Has this reporter completely lost his mind? He’s talking about winter tires in October! But bear with him — he has your best interests at heart. So, without further ado, and as Shakespeare once wrote, here’s “the New News”: High-tech winter tires can keep your family safe, cost less if purchased soon, lower your car insurance costs and (drum roll, please) are made of such high-tech materials, they completely outclass and outperform so-called “all-weather” tires. In fact, the phrase “all-weather” is a misnomer that can give you a false sense of security during the coming cold months.
As for the timing of this story, remember that the air has felt its first chill in many regions of the country. Plus, many tire manufacturers choose the month of October to introduce their new, breakthrough products.
But before we get to some of the tech and some specific recommendations, here are four surprising facts about winter tires.
- If you get them now at an online retailer, they are sometimes less expensive than if you purchase them before November; and the online tools for finding the right ones are, frankly, very easy. One of the best online retailers is called tirerack.com.
- Even if you’re not saving money buying them early, you’re avoiding the risk of discovering a popular winter tire model is sold out, which happens these days as some makers reduce their production.
- Winter tires are much higher-tech than you think. They’re not just made of “rubber” any more.
- A single set of winter tires can keep your family safe over many years, not just for one season; if used properly, one set of snow tires can last three winters.
- Some people try to save money by buying two winter tires for the front two (or rear two) wheels. That’s like tuning up the left half of your car to save money.
OK, smart drivers, here’s what you need to know:
First, don’t call them “snow tires.” They’re not just for snow. They’re for winter. Which means they’re for ice. It’s true that there are specially designed, so-called “mud and snow” tires that are well-suited for farmers and off-road enthusiasts who need big traction in the middle of a field or in deep snowdrifts. But virtually none of us ever drives our family car in those conditions.
Second, snow is just one of the challenges your tires face in winter, and not even the most common one. The most common road hazards in winter? Ice and slush, which are conditions you could experience during the days (and even weeks) after one snowstorm. Roads can be icy or slippery without snow. Again, ice creates challenges that an average “snow” tire cannot handle.
Third, if you have all-wheel drive or ABS (an anti-lock braking system) in your car, it will do a great job of keeping you from locking up your wheels when you hit the brakes hard. But here’s what it won’t do: improve your bad tires’ lousy traction. If your tires are bad at the weather they’re driving in, they won’t grip the road, and you could end up in a snowbank. Or worse.
The new news: sticky rubber.
Real, high-tech winter tires now use high-tech materials to literally “grip” ice in cold weather. While so-called “all-season” tires use tire constructions that claim to handle every kind of weather, high-tech winter tires use modern rubber compounds that flex and literally “stick” to ice. There is literally no comparison. In a recent test done by online tire retailer TireRack.com, some high-tech winter tires stopped a car on a skating rink twice as fast as a car with great all-season radial tires.
Bridgestone was one of the first to create these tires, which have been updated many times since their introduction, but which still use the winter category name “Blizzak.” They are considered to be among the best in the business. That said, now all of the major manufacturers make a version of them. Here’s how they all work: The new silica-based rubber compound in these tires is designed to wrap itself around even the most uneven surface at the microscopic level and to literally grip the ice. Remember, friction keeps you on the road. All-season radials have rubber that gets rigid, and less “grippy” at low temperatures, because it literally can’t flex to conform to the ice it’s rolling over.
In the case of Bridgestone Blizzak, this high-tech rubber has so-called “micropores” throughout the rubber that cover the outside surface of the tire up to about half an inch deep. This compound is similar to a sponge, which has thousands of tiny air cells, with acres of combined surface area, that absorb water. The result: no water between your tire and the ground, meaning total contact with the road.
Here is the surprising reason this matters: The friction of your tire driving over the ice melts the ice and creates a watery film under the tire, making it slip. The micropores almost instantly absorb that water, then flush it out as the tire rotates, resulting in constant “sticky” friction.
The only disadvantage to this rubber is that it is so soft and malleable at low temperatures that it becomes positively squishy at summer temperatures. Which means they won’t perform very well in high-speed turns when the mercury climbs to 75 degrees and the road surface is hot. Worse, they’d wear out quickly. So take them off your car come spring.
- Bridgestone Blizzak (www.bridgestonetire.com)
- Michelin X-Ice and Michelin Alpin (www.michelinman.com)
- Dunlop Winter Sport (www.dunloptires.com)
- Pirelli SottoZero (www.us.pirelli.com)
Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: