What size snow tires do I need?
Winter is coming, and with the changing of the seasons we turn to thoughts of winter tires; or at least I do. Most drivers don't think about winter tires, or don't know enough to think seriously about them, which I think is one major reason that only a small fraction of drivers ever use winter tires. The issues are many and rather complex: Do you need snow tires or will all-seasons do? Should you have an extra set of wheels?
What size should they be? Do you want steel or alloy? Without a pretty serious knowledge base these questions can be daunting, sometimes with expensive consequences for getting a wrong answer.
Have no fear. I have attempted to gather here in one place all of the most essential information you need to have to make educated decisions about your winter tires.
I have tried to keep the information on this page short and informative, while linking to articles with more in-depth discussions of the issues.
Many tire people will tell you that all-season tires are useless. This is not entirely true; it's just that 95% of tires called “all-season” are really made for cold, rainy weather and are useless in ice or snow. All-season tires can be useful mainly in areas that see very light winters, but very few all-season tires are at all suitable for real winter weather. Those that do perform well in winter are now generally called “all-weather” in order to distinguish them from less capable tires. Even all-weather tires give up some snow and ice performance in order to run well year-round.
Mixing and Matching Tires:
1) Don't do it.
2) No, really; don't do it.
3) For God's sake, don't do it.
Trust me, tire dealers do not insist on four snow tires just so they can sell you two more tires – the facts are very clear. Putting on only two snow tires is very probably worse than not putting on snow tires. Having each axle grip differently is a recipe for disaster on snow. If the snow tires are on the front axle the car will fishtail unpredictably and uncontrollably. If they are on the rear axle, steering grip will be dangerously limited and the car will understeer. While only two snow tires might save you a little money in the short term, it's very likely to cost much more than that in the long term.
So you've decided that you need the optimal grip and handling of dedicated snow tires. Obviously, it will be more expensive to keep two sets of tires, however you will get superior handling in both winter and summer, and since each set will be on for roughly half the year, both sets of tires will see less wear than if they were on year-round. To choose a snow tire that's right for you, see my Top 5 Studless Snow Tires, or if you need the absolute best snow and ice grip available, check out studded snow tires. You may also want to know more about the enormous importance of siping patterns for good winter performance.
If you decide to put dedicated snows on your car, the next decision you'll need to make is whether to stay with one set of wheels and swap snow and summer tires on and off, or whether to buy a second set of wheels for the snow tires. There are of course advantages and disadvantages to either approach, but in essence an extra set of winter wheels will constitute a larger initial investment, but one that can save you substantial money and time on the cost of mounting and balancing tires twice a year. With the right equipment, you can even swap out your wheels yourself in your garage.
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What is the best way to identify the tire size for your vehicle?
If you look inside your car door there is a sticker. The sticker will say various specs on it which are useful for tire maintenance, like the pressure you want and how big your tires are.