Two or 4? Need snow tire advice!
November 14, 2005 11:10 AM   Subscribe

My fiancee's car is a 2003 Altima that I would like to put some snow tires on. I have used 4 tires on my vehicle for work (paid for by the company) and am wondering how much difference there is between using 2 or 4. I am not cheaping out on her of course, but we both have concerns over the cost/benefit ratio as we are just starting out. I am very familiar with using 2 new tires on front wheel drive cars with less tread on the back with all seasons and summer tires, and experienced no difficulty in seasonal months. If you have used 2 tires snow tires only, what was your experience? More inside...

We will only be using the car for my fiancee's 1 mile commute to work, but of course, safety is worth any price. We are getting rid of the car in Dec 06, when the lease is up, otherwise 4 tires here in Pittsburgh would be a no brainer to use for the next few winters. I am not a true believer that auto shops are just looking out for my vehicle and me recommending four tires all the time - I am in sales and admittedly skeptical. However, as an enthusiast, I go through tires on my 2 vehicles, and I recognize the varying degrees of traction from mismatched to matched tires. If it was my vehicle, I would go with 2, no problem. I am just throwing it out there for the public; no speculation please - even if you are an installer. I would like first hand opinions (there was some "installer" on here recommending putting the best tires on the BACK of a front wheel drive vehicle!...You get my "drift"! Thanks!)
posted by skyguy14 to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total)
The reputable tire shops in my town refuse to mount only two snow tires.

I believe them.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:12 AM on November 14, 2005

If you have radials with decent tread on them, let them ride. When I've lived up north (most recently, 6 years in Detroit from 91-97), I never, ever bought special snow tires and knew no one who did. My in-laws live on the side of a rural mountain in upstate New York and they run on their normal radials. No big deal.

With the old bias ply tires and rear wheel drive, snow tires were a must. With front wheel drive and modern all-season radials, there is little benefit to special snow tires.
posted by Doohickie at 11:19 AM on November 14, 2005

I never ever needed snow tires in urban and rural places with much snow (Detroit/Ann Arbor areas, Pittsburgh [ice!]). If you've got a FWD (or AWD/4WD) car with decent all-seasons, just go with that. I've had an '88 Omni, '95 Neon - ugh, and an '01 Civic to this point and have never had a problem with any of them doing this. I *did* have the best tires money can buy on them, though, as far as all-seasons go.
posted by kcm at 11:33 AM on November 14, 2005

Oh, and the same goes for an '01 Forrester (AWD) I have driven for the last couple snow seasons. No need whatsoever, and I even took that car through the mountains on I80 out west in hailstorms.
posted by kcm at 11:33 AM on November 14, 2005

Personally, I've never had snow tires on a FWD car. I second what kcm says about having a set of quality all weather tires on the car.

Tom and Ray don't appear to agree, however. They think snows make a difference, and go on to say that if you only put 2 snows on a FWD car they should go on the back.
posted by SteveInMaine at 11:39 AM on November 14, 2005

Tom and Ray are full of it when they say "If your front tires skid, you can still maintain some control over the car by steering those wheels." The very definition of a skid implies a loss of control. But I digress.

Back to the question: In 22 years of driving, I've never, ever put snow tires on a FWD car, and never had a problem. For RWD cars, it depends on how big and heavy the car is and how much of its weight is over the rear wheels. My Ranchero is going to get snows on the rear this year (and some sand bags thrown in the bed) just because it's got almost no weight over the rear wheels, but my son's Cordoba will keep its all-season tires instead of snows and it will do just fine.

HOWEVER, this is all predicated on living in an area where the snowplows are out and about quickly. If I lived in a more rural area I'd probably reconsider.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:52 AM on November 14, 2005

(Yes, it's true, you don't need snow tires unless you drive in the snow. Which means actual snow on the road, not slush like in Detroit.)

I always buy tires two at a time with good results. But there is no definitive answer. It depends on the car. To judge by a quick web search, the Altima tends to understeer quite a lot, so it might work out okay. But how much difference it would make in snow is hard to say. I would hesitate to guess what it would be like just based on experience with other cars.

