The safety and handling capabilities of any car or truck ultimately stop where the rubber meets the road. Whether or not the winter months bring snowfall to your location, checking the condition of your tires should always be part of your automotive winterizing regimen.
Even regions that don't get covered in white stuff often experience colder temperatures and more rain between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and worn tires are far more susceptible to hydroplaning when the roads are wet.
The first step in making sure your rolling stock is ready for winter is an examination of the tire treads. If your wheels are properly aligned and balanced, the tire treads should be wearing relatively evenly from inside to outside and all the way around. If either edge is more heavily worn than the opposite side, it's a signal that the wheels aren't properly aligned.
Depending on the nature of the alignment problem, this may be felt by the vehicle pulling to one side or the other while driving straight down the road. However, certain problems can cause uneven wear without pulling. If your tires are wearing unevenly, your dealer can perform a full four-wheel alignment and an inspection of your suspension components.
Other signs of tire trouble include bulges in the sidewalls, cup-like wear patterns and vibrations that can be felt while driving. These can be indicators of internal problems in the tire like a slipped belt, or an unbalanced wheel and tire. Tire balancing is another quick and inexpensive service procedure while tires with internal problems should be replaced immediately.
Improper tire inflation is a common cause of uneven wear. Overinflated tires will show more wear in the center of the tread area while underinflated tires may be getting raw on both the inner and outer shoulders. Keeping tires properly inflated will reduce fuel consumption, improve handling and help tires last longer.
Excessive tread wear, whether uniform or not, can trigger problems when roads get wet or slick. When tread grooves are too shallow, the tires can't move the water on the road out of the way, leading to a loss of traction.
Most modern vehicles come equipped from the factory with all-season tires that will meet many drivers’ year-round commuting needs. However, in areas where temperatures fall below around 40 degrees F, whether or not it ever snows, these jack-of-all-trades tires may not be up to the task. All-season tire rubber is harder and less flexible when cold than the rubber used in winter tires: Winter rubber is designed to maintain its flexibility when cold, allowing for better channeling of water in colder temperatures and better bite into snow and ice. Where there is snowfall, the specialized tread patterns of winter tires also provide better traction and grip than summer or all-season tires can. Modern winter tires are available in virtually every size to fit anything from full-size SUVs to high-performance sports cars.
Unlike old-fashioned snow tires that had large, tractor-like treads to bite into the snow, modern, computer-designed versions typically look more like their all-season counterparts. A closer look shows that these cold-weather units have numerous tiny grooves in the tread that help the tires get a better grip, especially on icy roads. These grooves also help the tire throw off snow as the tire rolls and deforms to prevent treads from getting filled up with snow.
For convenience, many drivers who opt for dedicated winter tires have them mounted on a second set of wheels, so they can be quickly swapped out without having to remove and mount the tires twice a year. Many car and tire dealers offer excellent prices on new or virtually new take-off wheels. These are factory wheels that are removed when new-car buyers opt for aftermarket rolling stock. Mounting winter tires on take-off wheels allows the driver to retain the stock look year-round.
Always use winter tires as a full set, rather than mixing them with non-winter tires. Snow tires have significantly different handling characteristics from all-season or summer tires, so mixing tires can lead to serious safety issues.
As the days get shorter, it's an excellent time to check out the condition of your tires and make sure they’re ready for whatever you might face. Your dealer’s service department has the information you need to make the best choice in tires for your car and driving conditions.