New-Fashioned Take on Winter Tires

You might think that in this day and age switching to "snow tires" is about as archaic as to traveling to grandma's house in a one-horse open sleigh. But if you live in an area where snow, ice and wet pavement are facts of life, changing your tires could be the best thing you'll ever do. In fact, in extreme circumstances switching to a tire which maintains its grip to the road when others can't could save your life. That should be reason enough to motivate you.

These days the highest tech winter tires are not just "snow tires" with big-lug tread patterns. Instead, tires like the Bridgestone-brand Blizzak tire, which is designated "The Official Tire of Winter," use a combination of technologies to make the most of winter traction. The original Blizzak was developed in the 1980s for the Japanese market and introduced to the American market after studded tires were virtually banished from our roads. The series is a pioneer of the dedicated, studless snow and ice tire revolution, setting the standard for stability and handling in adverse winter driving conditions.

When metal studs were banned, tire engineers had to find another way for tires to grip slippery ice- and snow-covered surfaces. Bridgestone's ingenious solution was its "Multicell" tread compound, which is used in many Blizzak tires. The compound contains thousands of microscopic cells (or pores), which means it resembles a tiny Swiss cheese. As the tire wears, the pores are exposed and this creates thousands of "biting" edges that grip the road.

In addition to the biting action, the pores help "squeegee" away the thin layer of surface water that often develops on top of icy roads. By pushing away water, the edges can adhere to the road surface with less interference. The result is greater driving and braking force. The pores are distributed throughout the Multicell compound so that as the tire wears, new pores are continually exposed along the tread surface.

In addition, the tread compound of Bridgestone Blizzak tires is also more pliable than that of traditional tires and remains flexible in colder temperatures. When water freezes to ice, tiny irregularities form on the surface. If the tread compound is rigid, it will tend to slide across these irregularities. Flexible tread compounds, on the other hand, dig into the jagged surface, affording drivers better control of their vehicle.

If you live in a climate where snow, ice and freezing temperature are commonplace for three or more months of the year, you might think your "all-season" tires will get you through. And they might. But for a relatively small investment in dedicated winter tires, you can be certain that your vehicle will have the best grip when you need it most, in adverse weather conditions. Depending upon your driving habits, one set of dedicated winter tires can see you through several snowy seasons. The cost of winter tires could well be less than what you would likely pay as a deductible in the event of an accident, and, on a more positive note, they also extend the life of your summer tires.

If you choose to purchase dedicated winter tires, it is a good idea is to invest in a separate set of steel rims for your tires, making it quick and easy to properly equip your vehicle as the seasons change. The additional benefit is keeping your expensive alloy wheels out of snow, salt and grit through the winter. You can identify a winter tire by looking for the "snowflake-on-the-mountain" symbol branded on the tire's sidewall. It identifies tires that provide a high level of snow traction.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley was born in Boston, so he understands snow. He writes about the auto industry and la condition humaine from his home in Villeperce, France.