To snow tire or not to snow tire?
January 5, 2014 5:21 AM   Subscribe

We're driving in snowy weather for the first time in our lives. Do we need snow tires, or is it better to just get a new set of all weathers if we are spending the money? Cars are a Corolla and a Focus.
posted by chaiminda to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you located? If it's northern Maine for instance, it might be a different answer than if you're in Seattle.
posted by easily confused at 5:25 AM on January 5, 2014

I got tires that will work in all weather, but have been designed for snow and ice traction. I have a car about the size of both of yours. It was extremely dangerous to drive before I had these tires put on, so I highly recommend spending the money. Your life is worth it. I'm in Michigan, but if you're in Massachusetts I'd still recommend it. I don't regret it. My tires were about $100 apiece. It may be more expensive in New England.
posted by xenophile at 5:28 AM on January 5, 2014

I also like to remind people that even if you're driving an automatic, you can use the lower gears at starts and stops -- as someone with a manual transmission would do.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:31 AM on January 5, 2014

Yes, Western Mass is the location.
posted by chaiminda at 5:31 AM on January 5, 2014

But yes -- all weather tires are pretty good.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:31 AM on January 5, 2014

I live in Western Mass. (Hello neighbor!). All-weather tires are the default around here; if it's too icy for them you probably shouldn't be driving anyway :)
posted by ook at 5:43 AM on January 5, 2014

My experience in New England (lived here just about my entire life) is that unless you work in a job where you need to go out before things have been plowed and salted (so, EMT, Dr, Manager at a grocery store, run a plowing service, etc.), you can get by with no problem in all weather tires.
posted by chiefthe at 5:44 AM on January 5, 2014

I'd recommend snow tires. All seasons start to be less effective than snows below 0C.

I've seen several people on urban streets sliding on street car tracks or not being able to move up a hill after stopping for a red light 1/2 way up the hill side. Combined with better stopping abilities in cold temps, snow tires are the way to go.

Also, your all season tires will last longer if you're not using them 5 months a year.
posted by rooster416 at 5:50 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I used to switch to snow tires, but found that their utility was pretty limited. Even here in Indiana, the winter weather can swing wildly from heavy snow and sub-zero temps one week, and clear pavement and above-freezing temps two weeks later. I found that, a lot of the time, I was driving around on the snow tires on above-freezing, bone-dry pavement, which isn't good for them. Generally, I found that a good set of all-season tires (not the cheapo Wal*Mart specials that your aunt has on her Buick) work really well in most conditions.

There's also the issue of storing the snow tires somewhere the rest of the year. Remember, if you go that route, you're going to want to get snow tires mounted on their own steel wheels.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:04 AM on January 5, 2014

I live in CT. I've never used snow tires - all-weather tires do the job just fine provided they have adequate tread and you're driving at appropriate speeds. In much of New England the roads will be clear the day after a storm.

Also, your all season tires will last longer if you're not using them 5 months a year.

Kind of a moot point - the all-seasons last longer, but only because you're using different tires the rest of the time. There wouldn't be a significant savings in dollars or tires.
posted by shihchiun at 6:08 AM on January 5, 2014

Here's my advice based on driving a similar car (Prius) in winter conditions in your area (western MA, NYC, far-southern VT) for ~6 years: All weather tires can work great, but you need to get quality all weather tires. The ones that come stock on new cars are usually quite poor in snow. We've had great luck with the Goodyear TripleTreds, but I'm sure there are other good alternatives.

Anecdote: I asked a guy at a tire store (ie a guy with motivation to sell me more tires) if I needed snow tires to replace the TripleTreds in the winter and he said no. In fact, he said they were what he put on his wife's car and left them there all winter.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:16 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had snows for my last 3 cars & was happy to have them. I bought my current car about 2 1/2 years ago & never got around to getting snows - the last 2 winters weren't very snowy, and my all-seasons were fairly new. Now I've got 30K miles on my original tires, and we've already had three major snow storms this winter, and each time I've been out in the snow it's felt like I was driving a bumpercar. I'm about to throw in the towel - buying snows at this time of year is a lot like buying an air conditioner in late July, though.

