Time to start thinking about winter tires

Consumer Reports News: November 09, 2012 11:08 AM

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The recent Nor'Easter that packed a one-two punch to Sandy-stricken areas should serve as a call for northern drivers to start shopping for winter tires, or to have winter tires installed. There are some decisions to be made, and as we witnessed many cars slipping and sliding during the storm, the impact of those choices is clear.

When making the decision about winter tires, consider these questions:

Do you use all-season tires all year long? If so, check the tread depth. Use a quarter and place the top of George Washington's head into each major tire groove. If you see all or most of George's head, you probably are at the point of needing new all-season tires soon to get through a snowy winter.

Already have winter tires? Now is a good time to get them installed, but before you do, check them out for excessive wear and visually inspect them for cracking, cuts, and other damage. As a guideline, you should get two or three seasons out of a set of winter tires. If you are unsure of their condition, have your mechanic inspect them before installing. If in doubt, buy a new set of winter tires. You don't want to be changing a flat tire roadside in the winter, and the quality of the tires impacts your safety.

Do you own a sports car? A number of sports cars and sedans come with summer tires. If you plan on driving the car through winter, be forewarned: summer tires don't like the cold, let alone snow or ice. Snow traction and ice-surface stopping abilities are next to nil, and summer tires don't grip well on cold dry and wet roads, either. If you appreciate how well your car performs in warm weather with summer tires, then buy a set of winter tires to get you through the cold months. A year-round alternative is buying performance all-season tires, which provide impressive handling and good all-weather grip. They are a suitable choice for people who don't like dealing with two sets of tires.

Do you procrastinate on winter tire shopping? Right now, dealers have stocked all the winter tires they are likely to get. Winter tires were made months ago and many were imported from Europe, so supplies are limited to what's here now. Our advice: don't delay.

Undecided about winter or all-season tires? It's true all-season tires offer a good compromise of all-weather grip, but winter tires are the only choice for braking, cornering, and traveling through tough snow and icy winter conditions. Hence, they're an excellent choice for all front-, rear- and all-wheel-drive cars and trucks. Another litmus test on whether you should buy all-season or winter: Does your job require you to be on the roads regardless (think doctor, nurse, firefighter, police officer, etc.) or can you stay home until roads are cleared? If so, all-season tires might be right for you. If you must drive in wintery conditions, get winter tires.

Finally, no matter what tires you're driving on, check the inflation pressures monthly -- especially in the winter months as temperatures plummet. Tire pressure drops about 1 psi for every 10 degree drop in air temperature, impacting safety and performance.

Be safe this winter.

See our tire buying advice and Ratings.

Gene Petersen

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