Winter Tires: Does Your Car Need Them?

Winter Tires: Who needs them? You, if you live in cold country.

By Tara Weingarten

Where the rubber meets the road

What’s the most important safety feature on your car? The anti-lock brakes? The traction and skid control technology? Your lane departure warning? While those are collectively fantastic and important safety equipment, the most important item on your safety checklist should always be your car’s tires.

The reason is simple. That small patch of rubber that meets the road is the only thing supporting your entire vehicle. Take that away and you are in big trouble, right?

It is the traction of a tire that will keep your vehicle gripping the road, no matter the weather. The best brakes in the world can’t stop you if you’re skidding on bald tires, right? So let’s explore who needs winter tires.

Baby, it’s cold outside

Let’s not over-think this; if your region gets snow and ice, you absolutely must swap your all-season or summer tires out before the first flurries arrive. Anyone who lives in an area where temperatures are sustained below 35 degrees Fahrenheit needs winter tires. Those of us living in temperate climes can safely keep their all-season tires on year-round.

Here’s why: the rubber compound in winter tires is formulated to be pliable in frozen conditions. It’s possible that the rubber on all-season tires can crack or shatter in a sustained frigid climate. Seriously, don’t drive on tires that can crack.


They’re not at all alike. Though the tread pattern on tires looks cool, it’s actually a well-considered specific design that, in the case of rain and snow, is meant to channel water, snow and slush away from the wheels. In the best winter tires, micro treads usher away melting ice on a firmer layer of ice. This slush-free path is what gives the vehicle its all-important traction. So while treads may look similar among brands, they are not.

Why are tires priced so differently?

tires in snowSarah Robinson, a tire safety expert at Michelin, says Michelin spends $770 million per year on research and development. “Chinese manufactures can make a mold, put black rubber in it and it will look like ours, but the performance in those tires isn’t there. The quality of the materials isn’t there.”

Ms. Robinson continues, “In tire manufacturing, if you move materials around during construction just a millimeter, it will affect the tire’s wear and reliability by a lot. Your tire’s performance can go from having longevity of 40,000 miles down to a lifespan of just 8,000 miles.”

Though all tires may look alike, they are not. Here, you often get what you pay for. Spend more, get more quality, safety and longevity.

What about All-wheel Drive? Isn’t that the safest vehicle in bad weather?
Not necessarily. According to Ms. Robinson at Michelin, if you have the wrong type of tire on your car for specific conditions – in this case, frigid temperatures – you can render all your vehicle’s safety features useless.

“An AWD vehicle with the wrong tires is less effective on snow and ice than a front-wheel drive car with proper winter tires,” she explains. “Your car’s safety systems rely on real-time data coming from your wheels to control sliding and to stop the car.

“It is the traction of the tire that stops the car. The brakes only stop the wheels but if the tires have no traction, the brakes can’t do their job and away you go. You can have the smartest computer in your car but if the tires don’t have traction, it can’t help you.

Stopping Distances

Of course it’s common knowledge that your vehicle needs more time to stop in wet weather, and even longer time under snow/ice conditions, but it bears repeating. Please don’t be speed racer when the weather turns bad. Give your tires a chance to keep you safe by not pushing them to their traction limits.

What kind of tread do you need?
Check with the tire pros in your area. The more snow, the more pronounced the tire’s tread needs to be. Says Michelin’s Ms. Robinson, “you want to see cutting, like biting patterns so the tires can bite and dig into the snow and evacuate it.

And at the end of winter, remember to swap them out again for all-seasons. Those big treads and the winter compound rubber won’t perform well in hot temps. “Those tires will generate heat and accelerate their wear,” says Ms. Robinson. Store them in a cool dark location for use the following season.

Remember, it’s the tires that are your best bet for staying safe this winter. And don’t be one of those gals I’ve often heard justify their safety by explaining they drive an SUV. Ms. Robinson agrees. “Just because it’s an SUV does not make it invincible to winter driving conditions. You might think it’s got more metal so you’re safe. Not true!”

Check out this handy guide from Michelin for winterizing the rest of your car.

Winterize infographic

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