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Frostbite Tech: Good Winter Tires Work Best With Smaller Wheels

Winter may seem one-third done by the calendar. Yet thanks to the variabilities in weather in many parts of the country, we’ve only just begun. Here’s a quick primer on how tire technology has changed and what you can do to get through cold, snowy weather — and also how to survive the winter without losing yet another bleeping $ 400 alloy wheel to potholes.

The trick is to get a second tire-and-wheel set with winter tires where the road wheel is one, two, or even three inches smaller in diameter. You compensate by getting a tire with a taller sidewall so the overall height is the same. The bonus is that rubber sidewalls are a lot more flexible and pothole-resistant than aluminum alloy, or steel, wheels.

Both the 16-inch winter tire from Michelin (X-Ice 2) and the factory-installed 19-inch all-season tire from Toyo (A36) have the same size as far as the car is concerned: a diameter of about 28.5 inches and 735 revolutions per mile. This “minus-3” winter design (left) has more rubber sidewall to absorb pothole shocks, and less metal wheel to be damaged by potholes.

Do You Need Winter Tires?

If you have a performance car with summer tires, they’re unsafe below 40 degrees because the soft tread compound gets hard–too hard for road grip, once it’s close to freezing. You won’t immediately slide off the road below 32 degrees, but braking and cornering abilities are compromised. At the least, you need to replace them for the colder half of the year with all-season tires. You can search the tire brand and model online; that tells you if they’re summer.

Most new cars come with all-season tires and they’re okay in a couple of inches of snow if you don’t have a steep driveway or street. In really lousy weather, you also have the right to say, “I’m staying in.” And should.

Winter tires – what used to be called snow tires – have a compound that remains soft and pliable well below freezing. But they’re somewhat louder on dry highway pavement and wear faster than all-season tires. They improve traction on snow, ice, and slush. The rubber looks the same – black – as on a winter tire of the early 2000s, but the chemistry and compounding are more advanced.

Studded winter tires are less popular than a generation ago because of the rapid advances made by unstudded winter tires, because of state bans or limits on when studded tires can be used, and because they’re noisy on dry pavement. Studded tires also damage pavement over time. But for stopping and starting on ice, they’re good. In the snow, not much difference.

How Many to Get? 4 Is Always the Right Answer

The first two winter tires have to go on the back of the car. Even if you have front-wheel-drive. Why? Snow tires grip better than all-season, far better than summer tires. Brake hard in a front-wheel-drive car and the rear end with less grip will – might – slide around. If you want the car to steer well in snow, you need winter tires in front, and if you want to not spin the car while braking or suddenly coming off the throttle, you need winter tires in back.

Just remember: No matter what vehicle, what drivetrain, the first two winter tires always go on the back. It’s nice to go. It’s vital to stop.

Does an All-Wheel-Drive Car Need Winter Tires?

All-wheel-drive vehicles have better traction in snow, but AWD and four-wheel-drive (what pickups and big SUVs have) confer no braking advantages over rear-wheel-drive.

In terms of traction, nothing beats all-wheel-drive with four winter tires, followed by front-wheel-drive with four winter tires, followed by rear-wheel-drive with four winter tires. Is rear-drive with winter tires better than AWD with all-season tires? It depends on the situation and road conditions. Anyway, that’s a hypothetical question: Either you have a rear-drive car or an AWD car, and you’re deciding whether to add winter tires, not whether to dump a rear-driver that needs snows and get an AWD car that might or might not need them.

Minus-1 2 3: Smaller Rim, Bigger Sidewall

Over my driving years, about a half-million miles driven, I’ve lost about six wheels or tires and wheels to road damage. Three were in the past three years, all because of potholes. When we moved to a hilly, twisty road 25 miles outside Manhattan (such roads exist) and got an all-wheel-drive SUV, we got by for a year with all-season tires, then decided we wanted even more traction and braking up and down the hills and around the curves the half-dozen times a year we get snow. That after a pothole bent but didn’t break one of the wheels (a $ 200 repair).

I researched the plus-size, minus-size concept. It’s possible to get a tire-and-wheel package where the road wheel is an inch bigger, say 20 instead of 19 inches, but the aspect ratio (how tall a tire sidewall is compared with the tire’s width, shown as a number such as 50, 60 or 70) adjusts so the sidewall is smaller, and the tire’s overall diameter, top to bottom, is about the same. You can go plus-one, plus-two, sometimes plus-three, meaning 18-inch wheels beget 21-inch wheels. You can also go minus-one, minus-two, or minus-three with winter tires, so a 19-inch summer or all-season tire/wheel package becomes 18, 17 or 16 inches with winter tires. It’s harder to go down in size, 19 to 18 to 17 to 16, because the wheel basket has to be able to fit over the brake components and the basket of a 16-inch wheel is sometimes too small.

Because of the bad experience with the damaged alloy, I didn’t want big, shiny rims in winter months. I decided to see if I could swap out our compact SUV’s 19-inch wheels and 55-series and tires down to 17-, maybe 16-inch rims and tires. 18-inch winter tires were easily found, 17s too, but only a handful of 16s. One that worked for my car, a Mazda CX-5, was the Michelin X-Ice 2 winter tire, sized 225/70R16. It is a close match to the tire diameter of the original-equipment 225/55R19 tires. I chose steel wheels, stronger than aluminum alloy, a little heavier. I first checked via spec sheets to ensure the tires and wheels would for sure fit, and they did. Tire dealers, local or direct, have fitment charts showing which larger or smaller wheels fit without scraping a component or requiring fender flares.

So now we have those minus-threes on our main car. For three years we’ve had Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 winter tires on an old rear-drive sport sedan. The old sedan came with 225/55R16 tires and wheels; I got 225/60R16 winter tires and affordable alloy wheels, again about a $ 1,000 buy-in by the time they were mounted and bolted to the car.

If the plus/minus concept is confusing, just ask the dealer: Can I get different size wheels with matching-fit tires that wind up having the same outside dimension (diameter) from top to bottom?

How Much?

As a rule of thumb, and as I did above, figure about $ 1,000 to put four decent winter tires and wheels on your small or midsize car. It’s going to be more if you want high-speed-rated winter tires, or go with fancy alloy wheels. These things add or subtract from what you pay:

  • Plus-size wheels and tires cost more.
  • If you get steel wheels, add $ 25-$ 50 for a four-pack of plastic wheel covers to improve the cosmetics.
  • Add $ 40-$ 50 per wheel for a tire-pressure monitor.
  • Add $ 25-$ 50 to mount and balance each wheel and tire.
  • Add $ 10-25 a wheel to put each wheel on the car and torque (bolt pressure) the wheels (and remove the old set).
  • Subtract up to $ 75 per wheel/tire if you buy everything from the same source and you get a tire package ready to bolt on.
  • Add $ 40-$ 60 for a set of four tire bags for off-season storage, mostly so you don’t get dirty rubbing against them in the garage.
  • Add $ 50-$ 75 for a tire storage rack that goes high up on your garage wall.
  • Figure on a new set of tires after six to 10 years. The rubber deteriorates, especially in sunlight.

Don’t try to uninstall the summer tires, put winter tires on the same wheels, then reinstall winter tires next fall. Each trip to the garage runs $ 100-$ 200, so the second set of wheels becomes cheaper after two years.

Bottom line: That second set of winter tires and wheels may seem costly. At the same time, it’s about the same as the cost of your insurance deductible if you’re in a winter accident plus the higher insurance payments for a couple of years.

Beyond the cost, you’re reducing the chances of an accident, you feel safer driving in snow, and you’re more likely to take that weekend trip you’ve been looking forward to even if the weather’s threatening.

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