Yes, winter tires are worth it

2017 Winter Tires 3.JPG
Two all-wheel-drive Kia Sportages accelerate during winter tire driving experiment. The car on the right has winter tires and can accelerate and stop faster than the car on the left, which has all-season tires. (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

As much of the country is dipping into temperatures ranging from cold to frigid today, it’s worth reminding everyone that winter tires aren’t just for snow.

They’re for cold, too.

If you live in an area that dips below 44 degrees for any length of time during the winter, there are several reasons for equipping your vehicle with tires of the winter variety.

So, we wanted to revisit a winter tire driving experience we had with Michelin and Tire Rack a couple years ago, where we became true believers that winter tires are a must.

Below are three myths associated with winter tires and the accompanying truths.

Myth: Winter tires are unnecessary in regions that don’t get much snow.

Fact: Winter tires are designed to withstand both precipitation and temperature.

Winter tires certainly have a different tread pattern with deeper grooves and zig-zagged sipes, or small slits in the tire's tread block specifically designed to wick moisture and create more grip on snow and ice.

But the material used to make winter tires is also specifically designed to withstand cooler temperatures. The primary filler for most tires is a substance called carbon black. In warmer weather it is pliant and grippy. But as soon as it gets cold, this substance is stiff and unyielding – not the best surface to deal with cold and icy roads.

Many winter tires will add different compounds into the rubber to combat temperatures and keep tires pliant in cold. Michelin, for example, mixes Silica into its winter tires, which creates a sharper surface that can bite into snow and pavement.

To drive home the difference in materials, Tire Rack provided us with three frozen rubber samples from summer, all-season and winter tires. While both the summer and all-season samples were stiff as a board, the winter tire sample was pliant and supple.

Myth: Winter tires are too expensive.

Fact: The up-front cost may be more, but over the life of your vehicle winter tires will save you money.

As Woody Rogers, director or tire information at Tire Rack, pointed out during a winter tire presentation, the average person will own a car for 6 years. During the life of a vehicle, owners should buy new tires every 60,000 miles.

So, if you put about 15,000 miles on your car per year, you’ll be changing tires after 4 years.

If you move the tire purchase forward, adding a winter set to your repertoire, then you’ll move through the entire 6-year life cycle of your vehicle without needing to purchase a replacement – and you’ll still have tread left on each set.

Yes, there may be additional costs associated with swapping and storing the tires, but there are a couple benefits that save money – and stress – that shouldn’t be overlooked.

First, by swapping tires two times a year, you’re automatically doing a tire rotation, which you should do every 6,000 miles anyway.

Second, your winter driving becomes more confident when you don’t get stuck and can stop faster on ice and snow – and you can’t put a price tag on that.

Myth: Vehicles with all-wheel drive don’t need winter tires.

Fact: All-wheel drive doesn’t help you stop faster or turn better on snow and ice.

I was skeptical about this one until the folks at Michelin and Tire Rack put us on an ice rink with identical all-wheel drive Kia Sportages. One had all-season tires and the other had Michelin X-Ice Xi3 winter tires.

We went through two exercises. One had us accelerate quickly and then slam on the brakes. The other showed us what happens when you try to corner at 10 mph.

In the first exercise, I found that I could get up to 16 mph in the all-season tires, and it took me several seconds to skid to a stop when I slammed on the brakes. With the winter tires, in the same distance, I was able to accelerate to 20 mph and stopped in a shorter distance.

We tested both tires twice to verify results, and time after time, the winter tires allowed for faster acceleration and stopped the vehicle in a shorter distance.

During the second exercise, professional drivers took the wheel and got up to about 10 mph on the rink straightaway. Then they tried to turn – while still going 10 mph. We sat in both cars, so we could see the drivers were doing exactly the same motions at exactly the same time. The result: The Sportage with winter tires made the turn easily, and the one with all-season tires continued a straighter trajectory, hitting the cones marking the corner.

The Bottom Line:

I keep rubber samples in my freezer that I pull out every so often when someone tries to argue with me that all season tires are “good enough.”

Sure, they’re better than summer tires. But inches matter when you’re trying to stop while careening toward another car – or a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

At the end of the day, those exercises on the ice drove home the point that all-season tires do not equal winter tires. Sure, there may be a little extra expense, but peace of mind is worth the price.

And so is that life you save when you can stop more quickly.

Editor’s Note: Impressions regarding winter tires are from an invitation-only event that allowed special access to the tires, vehicles and product experts. Michelin and Tire Rack covered our accommodations and meals.