EDIT: THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED FOR DECEMBER
At this point in the DC region the average daily temperature is 41 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the temperatures at night are averaging 32 degrees. What does this mean to you as a driver or motoring enthusiast? Well, for starters unless you’re insane or Norwegian, you probably won’t be driving with the top down. You probably will also need to start your vehicle 5-10 minutes before you actually plan to leave so it has a chance to come up to temp (coolant and oil). It’s never a good thing to idle a car for too long, but we can talk about that later. Now, we’ve already covered the impact the lower temps are having on your daily drives; convertible tops up, and the need to pre-warm your car. Now, the most important issue remaining is tires. At this point unless you have all-season or dedicated winter rubber on the four corners you need to make the change ASAP. Why you ask?
Here’s why, when the ambient temperature drops below 40 degrees (My posts tend to use Fahrenheit) the compound used in modern winter tires begin to excel, precisely at the point where your regular tires for summer driving begin to drop off, like an cliff diver from Acapulco. There’s a term in the tire industry for this phenomenon, it’s known as “glass transition temperature”, and if you still have summer performance tires on your vehicle when you hit this temperature you are indeed brave. Below 40, and those summer performance tires of awesomeness you fell in love with over the summer become a hockey puck on ice all the other object you encounter on the road being hockey players with sticks. Now, All-Season tires are not a bad way to go, but by their very nature they compromise of performance at either end of the temperature spectrum; it gives up better winter performance and summer performance for being ok through most of the year.
Some people question the need for winter tires rather than keeping the factory provided all-season rubber. Well, I guess it’s like this, what’s winter like where you live? Is it just cold with minimal precipitation or do you experience heavy snowfalls and ice and single digit temps? I’m in the Mid-Atlantic region, and the very first season I had my winter tires (Vredestein – Dutch for friggin awesome!) on my Golf R, I was able to make it safely home with a strong feeling of control and traction when the local municipalities failed to treat roads before a freak pre-rush hour winter storm hit. I was passing almost every vehicle, and navigating past some potentially dicey situations. I feel this is pretty evident, but I’m just going to go ahead and say it, if you live in Alaska, Montana, Maine, Vermont or New Hampshire don’t even bother with All-Season tires. Just don’t.
So let’s just say for argument’s sake and validating this post that you need winter tires, let’s look at why they are awesome and will only benefit you during the winter months, unless that you live in Southern Florida or San Diego.
3 features make winter tires better than summer or all season tires: biting edges, tread depth/patterns, and tread rubber
1. Biting Edges: These are little treads or penetrations within treads that cause the tread to increase its biting capability on ice, effectively increasing the surface of the tire to provide grip on the road surface.
2. Tread Depth/Patterns: Winter tires go deeper. Deeper tread depths are needed to account for the winter induced gunk that will attempt to overwhelm your tire treads, reducing your control/traction during the winter; snow, slush, ice, road salt, brine mixtures, and/or normal road debris. If you want to go deep into the winter season with control, you want DEEP tread depths.
3. Tread Rubber: Special rubber compounds used on these specialized tires means when your summer performance tires have turned to plastic hockey pucks at this point in the year, these winter tires have rubber that will remain flexible. Flexibility is a good thing, and not just for gymnasts or contortionists. You want this feature on tires when temperatures can drop into the single digits. Remember, these 4 discs of rubber are the only thing between your seat and the road, you need to get it right.
One important thing to remember is that winter tires start with 11/32″ tread depth, and are considered ready for recycling at 5/32″. They won’t look used up at 5/32, but they are ready to give up the handling and traction you’ve come to expect from them.
My normal practice is to install winter tires/wheels ahead of when the weather in my area typically turns cold or the first snow event of the season is predicted (Late November-Early December). Tire Rack (based in Indiana) advises switching to winter tires around Thanksgiving, and changing back at tax time (April). Winter tires excel in the winter temperatures, but will wear much more quickly once the temperature stays consistently above 40-50 degrees. Although my experience has been (DC to Southern FL and back road trip) that when I’ve driven to warmer climes for a 1-2 week stretch it hasn’t greatly impacted the tread wear on my winter tires, but like anything your own experience may vary. However, one particular situation that vexed me whether to switch tire types involved a car club gathering in Western North Carolina in the spring. Should I switch to summer tires or keep the winters on? During the day temperatures would climb to the 50’s, but in the evening they dropped into the 30’s. I really wrestled with this decision, but in the end I kept the winters on, and was glad I did. 1 week before the event took place, they had a moderate snowfall, and given the elevation in the mountains (3-4,000 FT) that snow was still there when our event started. I met a few people who started on a drive in the lower elevations only to lose traction in upper elevations. Not me, my Golf R was solid through the whole range, and I was supremely thankful. Now, my brakes on the other hand, well that’s another matter altogether (they’s why they’re called consumables).
In conclusion, there is good news. If you haven’t switched over, and you live in a region like mine you probably have at least 2.5 more months when winter tires could really benefit you. The bad news is that tire manufacturers make their winter tire production runs shortly after August, and generally do not produce any more for the season after those runs which means at this point you shouldn’t expect any sales or price reductions, it is what is at this stage.
Happy winter motoring!