Also, it depends on the driver. Everyone has their own preferences. Any time you put new tires on, it's going to require some adjustment by the driver. The more of a change there is, the more work the driver has to do to get used to the new setup. Much like driving on snow, some people can cope with oversteer, and some can not.
posted by sfenders at 11:53 AM on November 14, 2005

Hi, yeah, thanks, when I said Detroit area I meant out in the country near Howell, Brighton, and all areas thereby, but thanks for the dig. I stand by my advice.
posted by kcm at 12:37 PM on November 14, 2005

If you have good traction in front and poor traction in the rear, the tail end of your car is likely to break loose as you go around a corner. In a RWD vehicle, this is a pretty controllable condition. In a FWD car, I'd expect you to just spin right out, and possibly off the road or into oncoming traffic. In other words, no, don't put snow tires on only the front. You want equal performance from all 4. Your front tires are not the only tires involved in cornering.
posted by knave at 12:46 PM on November 14, 2005

I drive a 4wd Subaru extensively in the Lake Tahoe area, and over Donner Pass on a regular basis. We frequently measure snowfall in feet, all winter long.

I've driven in the snow lots using all-weather tires and dedicated winter tires. Both are adaquate for 80% of winter driving, and I'm not at all surprised to see people say that the've never used snow tires, and never had a problem.

The truth is, most of these folks either don't see much deep slush on top of ice, and/or just don't know what they're missing.

Snow tires make a huge difference, and modern snow tires are designed to be used in matched sets of four. Often, newish "all-weather" tires are good enough... but real snow tires are much, much better. If your safety is worth any price statement is true, bite the bullet and buy four snow tires.

If for some misguided reason, you do decide to put only 2 snows on, you should put them on the BACK, no matter what wheels are your driven wheels. Why? Because your driven wheels are vital in making your car GO, but when stopping or steering, your back tires are vital in making your car go IN A STRAIGHT LINE. A car with snow tires on the front wheels only will tend to oversteer, and will have a higher tendancy to swap ends when you have to use your brakes going downhill.
posted by toxic at 1:25 PM on November 14, 2005

If you have a front wheel drive sedan, two snow tires should be just fine. 'Reputable' tire shops only refuse to do two tires because of the liability issues not because it's not safe. Oh and they make a buck off it as well.

I grew up in the mountains in Oregon and dealt with a LOT of snow. My family and everyone I knew drove on two snow tires and it wasn't a problem. However, obviously four is better than two... so if you can afford it, it won't hurt to have four.

Now if we were talking about a rear wheel drive car it'd be a different story...
posted by Heminator at 1:34 PM on November 14, 2005

Backing up what 'toxic' and others said: if you must mismatch your tires -- at any time of year -- put the best pair on the back. They'll help you stay in control. But really, four all-weather radials will do fine.

You don't say what's on the car now, but whatever they are, as long as they're in good shape, leaving those four on is probably safer than screwing around with 2 snow tires.

And snow tires can actually introduce safety problems of their own, as they are less capable on the non-snowy pavement you will actually be driving on for 98% of the winter.

Though I'd never been stuck with all-season radials, I decided for kicks to try a set (of FOUR) Bridgestone Blizzaks on my Honda one winter. They were uncannily grippy on hardpacked snow or ice, for that hour before the salt trucks came through. But on pavement, it felt like the car was riding on greasy spongecakes. Truly scary at freeway speeds. I took them off.

(I've been driving in Wisconsin winters for almost 20 years.)
posted by Tubes at 1:43 PM on November 14, 2005

I have a set of snows and a set of summer tires. Once, when one of my summers got a puncture in the sidewall, I put two of my snows on the rear while I waited to get a new set of summers. Bas idea - I don't know if it was the combination of tires, roads near me, or whatever, but at low highway speeds I had a hard time controlling the car. When changing lanes and such, the back end wanted to slide around a LOT. It scared the hell out of me. I wouldn't really recommend doing this.
posted by autojack at 1:50 PM on November 14, 2005

put the best pair on the back.