I do not understand the people who say the roads will be clear - that is true of the main roads, certainly, but all the side roads here in Boston are still snowy 3 days after the storm. In western MA I would expect the snow to stick around even longer. And it's hilly.
posted by mr vino at 6:18 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am really surprised to see so many people recommending against getting snow tires. As someone who has driven through snowy winters both with all season and with snow tires, I really think snow tires are a necessity. It's not just EMTs and doctors that need to get to work the morning after a snowstorm... I'm expected to be at work by 9 every day of the year, and some days that means driving through snowy roads.

In the long term, it doesn't really cost much more to get winter tires - since you are reducing the wear on your all seasons. To me it is worth the peace of mind. The difference between all season and snow tires is remarkable.
posted by barnoley at 6:56 AM on January 5, 2014

VT/CT resident here, voting in favor of snows.
posted by slateyness at 7:06 AM on January 5, 2014

I am also voting for snow tires. I grew up in New England and currently live in CT. There are 4 inches of snow out on the driveway right now and my VW Bug drove right through it no problem with the snow tires. I do put on my summer tires when winter is over, so I have two sets of tires.

What concerns me is that you have never driven in the snow. All weathers are probably fine for someone who has been driving in snow for a while and knows how to slide and deal with it. This is new to you. Snows simply work better in the snow. You should still probably go out to an empty parking lot after a snowfall and try some low-speed slides to figure out how to maneuver, no matter which tires you get.
posted by veerat at 7:15 AM on January 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

I spent several winters in the Berkshires with a Honda Civic and I was very happy to have not just snow tires, but studded snow tires. On more than one occasion I found myself driving through the hill towns on roads coated with ice. I never would have made it without the studded tires.
posted by alms at 7:19 AM on January 5, 2014

Here is the decision making process I would use. YMMV. If money were no object, would I get the snows? Let's assume yes (if no, don't get them). Are the snows for convenience, safety or both? If safety, is it to protect property or life? If property, what is your deductible and are you covered for collision? If you have a $300 deductible and snows cost $200+/- for a pair, is it worth it to you? For life or health reasons, what are the odds of getting in a bad injury crash and what is the cost in terms of lost wages and medical outlays? Of course, if you are worried about being killed because you did not have snows, they are cheap at any cost. To me, up to about $175 per tire is worth it. I drive a F-150 with 4WD and I take precautions such as adding weight to my back end. I see them as a form of insurance. You buy em, you put em on and hope you never need them.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:20 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you get snow tires, you'll need another set of wheels + allseasons or summers for the non-winter months. You don't want to wear out your snow tires when it gets warmer.

You also need a place to store the snow tires during the off-season. If you don't have a place to do that, its going to be impractically expensive to buy new tires every time the season changes.

You might consider getting cheap steel rims+snow tires, and using the nicer rims you already have for the remainder of the year.

I've never driven in a situation where i felt snow tires would have helped me over good all seasons, because i avoid driving in situations that bad. Snows might help you control better, but your fellow drivers are probably driving on summer-only tires and will drive right into you.
posted by TheAdamist at 8:16 AM on January 5, 2014

I grew up in western Michigan, lived in Chicago for a decade, in Vermont for 5 years, and now I'm in western Massachusetts. I did not get snow tires until I was commuting between Vermont and Massachusetts, and I got them only because my pied-a-terre in Massachusetts was at the top of a steep hill that I couldn't regularly climb after a snowfall in my all-season tires. Now that I no longer live there, I don't have snow tires.* But I live on a major town road that is plowed regularly during snowstorms and immediately afterwards.

If you live in a city that doesn't plow side streets quickly, or you have to deal with serious hills in your normal driving, you should consider them. And if it would give you peace of mind to have them, given that you haven't driven in snow before, get them. Get some steel rims (or a used set at a junkyard) so you don't have to have your tires remounted twice a year. And practice driving on snow in an empty parking lot. Snow tires do give you better traction, but they can't perform miracles. (Neither can all-wheel drive. It's surprising how many AWD/4-wheel drive vehicles you see in the highway median after a snowstorm, presumably driven by people who thought that they didn't need to slow down.)

