As an Atlanta refugee who moved to Denver, it took me some time to figure out the deal with snow tires. Most cars come with all-season tires that are nominally equipped to handle some snow. While Denver doesn’t get all the snow the Colorado Rockies are famous for, the effects of an occasional blizzard can linger for weeks on shady side streets like the one I live on.
Now that I’ve survived many winters with several different cars, I finally figured out the least expensive and safest way to equip a car for winter…
- Forget “snow tires.” Traditional snow tires feature very wide tread gaps and work well in snow, but are loud and clunky without it. Technology has advanced in recent years to create what’s called “winter tires.” They’re for winter weather of all types – including ice and extremely cold weather. All-season tires and summer tires are made with a harder rubber compound that works best at higher temperatures, but not in the dead of winter. Therefore, winter tires offer advantages in cold weather and on dry pavement, even when the flakes aren’t flying.
- Consider safety. Winter tires aren’t about going faster. They’re about stopping quicker. Shorter stops and better control means fewer rear-end accidents. As a side benefit, owning winter tires enables you to also purchase dedicated summer tires, rather than the compromise with an all-season tire.
- A second set of tires costs little in the long run. Since you can only use one set of tires at a time, you’ll ultimately be paying the same amount on tires as you would if you had a single set, so there is little to lose. Your only costs will be the price of changing the tires out or, if you can change the wheels yourself, the one-time price of an additional set of wheels. (Hopefully you have a free place to store the ones you’re not using.)
- Consider winter wheels vs. just winter tires. If you can find a tire store that will swap your tires out for free each season, winter tires by themselves – not premounted on wheels – can make sense. But if you’re able to handle the DIY task of changing wheels twice a year, you can purchase an inexpensive set of steel wheels with winter tires already mounted. This is the approach I prefer. Unfortunately, newer cars come equipped with tire-pressure monitoring systems that can add hundreds to the price of an additional set of wheels.
- Try online tire-shopping. Buying tires online can make sense, especially when you have the wheels and tires shipped to you already installed. Depending on where you live, the shipping costs will often be justified by the sales tax savings.
- Attempt to price-match. Tire dealers know they’re competing with the Web, and they’ll bend over backward to keep your business. The next time you find a great deal online, don’t forget to call your local dealer and see if they’ll match the price.
- Remember to remove winter tires in the spring. Nothing wears out winter tires faster than driving them in hot weather. When springtime comes, don’t forget to swap out your winter tires for a more seasonal variety.
After years of experience, I concluded that I’d much rather drive in the snow in a two-wheel-drive car with winter tires than a four-wheel-drive without. Don’t find yourself fighting the first snowfall with the wrong tires on your car.