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Kulp on Cars: The Right Rubber

by Sam Kulp

Benefits of winter tires, with snowy weather just around the bend.

I remember learning to drive in the snow. When you live in PA, it seems like some sort of Darwinian adaptation that requires us to endure the worst possible driving conditions available, lest we end up a victim to snowdrifts and black ice. Either you learn how to correct your steering or you end up looking forward through the passenger window. These are dangerous conditions, and with winter weather just around the corner, it’s important to remember the most important part of your car: your tires.

Think about it, the only parts of your car that are touching the road are the tires. They handle turning, speeding up, and, most importantly, stopping. The brakes are crucial in this process as well, but their function is to maximize the effectiveness of the tires. That’s why anti-lock brakes exist, to allow the tire to maintain grip to bring the car to a halt. Without them, the tire would lose traction and slide across the ground, a phenomenon called lock-up.

Winter tires accomplish the goal of maintaining traction in ice and snow by using specific tread patterns for both terrain types. Additionally, winter tires are made of a softer rubber compound to excel in cold temperatures. If regular all-season tires or summer tires attempt to endure extreme cold in the same way, they’ll become more rigid and won’t provide the same level of performance. Likewise, snow tires lose effectiveness in warmer temperatures, as the softer compound begins to deform in the heat.

In the context of snow, most people rely on ‘all-season tires’ to get the job done. An all-season tire is sort of a jack-of-all-trades, doing the job as well as it can with the compromise of longevity. When thinking about driver safety, it’s important to be sure that you have the best available tires to keep the car from gliding around the parking lot like a figure skater.

So what’s keeping drivers from buying winter tires?

Most of the time it’s cost, as a set of winter tires and additional wheels for easy switching can cost upwards to $1,000 dollars. However, the initial expenditure on winter tires may ultimately save a driver money. Increased winter tire capability can prevent crashes that would otherwise entail costly repairs, in addition to protecting the driver.

Additionally, with the increasing popularity of small, elevated, all-wheel drive SUVs, more people are relying on the capabilities of all-wheel drive to keep them out of the snow. While AWD vehicles move from a stop easier, the all-wheel drive setup is heavier than front and rear wheel drive equivalents. The added weight is just more that the tires must deal with when coming to a stop. See the trend here? It all comes down to where the rubber hits the road.

On a final note, winter tires are never guaranteed to prevent you from losing control. Tires may be the most important part of the car, but driving is a relationship between man and machine. The most crucial variable in this system is you, the driver. You can make decisions a car cannot such as the choice to change to winter tires, the choice to steer wherever you need to, and even the choice not to drive. Don’t try and brave a blizzard if you can avoid it. But if you must, be sure your car is prepared, and bring the right rubber.


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