That's too great an over-simplification. There's a big difference between making the car tend to oversteer, and making it slightly less biased to understeer. Obviously it isn't always best to put the better tires on the rear. Sometimes it is, sometimes not. It's not clear to me that the two snow tires would necessarily be enough to do the former in a car like the Altima. It's certainly something you'd want to be careful about.

(I think an oversteer skid is not any harder to control in FWD, generally. It does require a technique which takes some getting used to.)
posted by sfenders at 2:22 PM on November 14, 2005

sfenders, I agree that oversteer can be controlled similarly in FWD as in RWD. But wouldn't you say that for the average driver, it would be preferable for the car to plow a bit under sudden braking rather than for a spin to initiate?

I stand by my comment, in the context of a waiting-for-the-next-paycheck situation -- since I really prefer to see 4 matched radials at all times.
posted by Tubes at 2:37 PM on November 14, 2005

Sure, on average if you have no idea what the car or the driver are like, then by all means put the tires with the better grip at the rear. I was annoyed with the number of people who seemed to be suggesting that this was some kind of universal truth, when the original question clearly implies that the questioner is probably already aware that it isn't.

In further support of having at least the same type of tread on all four tires, autojack's comment does serve to remind us that it's probably the old non-snow-tires that are going to have the better grip when you're not driving on snow. So the car's balance could well be different depending on what kind of stuff you're driving on, which seems like a bad idea.
posted by sfenders at 2:51 PM on November 14, 2005

My reputable tire dealer, whom I have used for over a decade for high-end all-season tires, told me to go find another shop when, the year I decided to try snow tires, I insisted on having him mount only two snow tires.

The shop I went to also refused me, though they'd never seen me before.

I think that's a rather telling bit of behaviour on the part of these tire stores.

The other bit of the story: so I end up getting four slightly-used snow tires instead, saving a couple bucks in the process. They were fantastic!

I'd been driving the local ski mountain for a good eight years with top-end all-seasons and had never had a problem: no visits to the ditch, etc. Got stuck on a few sideroad trips, when out sightseeing at very inappropriate times (hey, there was a blizzard, the passes were closed, I had nothing else to do!) but I hadn't blamed the all-seasons for those misadventures.

Snow tires were just leagues better. They reduced the amount of heightened active driving I had to do: less tension, less stress, just a plain palable feeling of a better grip on the road, a more secure feeling of the steering being as accurate as it is in the summer, the braking more grippy and controlled.

So, yes, when you live where there's real snow, where you end up with compacted snow for days at a time, where the roads ice over, where there's black ice... snow tires are worth every penny for the reduction in stress alone.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:13 PM on November 14, 2005

Just to round the subject out its the care of driver thats important. I drove over passes with a passenger car with mostly BALD TIRES (non-snow tire) for 3.5 years. Take the turns slow even if others are driving fast - black ice will send leagues of people into ditches and trees every year, and if they had just been going a mite slower they might have been fine. Though my car had manual 4 wheel drive, i almost never used it. Especially since the old 4 wheel drive systems (subaru) used to spin the car out above 35mph! Though i don't recommend driving non-4 wheel drives in deep snow, it can be done in a front wheel drive. BUT ON ICE 4 wheel drive is king, even without studs. One night our road was literally a sheet of ice over half inch thick. Everyone went in the ditch, except one 4wd subaru...
posted by uni verse at 9:55 PM on November 14, 2005

Snow tires will make a huge difference compared to summer tires and a big difference compared to all-season tires. Using summer tires in the summer and winter tires in the winter is a lot safer in both seasons and is not twice as expensive, since the tires will obviously last twice as many years. You will get by with all-season tires but snow tires will matter the most in emergency situations, which is exactly when you want your car to stop as fast as possible. Do yourself a favor and make the sane choice, get snow tires.
posted by lazy-ville at 7:35 AM on November 15, 2005

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