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All-Season vs Winter Tires

September 25th, 2015

By Richard Russell, columnist, GlobeAuto, The Globe & Mail

One of the biggest issues facing drivers every year is whether to use all-season tires for the winter or purchase snow tires. There are several factors to consider that might help in making that decision. But first let’s address some issues.

Tires are all about compromise and a clear case of getting what you pay for. Shop by price and you may regret that saving at a critical time. The compromise issue is never more evident than when comparing all-season and special purpose tires. All-season tires are exactly what they promise – decent for all seasons. But that means they are not as good as summer tires or winter tires. All-season tires are a result of demands from automakers for tires that would allow their new vehicles to roll off the lot at any time of year. Selling a car on summer tires in the middle of January is difficult when the demo is on summer tires. Tire companies reluctantly met those demands even though it meant a huge loss of business for them when people stopped buying winter tires.

Obviously an all-season tire can’t be as effective in pure summer or pure winter conditions as special purpose tires designed for those seasons. Or can they? This raises the issue of getting what you pay for. The major tire companies have invested massive amounts of time and money in the science and technology of improving tires. There are some high-end all-season tires that are hugely more effective in winter than run-of-the-mill inexpensive all-seasons or even cheap snows. Similarly there are winter tires packed with technology that are exceptional on a wide variety of conditions and some cheap snow tires that are all but worthless on anything other than deep snow. The chemical composition, tread design and structure of a tire is an elaborate science and you do indeed get what you pay for. In fact, a high-end tire designed for winter conditions is no longer called a snow tire, it has been engineered to deal with snow, but also with conditions encountered the majority of the time like ice, moisture, dry surface and wet surface. Some companies make tires for different degrees of winter – one model for constantly cold conditions and one for varying conditions.

So what to do, all-season or winter tire. Let’s consider some issues:

VEHICLE – Are you driving a front, rear or all-wheel-drive vehicle? Obviously when the driving forces are spread over four contact patches instead of two, that vehicle will have better grip in poor conditions. It is generally acknowledged that a front-drive vehicle is better in winter than rear drive for the average motorist. But newer rear-drive models with traction and stability control have all but erased that perceived advantage.

DRIVING HABITS – Are you a motorist who parks at the first flake of snow or when conditions are forecasted to get poor? Or do you simply have to get there and drive regardless of conditions? Is your route over plowed and salted city streets or long stretches of irregularly maintained roads?

All seasons will probably suffice if you rarely encounter difficult winter conditions and spend the majority of your t time on cleared roads. And generally speaking, high-end all-season tires will be sufficient for most conditions in all or four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Other factors to consider include:

CONDITION – obviously replacing a perfectly good set of all-season tires showing ample tread, with a set of almost bald old snows tires, is not a good idea.
AGE - Tires degrade with time. It is felt that after six or seven years, a tire has lost many of the properties it had when it left the mold.
BUDGET – Excellent high-end all-season with deep tread maybe better in winter than even brand-new, cheap snow tires. Higher-end winter tires employ a high degree of technology that allows the tread to stay supple over a wide temperature range and cope with everything from hard-packed or loose snow to rain or dry warm conditions. In fact, in back-to-back tests on ice we’ve tested some high-end winter tires that were almost as good as studded tires on pure ice and the equal of all-season tires on both wet and dry conditions.
STUDS – Many jurisdictions outlaw studs. On dry pavement they can actually extend stopping distances; they are useless in deep snow and only come into their own on ice. So if ice is a regular occurrence and you are permitted they may fit your needs.

And of course no discussion of tires would be complete without talking about tire pressures. When checking your tire pressure, follow the recommendations that come with your car. You will find them on the windshield post, inside the fuel filler door or some other prominent position. If you frequently travel at higher speed or carry even one passenger or stuff in the trucks, lean toward the maximum recommended pressures. Remember that a tire will gain or lose one pound of pressure for every 10 degree (Fahrenheit) change in temperature. So if you checked those winter tires sitting in your garage on a balmy 20 degree fall day, that pressure will be considerably lower when you go to mount them in that ugly cold winter storm.

And don’t get trapped in the silly notion that lowering the pressure in your tires will increase grip in snow. All it does is change the shape of the tread, actually reducing the amount of tire in contact with the road. And should you forget to restore proper pressure before resuming highway speeds, the temperature of the tire will skyrocket and possibly cause failure.

One last tip: When purchasing new tires in pairs, put those with the best tread or grip on the rear of the vehicle whether it is front or rear wheel drive. Putting them on the front will greatly increase the likelihood of an oversteer situation or loss of grip at the rear during a panic or emergency situation.

The bottom line: If you can afford it and or must drive in all conditions, get a set of high quality winter tires.

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