I've had winter tires on quite a few of the cars my wife and I have owned over the years. They make a lot of sense, even here in western Oregon where sometimes it never snows all winter.
I can't recall exactly what led me to start putting winter tires on in mid-November and off in mid-March, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with an experience I had driving our Volvo 850 station wagon to a cabin in Camp Sherman, Oregon that we were part owners of.
I'd just pulled off the main highway that leads to Sisters and was on the two-lane road that leads to Camp Sherman. It didn't take long before I realized that the road was icy. Really icy. So icy that I felt if I did anything sudden, my car would careen out of control.
I made it to the cabin.
But what I realized, after my heart rate returned to normal, was that if I'd passed a guy on the side of the road with a sign saying "Winter tires sold and installed here!", I would have (gently) pulled over and bought a set of tires for however much the guy was asking for them.
Western Oregon is notorious for snow and ice that falls onto roads that are close to freezing, 32 degrees. This makes for more slippery conditions than in places where the temperature is colder and the snow is powdery.
Winter tires provide a big dose of reassurance and safety. As noted in a 2012 blog post I wrote about winter tires, I've found that all-wheel drive doesn't cut it when all season tires are on a car.
I've owned several sets of snow tires over the years. Actually, they're better termed "winter tires" nowadays, because they're made out of materials which remain pliable under 45 degrees F., making for much safer handling in cold weather even when it isn't snowy or icy.
Last year I put Bridgestone Blizzaks on our Hybrid Highlander SUV, which previously had all season tires. Even though the Highlander is all wheel drive, usually we couldn't get up our fairly steep driveway when it snowed. But with the Blizzaks, no problem.
When I bought a 2017 VW GTI in late 2016, one of the first things I did was purchase four Michelin Pilot Alpin performance winter tires from Les Schwab -- after learning that Les Schwab can order whatever you want from any tire company.
I hate to put on tire chains. They're tough enough to install in our carport in good weather. Whenever I've had to put chains on by the side of the road in freezing weather the experience made me long for a better option. Which turned out to be winter tires.
A New York Times article, "What's On Your Car? Winter Tires, We Hope," does a good job of explaining why winter tires make so much sense.
There could be great dumping ahead of us, as there is almost every February and March. And for the most part, drivers will venture out, confident that modern drivetrain designs like front-wheel and all-wheel drive will get them to their destinations without drama. Electronic aids like traction control, stability systems and antilock brakes further bolster their self-confidence.
But I learned early that there is no substitute for winter tires in conditions with heavy snow. Their tread design keeps your car from skidding during braking and while making turns. You won’t slide through stop signs; you won’t continue going straight when trying to turn. Simply put, the tires give you more control of the car, help keep you out of accidents and avoid the skidding cars that don’t have them. All-season tires, despite their name, fall one season short if it’s a season of heavy snow.
If it’s just a dusting of freshly fallen snow, all-season tires will probably be fine. Driving gets trickier, though, when traffic packs snow to concrete hardness and parking spots get burnished to skating-rink slickness. Which is why you need to have tires that are up to the task.
This is even true if there’s just a little winter slop. Those electronic assistants built into modern cars can limit the amount of power going to the wheels or the braking force during a skid, but improving traction requires a better match of tires to surface conditions.
Yes, winter tires on steel rims are an extra expense. And there's some time involved in having them put on and removed. (Les Schwab does this at no cost if you bought the tires from them.) However, obviously every mile driven on my winter tires is one less mile driven on the all-season tires that came with my GTI.
So in the long run, there isn't a lot of extra expense involved with winter tires. The knowledge that I'm much better equipped to handle snow or ice is hard to put a value on, but it's considerable.
Tomorrow I'm heading to our local Les Schwab tire center to have the winter tires replaced by the all-season tires. I enjoy the ritual of doing this. It starts with me staring at the stack of all-season tires in our garage. Les Schwab provides yellow covers that keeps the tires nice and cozy during their long winter sleep.
I've gotten to the age, 70, where my body doesn't like it when I make it do something unusual -- like lifting tires on rims into the back of my GTI. So I use a ramp that we got for an aged dog some years back to roll the tires into the back of my car.
It's pleasing that every car I've bought winter tires for has been able to fit in a set of the tires. Even my Mini Cooper S (just barely). It seems that small cars have fairly small tires, so they can be squeezed in. Ditto with a larger car with larger tires, such as our Toyota Highlander, which also has winter tires put on in November.
I wondered whether I should have gotten black steel wheels to mount the Michelin winter tires on, since my VW GTI came with silver stock wheels. The black wheels now strike me as a nice winter change, November to March. When the silver wheels get put on tomorrow, it'll be (sort of) like I have a new car.
This is the tread design of the Michelin Pilot Alpin. After three seasons of winter driving, they have a lot of wear left. It just makes me feel good to head off in the GTI with these tires when snow is in the forecast. I know that I'll be a heck of a lot better off driving around with these tires, than with the all-season tires the car came with.