This Winter, Skip The Investment in AWD and Buy A Set of Winter Tires

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This week, we spent some time evaluating the 2016 Ford Explorer, which we’ll be reviewing shortly. It’s a terrific vehicle, but on a rainy, cold commute from Portland, Maine, the tires — with just over 10,000 miles and loads of room before they hit the wear bars — simply would not grip the road surface. Whether you drive a front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicle, an investment in winter tires will drastically improve your traction, not only in the snow, but in the rain and cold temperatures.

We had the opportunity to evaluate winter tires with Tire Rack in October, comparing identical front-wheel drive Toyota Camrys, and all-wheel drive Toyota RAV4s equipped with both OEM-spec all-season tires, and Michelin X-Ice winter tires. The results simply spoke for themselves.

Wyatt Knox from Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire lays it out in no uncertain terms: “Quality winter tires will give you the best possible advantage to getting through the winter unscathed.”

To illustrate the point, Tire Rack invited journalists to drive both the Toyota RAV4 and the Toyota Camry across the ice rink at Notre Dame University. The test requires drivers to mash the accelerator to the floor, and apply full panic braking at a marker cone. The team measures the difference in both acceleration and braking distances.

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Equipped with four winter tires, the RAV4 stops seven feet shorter, approximately half a car length. At just 30 miles per hour, that difference would translate into stopping 56 feet shorter. That’s about three and a half car lengths.

It’s the same story with the Camry. At 10 miles per hour, the winter tire-equipped Camry stop eight feet shorter than with all-season tires. At 30 miles per hour, it’s a 63-foot difference, about four car lengths in distance.

In a real-world traffic situation, that’s the difference between a spilled cup of coffee and a ride in an ambulance.

With a front-drive car and an all-wheel drive car, Tire Rack shows how cars without all-wheel drive can stop and turn more effectively than an all-wheel drive vehicle with the proper tires mounted.

In this video, even at 10 miles per hour, the all-wheel drive RAV4 with all-season tires can’t negotiate a simple turn without understeering into the cones. The winter-tire-equipped version of the same RAV4 made the corner with ease.

Both test vehicles made runs on the ice with the tires they were equipped with from the factory, and four Michelin X-Ice tires.

Winter tires have changed dramatically in the four decades since the Bridgestone Blizzak was introduced in 1988. Those tires came about when Japan outlawed the use of studs in snow tires. In recent years, studded tires have been similarly banned in 11 states (Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Texas, and Wisconsin, and Maryland only allows studs in some counties). Studded tires are prohibited in Ontario, but permitted in all other Canadian provinces, typically between October and the end of April.

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Studs were effective on ice, but they had a lot of drawbacks during the 90 to 95 percent of time drivers are on dry or wet pavement, according to Tire Rack’s Matt Edmonds. “Studs are uncomfortable, noisy, and they really have worse driving characteristics when it’s not actively snowing or icy,” he says.  “Plus, they’re hard on roads and represent an environmental issue with increased dust and debris.”

Ron Margadonna, Senior Technical Marketing Manager from Michelin North America, stresses that there’s a distinct difference between “snow tires” and “winter tires.” “Snow is only one element you’re presented with during the winter,” he says.  “Twenty-five years ago, ‘snow tires’ were knobby and had big lugs and big voids between those lugs.”

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The difference between modern winter tires and those old snow tires is night and day, in the ratio of rubber on the road, and the chemistry of the rubber. Think of rubber ratio in terms of a racing slick. They have a 100 percent rubber ratio. Snow tires from the 1980s and 1990s could have a rubber ratio of 65% rubber and 35% void between the rubber blocks.

winter-tires

“Modern winter tires have a 70/30 rubber to void ratio,” says Michelin’s Ron Margadonna.  Tires like the Michelin’s X-Ice and Latitude X-Ice have a more aggressive tread pattern and tread blocks that are open and aggressive to dig through the snow to the pavement below. In addition, individual tread blocks are heavily siped, meaning they have a zig-zag pattern sliced into each tread block that allows the block to move and conform to the road below, digging through the snow. Siping provides many more biting edges.

“We traded the voids for more functional rubber. That’s the single most important evolution in winter tires since about 2001: developing a rubber compound that offers maximum traction at temperatures well below freezing,” says Michelin’s Margadonna. “Those compounds maintain their flexibility as temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Compared to all-season tires, they give more grip in colder temperatures.”