*I do have studded snow tires for my winter bicycle, because the risk of a skid is much greater on a 2-wheeled vehicle.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:46 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I vote for snow tires for at least one of the cars. You'll already have enough other new-to-you variables to be dealing with re: winter driving for your first time; why not tilt the odds in your favor? If you stick with all-weathers, even good ones, you'll be kicking yourself if you end up sideways in a ditch. And having snows will make it just that much easier for you to get your butt out the door on mornings when you are feeling intimidated by the conditions.

Good tires are one of the best investments you can sink money into when it comes to cars.

If you end up moving away after one season, you can sell your rims + snows online.
posted by nacho fries at 9:01 AM on January 5, 2014

On the cars you mention, especially the Prius, good tires > snow tires.

Get some good all weather tires from a good tire manufacturer and rock out your ABS. Again, especially with that light as hell Prius, some good tires and a soft foot will go a long way.

From my personal experience, AWD > 4WD > FWD > RWD when it comes to driving in the snow.
posted by Sphinx at 9:11 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

This year, our 8th winter in Pittsburgh, we decided on snow tires for the first time. The two factors that decided us were: (1) that snowstorms are not always accurately predicted where we are, maybe because of the mountains? so it's not always possible to avoid driving in them. For instance, I had a hair-raising experience last year driving home from a friend's house, where a snowstorm dumped 2 inches in an hour instead of the 1/2 inch that had been predicted. Five miles and several slides in, I almost had to ditch the car halfway up a hill near our house, even though I picked the least steep street to climb it. And (2) the city is both very hilly and terrible about pre- and post-snow treatment. So it's not just the morning after a nighttime snowfall that I find myself driving on a couple inches of snow; it's up to a few days afterward.

So maybe things are different where you are -- snows are well-predicted and whatever entity is responsible for the roads is good about pre-treating and plowing promptly. But speaking personally, I'm cautious about avoiding snow driving but find myself driving on snow regularly anyway, just because of those two things I mentioned.

And hey, enjoy the snow!
posted by palliser at 11:15 AM on January 5, 2014

All-weather tires are generally fine as long as you are OK with just not driving (or driving very, very carefully and very, very slowly) if the roads haven't been cleared yet. If you're only dealing with occasional snow and you aren't driving in snow anywhere that's particularly remote, I'd just stick with the all-weathers.

Snow tires definitely make a difference though! If you're driving somewhere where snow and ice are a major feature in the year, they're worth getting in my opinion. Most people don't bother even in places like Massachusetts (where I grew up) even though there's a good deal of snow and ice for four or five months of the year, but I think if I lived there again I would do it myself. And if you are driving somewhere remote where help would be hard to come by, or somewhere a lot of snow but without a lot of road-clearing infrastructure, or if you need to be able to travel even if conditions are bad, I would definitely recommend getting a set.

Snow tires are sort of an investment. They cost some money up front (a cheap set of rims from a junkyard car, plus the tires themselves of course) but in the long run they aren't expensive. You'll extend the life of your regular tires by not using them year round and you'll only be using the snow tires for part of the year too, so in the end you won't end up buying more tires (though I think snow tires wear out a bit faster than all-season, generally). Also snow tires will degrade your gas mileage somewhat, but again the overall cost is not likely to be great.

