Making the Switch to Winter Tires

Last week’s column looked at the advantages of using winter tires this time of year. Now, let’s look at how you can go about making the switch from summer or all-season tires to winter tires.

Make sure you have four matched tires on your vehicle, as many all- and four-wheel drive systems require this. Any disparities in tread depth means the circumferences of the tires will be different, which can place added strain on drivetrain components.

You’ll still need four matched tires if you have front-or rear-wheel drive.  A common approach with rear-wheel drive vehicles is to put winter tires on the back wheels, while leaving regular tires up front.   However, this approach is flawed, as it ignores the fact that your front tires provide traction for turning and do the majority of work in stopping.

As for front-wheel drive vehicles, placing winter tires up front and leaving regular tires on the rear increases the likelihood of fishtailing during turns and while braking. Do you really want to encourage the rear end of your car to get in front of the front end?

The best way to swap winter tires for regular tires is to have the winter tires mounted on a separate set of wheels. This eliminates the expense of breaking down each wheel-tire combination in the fall and spring, then remounting the appropriate tires and rebalancing the wheel-tire combination before installing it on the car. Having the winter tires already mounted also means you can make the changeover at home, if you’re willing to do a little work with a jack and lug nut wrench.

Steel wheels are available for most cars, and the cost should be more than offset by not having to pay for switching tires on the same rims over the life of the tires. If your car has alloy rims, replacing them with steel wheels for the winter will help maintain their appearance. Some alloy wheels don’t do well when exposed to the sand and roadway chemical treatments used in winter.

Many cars today come with a tire pressure monitoring system, including direct systems that use a battery-powered sensor and transmitter located in the wheel. The good news is that the set of replacement wheels for permanently mounted snow tires can also be equipped with an extra set of tire pressure monitoring sensors. In some cars, the vehicle automatically links to these new sensors. In other cases, you can follow the linking procedures outlined in your owner’s manual.  There are some cars that require a trip to the dealer for this task.  There’s no added expense if your car has an indirect tire pressure monitoring system, which uses none of the above components.

If your car came with low-profile summer tires, you might want to consider a “Minus-One” sizing option. This consists of dropping down an inch in wheel diameter, going up in sidewall height and reducing the tire width. This results in a narrower contact patch, allowing the tire to push its way through snow, rather than riding on top of the snow after a storm. This, of course, requires a second set of wheels and may not be possible in all cars. The proper juggling of aspect ratios and tire sizing will not significantly change the tire’s circumference, meaning that vehicle gearing and speedometer calibration should be unaffected.

In most cases, drivers choose to go through winter with their all-season tires. However, if your car has summer tires, also known as performance tires, you should switch to winter tires. As great as performance tires are in three seasons of the year on both wet and dry surfaces, they do poorly when exposed to the cold, snow and ice.