Tires like the Michelin X-Ice aren’t designed for just snow. They’re designed for what Ron Margadonna calls ‘white road’ and ‘black road’ conditions.  White road would be roads covered with snow and ice. Black roads would be everything else you face in the winter months: cold, wet, dry, freezing rain, sometimes all in the same commute. The stuff that makes winter so completely unpredictable.

Finally, the rubber compound that winter tires use alone provides a much greater advantage compared to summer or all-season tires. “Winter tire compounds work in the coldest temperatures,” says Matt Edmonds. “They’re designed to stay soft at 40 degrees and below, where all-season tires need to work between about 20 degrees and 110 degrees. In cold temperatures, all-season tires  get much harder and are less able to mate to the pavement. At 40 degrees or lower, summer tires become almost plastic-like.”

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To show the difference, Michelin provided three samples of rubber attached to a card, all of the same thickness. The rubber compounds ranged from a “summer” performance tire (right) to an all-season tire (middle) to the winter compound used in the Michelin X-Ice (left). In the 45 degree ambient temperature inside the rink in South Bend, the summer tire’s compound had hardened to almost inflexibility. At the other end of the spectrum, the winter compound was still soft, and had tactile grip where the supper compound didn’t.

Inside the rubber, winter tires have micropores in the compound. When warm tires cut through snow, they melt the snow into a thin film of water, which is what makes snow and ice so slick. The micropores give someplace for that water to go. “The latest generation of winter tires have a hydrophilic coating that actually sucks water into the tires,” says Matt.

mountain-snowflake

How do you identify a winter tire? Michelin’s Ron Margadonna points to the symbol on the tire’s sidewall. “Just before the turn of the millennium, the tire industry realized that there wasn’t a consistent way to identify a true winter tire,” he says. The M+S [for Mud and Snow] marking appeared on all-season tires, which was originally designed to describe the geometry of the tread design. But as winter tires evolved into their own class, the M+S designation was confusing . If it says “snow” right on it, isn’t it a winter tire?

So the industry developed the “mountain and snowflake” symbol to indicate that these modern winter tires not only had a more aggressive tread pattern than an “all-season” tire, but also had a winter-specific rubber compound.  “Tires carrying that symbol are designated for severe winter duty,” says Margadonna.

Most people who refuse to switch to winter tires provide the argument that winter tires have a negative effect on fuel economy, but, according to Matt Edmonds, most people are experiencing fuel mileage penalties because they’re not monitoring their air pressure. “From 70 to 40 degrees, you can be down three PSI in every tire in a matter of days,” he says.

The US Department of Energy also suggests that fuel economy can be 12% lower at 20 degrees F than at 77 degrees F.The fuel economy difference might be something you recognize in the winter, but it’s got little to do with the tires on your car.

We’ve run the cost for a full set of winter tires for both the 2016 Toyota Camry and the 2016 Toyota RAV4 at Tire Rack. We have two price options listed: One for just the tires, and one for a tire and wheel package, which includes winter tires, wheels, lug nuts (if necessary) and a mount and balance.

One thing to note: Depending on your trim (we selected the XLE), if you plan to use the original size tires, you’ll spend more for 17-inch tires than you would for a wheel and tire package, which will come in 16-inch diameter.

2016 Toyota Camry XLE
Tires Only (17-inch Michelin X-Ice Xi3):
$129.45 each
$517.80 set of four (Note: Michelin offers a mail-in rebate, lowering the price to $447.80)
Mount and balance at a local retailer: $16 per tire/$64 set of four

Tire and Wheel Package (16-inch Michelin X-Ice Xi3, 16-inch MSW Type 25, mount and balance)
$784.80 set of four (Note: Michelin offers a mail-in rebate, lowering the price to $714.80)

2016 Toyota RAV4
Tires Only (17-inch Michelin Latitude X-Ice Xi2):$113.10 each
$452.40 set of four (Note: Michelin offers a mail-in rebate, lowering the price to $382.40)
Mount and balance at a local retailer: $16 per tire/$64 set of four

Tire and Wheel Package (16-inch General Altimax Arctic, 16-inch MSW Type 25, mount and balance)
$720.80 set of four

Black Friday is the single biggest day of the year for winter tire sales. Check with your retailer and make an appointment today.

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.