Piecing Together the Winter Tire Puzzle

TTAC Staff
by TTAC Staff
piecing together the winter tire puzzle

A good swath of the country is currently in the thick of winter’s frozen grasp, icy tentacles clutching deep into the heart of every gearhead who’d rather be enjoying a healthy round of burnouts in a deserted parking lot.

OK, maybe that’s a tad dramatic. But our point stands.

Nearly everyone reading this post is dealing with some level of snow and slush on their way to work. And as any good driver will tell you, having the right tools for the job is important: a proper set of sockets to perform an oil change, a good set of headlights to see (and be seen) at night, and a stout set of winter tires to get you through the season.

The crew at TDot Performance, in addition to knowing the best way to tune your car for speed, have a team whose sole focus is tires and wheels. They’re of the opinion that what goes around in the winter oughta have good tread on it, and since we’re of the same mindset, we’ve partnered with them to create the following guide to winter tires.

Cold Comfort

You’ll notice we’re calling them winter tires, not snow tires. It’s an important distinction, and it’s thanks to properties baked right in to these rubber hoops that make them useful when the ambient temperature drops below a certain level — generally agreed to be around 7 degrees Celsius. When the mercury falls past that number, the gummy compounds in a winter tire are better able to stick to the road than all-season (and especially summer) tires.

In other words, that set of performance rubber which allowed you to exit VIR’s notorious Oak Tree turn at tremendous speed will simply turn to Teflon when temperatures drop into the thermometer’s nether regions.

There are two factors at play that make a winter tire uniquely suited for the task before it. One is molecular, the other is mechanical. What’s the difference, you say? Glad you asked.

Compound Interest

Molecular features are contained in the special formula of compounds that a tire manufacturer bakes into the composition of its winter tire. If one does much research into the issue, they’ll find themselves reading a lot about silica and natural rubbers. These ingredients, and others, help the tire remain flexible when the weather turns cold, permitting better traction in wintery conditions.

Not all compounds are created equal, though. It shouldn’t be a surprise that exact compositions of the various brews are closely-guarded secrets on the same plane as how they get the caramel inside a Caramilk bar. However, do know that mainstream winter tire makers — like BFGoodrich, Michelin, Goodyear, Nokian, et al — almost always have a leg up compared to knock-off brands. While the tread patterns on these off-brand tires may look similar to the Big Guns, the invisible compounds found inside are often vastly inferior. This means less traction when you need it most.

Don’t Tread on Me

This also segues nicely into our next topic: the mechanical features of a winter tire. These are found in the tread and, unlike the above compounds, are easy to see. A good winter hoop should have lots of sipes, which are those little (often zig-zaggy) lines embedded into each block of tread. When pressed into a surface, these sipes open up to provide extra traction surfaces. Saw-toothed shaped sipes will also bite more aggressively into snow.

Not convinced? Try this experiment. Grab a block of Styrofoam from that mountain of recycling you’ve got out in the garage. Place the flat edge of it face down and push it across the kitchen table. Slid pretty easily, right? Now cut several shallow lines across the Styrofoam’s flat surface and try to push it across the same expanse of table. We bet it took a bit more effort to move the stuff this time, don’t you think?

That’s what a series of well-designed sipes can do for drivers when their car is scrambling for traction. It’ll help with both acceleration and braking, while some really good sipes will also help with lateral grip. This aids in traction duties while turning.

What a Flake

While shopping for winter rubber, it’s important to look for a notation that’s become known as the “three-peak mountain snowflake” symbol (or 3PMSF). Looking exactly as described, this icon is molded into the sidewall of any tire that passes the rigorous litany of requirements needed in order to be considered a true “winter tire.”

It’s worth noting that rubber showing this symbol has passed an acceleration test on medium packed snow. Braking and turning on snow, however, along with ice traction, are not components of the test. Recently, your author has even noticed a few off-brand tires that are clearly not designed for winter use bearing the vaunted 3PMSF logo, suggesting a few knock-offs are gaming the system by finding ways to make a bare-minimum grade in the test. So shop carefully, and always do your research before buying.

Still, all-season and all-terrain tires – yes, even those with the 3PMSF symbol – cannot match the traction of dedicated winter rubber in all winter weather conditions. We feel such tires should not be considered as a suitable replacement for occasions when a dedicated winter tire is truly needed.

Brand Identity

Winter tires are one of the few consumer products in which one truly does get what one pays for, meaning rubber from the top name brands might be more expensive but are generally worth the extra outlay. Remember, just because those cheaper tires look like the Big Guns doesn’t mean they have the bark to match their bite. After all, we technically can’t see the rubber’s compound—at least not without breaking out a scientific microscope (and your author was banned from chemistry labs back in high school after an unfortunate incident with cadmium and benzene).

That’s why TDot Performance made sure to team up with major brands like BFGoodrich, Michelin and Goodyear in order to offer customers a wide array of sizes and styles of winter tires. With free shipping plus a 30-day no-hassle return policy, TDot can hook you up with what your car needs to stay shiny side up this season.

Get a Grip

If you’re still on the fence about making the investment in winter tires, consider this: a study by the Transport Research Institute in Sweden (where they know a thing or two about driving on winter surfaces) suggest these tires have an advantage of about 25% on dry roads compared to non-winter rubber when ambient temperatures drop close to freezing. On slippery or snowy surfaces, that delta only increases.

That 25% could mean the difference between stopping just short of the vehicle in front of you and having to place an unhappy call to your insurance agency. As for those burnouts in a deserted parking lot you’ve been pining for, I think we finally found a use for those el cheapo off-brand winter tires…

For more info, visit TDotPerformance.ca.

Join the conversation
3 of 24 comments
  • Lightspeed Lightspeed on Feb 03, 2021

    I live far enough north that we have snow on the ground for up to six-months. I also drive a RWD car, so the best winter tires I can afford are a must. I use Michelin XIce3, and Nokians on the wife's Maxima. Also some days I just wait for all the 4x4s to create tracks for me to drive in. Funny thing, I've never put by car in the ditch even in some blizzards, yet I see numerous 4x4s and AWDs deep in ditch, even upside down, go figure.

    • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on Feb 03, 2021

      False confidence, bad tires and cockiness seems to explain that. It's common here as well. I can't tell if these drivers aren't paying attention to the signals their cars are sending or just don't care. I went out during an ice storm around Christmas in 2019 with a CX-5 AWD and there was plenty of communication from the car that slowing down was prudent. I was comfortably passing lots of these people who careened off, though I was going 20 under the limit.

  • Mike-NB2 Mike-NB2 on Feb 03, 2021

    I live in an area where we get a mix of winter weather - snow, freezing rain, rain - and I am pleasantly surprised at the percentage of people who use winter tires (the black steelies are a giveaway in many cases). But, I'm less than pleasantly surprised at the number of people who insist that winter tires are a cash grab and aren't worth it. With my luck, this will be the guy behind me when I am able to make an emergency stop and he can't. For the record, I have a '19 VW GLI with Nokian Hakka... whatevers and I put a set of Nokian SUV tires on my bride's '19 Ranger. Both look horrid but purposeful on their steelies. I get a lot more baffled looks about a 4WD Ranger on winter tires than on the GLI. Apparently for a lot of people, AWD/4WD is the only solution needed. I guess turning and stopping aren't a big deal for them.

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?