If having markedly better traction in really nasty conditions sounds to you like it would be worth an extra $500 up front plus the hassle of changing your car's wheels out twice a year, I say do it. That's basically what you're looking at. If that doesn't sound like a good trade to you (because you're happy to just sit at home when things are really nasty, for example) then don't bother.
posted by Scientist at 11:43 AM on January 5, 2014

And hey, some general quick tips about driving in snow:
  • Start by thinking of it as if you were driving in really heavy, pounding, road-soaking rain only moreso. Just as you would drive more slowly and carefully in bad rain, you should drive much more carefully and slowly on snow or ice.
  • Pay attention. Don't let yourself go on autopilot. If something goes wrong, it will probably do so quickly and unexpectedly. Be alert.
  • Slow down. Way down. More than you think you have to.
  • Drive deliberately. Think about every turn, every stop, every acceleration, and do it as gently and smoothly as you possibly can. Leave lots and lots of extra distance for stops.
  • Do only one thing at a time. You are either cruising, accelerating, stopping, turning, etc. Don't combine them, do things one at a time.
  • Maintain some momentum. If you can avoid it, don't come to a dead stop on snow or ice. Starting from a dead stop on snow or ice is a great way to lose traction and get stuck. A bit of momentum will carry you through a lot of things that you wouldn't be able to start on from a dead stop.
Those are the basics, as far as I'm concerned. It's not hard, you'll get the hang of it. Most accidents in the snow come from people who weren't obeying those rules. Also, if you're going nice and slow any accidents are likely to result only in property damage rather than bodily harm or death. If you're only doing 20mph instead of 35mph, your chances of getting in a bad accident are much lower.
posted by Scientist at 11:57 AM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Another vote to snow tires for at least one car. I pooh poohed them for 20 years, but it turns out that they make a serious difference.
posted by Kriesa at 12:53 PM on January 5, 2014

An alternative might be some winter specific all seasons such as these Nokians. They were recommended by locals here in Calgary, and work well in the mountains (caveat is that I have AWD).
posted by arcticseal at 3:08 PM on January 5, 2014

I do not know anything about the Focus, but I have owned two Corollas in my lifetime, first learned to drive in the snow belt of the US, and have driven Corollas all over the Upper Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region and up and around the Northeast in all weather conditions since 2001.

I say yes to snow tires for Corollas.

For reference, I have relatively new (six months) and very high-quality all-weather tires on my 2007 Corolla right now, and thought I would be set, but after another special ice-hell drive on the PA Turnpike and this bullshit storm system we are having, I am going to buy snow tires even if I have to stack them in the apartment closet the other seven months.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 6:54 PM on January 5, 2014

You might find this previous thread about winter driving tips (Chicago edition) helpful.
posted by spelunkingplato at 6:59 PM on January 5, 2014

Near Boston and in upstate NY, in a car a little heavier than yours, all seasons work fine. However, you have to make sure there is plenty of tread. To ensure adequate snow behavior, I get new tires well before the tread is at the legal limit.

It's a different matter if you have to be to work on time irrespective of the conditions. Otherwise, if you are on a school schedule (i.e., if school is canceled then you can cancel), then all seasons should be fine if tread depth is sufficient. Snows are a pain in the neck.
posted by Kevin S at 7:05 PM on January 5, 2014

I moved from a province where the snow dangers were clear and present (Quebec) to one where it snows once in a while in a given winter (BC) but everyone is taken by surprise - every year.

I did not use snow tires for many years, but last year decided to invest in some because I was skiing regularly. There would be weekly mountain travel (and several times a week too). I bought the Nokian Hakkapeliitta and am delighted with them. I feel safer on the street, starting and stopping is easier in the snow/ice. A great investment.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:41 PM on January 5, 2014

Northern CT here. Last winter I noticed that my new (to me) car was sliding around a bit more than I cared for on the all weather tires, so this year I decided to get my very first set of snow tires. Holy difference. Today we were visiting family in the Berkshires, and made it up the mountain without hesitation, even though some of the roads were poorly plowed. Went to leave tonight and there was a thin coating of ice on everything. Almost fell twice just getting to the car. Seems my Blizzaks are better than my boots, as we made it back down the mountain without a single slip. Count me in as converted to snows!
posted by spinturtle at 8:57 PM on January 5, 2014

Snow tires are better on snow. Summer tires are better on rainy roads. All weather tires are a reasonable compromise. Getting tires changed 2x /year is a pain.
posted by theora55 at 11:04 PM on January 5, 2014

Are tire chains not an option for you?
posted by candyland at 3:17 AM on January 6, 2014

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