learn to drive differently.
  • Center of gravity, clearance height, and curb weight play a role in control, but the perfect mix is pretty much never available in the same vehicle: you want the lowest possible center of gravity and the highest possible ground clearance at the same time in the snow. Even weight disbursement probably plays a role... my mid-engine, low center of gravity, RWD Fiat X 1/9 handles snow as well as anything on the road until the snow is higher than the clearance. And remember, a lot of weight might seem like a good thing to get moving, but you also need to stop.

All-season radials are like microwave ovens. Both inventions are good at doing a job, but something else exists that's better at least some of the time (like a grill or a gas oven). It's actually surprising more tire manufacturers don't promote the need for winter tires or why more states don't follow Quebec's lead and make snow tires mandatory (about 1/3 of their winter accidents were caused by around 10% of the population on non-winter tires). I know, we don't like to mandate anything in America because we should all have the right to be wrong, but it did happen for tire pressure monitors and stability control, so you never know.

That does lead to the last issue of winter driving safety, and that's the other driver. Lisa will now have winter rubber on her car. None of our neighbors will. 25% or less of the people around here have winter tires. We didn't before I researched them. People slide and crash and even get hurt because most of use are not prepared for northern winters. Are you ready?

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