Like many of you, I wasn’t always a believer in the magic of winter tires.
Short of a conspiracy theory by tire companies, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where a seasonal set of tires would do the job an all-wheel drive system couldn’t. Of course, I was much younger then, and much less sensible. Yet I hear that same excuse — that power to more wheels means you don’t need winter tires — from people much older than me, not to mention far wiser. But it took all of five minutes behind the wheel of a car equipped with winter tires all those years ago to see the error of my ways, and now it’s your turn. And yes, that includes you four-wheel drive truck and SUV owners — having all-wheel drive does not make you invincible in the snow. Believing that it does is a huge misconception, and it has to stop.
The basic rule of thumb is that if the temperature stays below about 45°F (7°C) where you live or drive during the winter months, then you should be making the switch to winter tires. And that’s no conspiracy theory; that’s science. Remember, they’re winter tires, not snow tires. Even if there isn’t any snow on the ground, the softer rubber compound used in winter tires has a lower freezing point, allowing them to remain pliable when the mercury plunges. That, in conjunction with special tread patterns and numerous crevices, called sipes, that work to pull water from wet and icy surfaces, allows winter tires to provides grip that their all-season adversaries simply can’t.
Remember, we’re talking grip here, not traction. Those words are often used interchangeably, and while they are fundamentally the same, they are two very different — and very important — aspects of winter driving. Because traction describes the limit of friction between a vehicle’s drive wheels and the surface of the road. Reach that limit and the wheels will spin, triggering the intervention of the traction control system, which will automatically pump the brakes to counteract the slippage. Grip, meanwhile, is the level of adhesion to the road surface, and it’s crucial even to wheels that aren’t receiving power. It’s also how a vehicle can slow itself to a halt — all-wheel drive does absolutely nothing to help you stop a car. And it’s the combination of both that gives winter tires their insurmountable edge over all-wheel drive.
And for those money misers out there who are worried about the additional cost of an extra set of tires, don’t forget that running two sets of tires throughout the year will prolong the lives of both by reducing wear. If you still can’t justify the cost, you’ve officially placed a dollar value on the safety of yourself and others.
All-wheel drive is great when it comes to traversing snow-covered roads, but the misconception about its superiority in winter weather should end there. If you can figure out how all-wheel drive can slow a vehicle down any quicker on slippery roads then put it in a bottle and start selling it to the masses. But if you can’t then suck it up and head to your local tire shop. It’s for your own good.