Having owned more than ten different four wheel drive vehicles, and also working on countless others over the years, I can say with great certainty that the single most incredible automotive advance I have seen in my lifetime is the quality of tires available today.
I believe that one of the most misunderstood tire technologies seems to be the “all season radial” tire. Many automobile owners seem to believe that since the auto manufacturer put these on our cars they must be the best for that car. This may be true in some cases, but there is no way that one all season radial is best for all cars in all seasons. In fact the same type of tire from one manufacturer may have better handling characteristics than a similar tire from another company. What is true in most cold weather areas is that a winter rated tire will perform better on snow and ice than an all season radial tire.
In the typical “all season” configuration the tires are designed with the best middle of the road attributes for all seasons. The main issue I have with this particular design is that the compromises which allow the tire to perform on all types of road conditions are exactly the same compromises which can make it perform at less than stellar levels on winter road conditions. In fact the idea of having one tire do everything tends to make it less capable and will perform less effectively in more critical situations. So the point of this is that an all season radial is typically not your best option when it comes to traversing the cold roads of northeast Ohio during the winter driving season.
I find that my four wheel drive vehicles handle the snow and ice much better on a dedicated winter tire than they do on a standard “All Season Radial” tire. This seems to stem from the type of tread pattern and its ability to crush through the snow and to maintain traction on icy wet roads as well. Overall the ride is stiffer and more stable as compared to similar sized all season radials.
What I find really works best is to have a second set of winter tires that are dedicated to just that period where there is ice and snow on the roads. These tires will be marked with a mountain and snowflake, and most will also have the designation of M+S which stands for Mud and Snow. The fact that these tires are designed specifically for this kind of cold snowy weather makes them perform much better than their all season counterparts.
One misconception some drivers have about winter tires would have to be that wider is better. This is in fact false on most snowy road conditions, because the wider tires spread the weight of your vehicle out over a larger surface area, you then ride on top of the snow instead of a thinner tire penetrating deeper into the snow right down to the road surface gaining better traction.
Safety has improved so much over the past twenty years that we now take tires for granted. Many people drive around on tires that have far too little tread, and others will drive with the air almost gone from one tire which makes a vehicle incredibly unstable in a panic stop or crash avoidance situation.
I recall one ill fated trip back in the summer of 1978 coming from Nashville Tennessee to Cleveland Ohio with my friend Dennis Cummings, where we had two of the original Firestone 500 steel belted radial tires blow out during the trip. We had no idea that these tires had a major defect where the radial wires could come loose and the tire would fail catastrophically. After the second tire went we thought we were never going to get home.
This was the same trip my brother rode the whole way with a velvet Elvis painting on his lap, so when you looked into the rear view mirror you saw an Elvis head on my brother Chuck. Since that time I have been rather fanatical about inspecting my tires and keeping them properly inflated, plus I cannot look at a picture of Elvis without laughing.
The point is I have seen a dramatic improvement in the quality and longevity of the tires we use now, and as a result the safety of our cars has improved significantly as well. That being said the quality of all season radials, and snow tires have improved drastically. Now when you head out onto the snowy roads on the coldest of winter days there is much less concern over the reliability of our tires.
This article is based on personal experience over many years driving with many tire brands.
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