Throughout most of the United States, even a light snowfall is treated with caution. But many of the challenges of driving in snow or heavy rainfall can be easily dealt with by selecting the right set of tires for your vehicle and driving conditions.
Different Types of Tires
When shopping for tires, terms such as summer, all season, all-weather and winter tires are thrown out with little understanding. Each type is designed to maximize grip under specific road conditions and can make a significant difference in how your car accelerates, stops and handles.
Built for the average driver, all season tires offer a balance of capabilities, including ride comfort, handling and wear life throughout moderate climates and changing seasons. They are offered in many sizes and models for use on a wide variety of vehicles from economy cars to sedans to mini-vans to pickup trucks. The tread compound and tread pattern of all season tires can be optimized to deliver a variety of desired attributes, including fuel efficiency, wet traction, long wear life and more.
Summer tires are ideal for high performance vehicles, and are built for speed and agility. They offer increased responsiveness, cornering and braking capabilities. This is typically attributed to specialized tread patterns and rubber compounds that allow for improved precision on the road. The tread patterns of summer tires have large grooves for water evacuation and put more rubber in contact with the road. Summer tires may have shallower tread depths that allow for more stability when pushed to their limits.
While all season tires are capable of providing traction in winter, they are not the best tire to use in extreme winter driving conditions. All season tire rubber will lose flexibility as the weather gets colder, which is why the latest generations of winter tires are specially designed to remain flexible even at extremely low temperatures. This flexibility, together with a tread design optimized for grip in winter driving conditions, allows winter tires to conform to the road and maintain their traction on snowy, icy, wet and dry surfaces.
Winter tire technology has advanced in recent years to deliver even better grip on snow and ice. For example, the newest generations of Blizzak winter tires from Bridgestone are specially designed with a Multi-Cell compound that dispels water from the surface of ice. This combats slippage and improves braking. The tread pattern of Blizzak winter tires is uniquely designed with sipes – tiny slices in the tread pattern – that have biting edges to help grip on ice, snow and wet pavement, as well as grooves that retain snow as the tire makes contact with the road. This is because snow-on-snow traction is some of the best traction you can get in those conditions.
Studs or Studless?
Another selection of winter tires have metal studs inserted into the tread. These studs are designed to dig into the frozen road surface to provide traction.
Studded tires perform well, especially on smooth ice, but there are several drawbacks. Studded tires reduce traction when not on ice or packed snow and cause substantial road noise inside the car. They also can damage the roadway when driving on clear pavement. A modern studless winter tire like the Bridgestone Blizzak offers similar ice and snow traction capability without the disadvantages of studs.
Making Your Tire Choices
Tires are highly advanced pieces of technology and are designed for different terrains and driving applications. Summer and winter tires are designed to provide excellent performance in their specific seasons, while all-season and all-weather tires are optimized to perform across a variety of conditions and seasons.
Each driver has to decide on the best option but many have found that keeping two sets of tires for winter and summer driving offer the best of both worlds. Most service stations, neighborhood auto centers, dealers and tire shops will swap your tires for a small fee, with some willing to even store your extra tires.
Even if you’re an MX-5 Miata owner — or someone considering purchasing one — this means your car, with the right tires, is much more able to tackle the snow, ice and slush. See what Mazda was able to do on an ice track in Crested Butte, Colorado.