Best tire size for handling in snow/ice

I don’t know much about tires but am in the market for new ones on my Subaru 2004 Impreza wagon. Now, I’ve been doing a lot of research on snow tires vs. all season tires and have read about the pros/cons for each. However, there is one element that I have not seen much information on and that is whether there is a particular tire size that is best suited for winter conditions?

Say I have settled on Tire X for my car (and say my stock tires were 195/60-15). Is there an optimal size of Tire X that I should choose for the best winter handling? My Subaru (on the stock rims) can take 185/65-15 and 205/55-15. Should I consider even getting larger rims?

Thanks much!

As I have been known to state very often–Check your Owner’s Manual! If your Subaru is like mine, it will list acceptable alternate tire sizes for your car.

Bear in mind that a narrower tire (let’s say a 185 instead of a 195) is preferable in terms of winter traction. However, you want to be sure of the correct aspect ratio (60, 65,70 for example) in conjunction with the width of the tire, so be sure to refer to the manual.

Incidentally, I strongly recommend the Michelin X-Ice tire for winter driving. In addition to having the best winter traction in the Consumer Reports tests, I can tell you that it is quiet, it handles well on dry roads, and it gives much longer tread wear than competitors like the Bridgestone Blizzak.

Narrower tires are better for snow/ice with more profile (eg 185/65-15). If your getting a one size fits all tire (all-season) tire I would recommend the Nokian WR which is the only severe winter rated all-season tire available. In other words its a winter tire that can be run year round so you only need to buy one set of tires and no new rims. I have had a few sets along with one set of true winter tires. IMHO they are an excellent compromise at least for my local seacoast New England where we definitely get all mixes of winter weather. In snow I never thought the Nokian WR’s were better or worse than true winter tires. On ice they definitely where not as sticky as my previous Blizzacks.

If you go with true winter tires there are lots of good choices. Happying shopping and if you decide on true winter tires/rims shop at and . They ship the tires/rims balanced so you only need a shop or yourself to bolt them on.

Really depends on where you live and how much snow the area gets. When I lived in Upstate NY…Snow tires were NECESSARY. Too much snow…Living in NH…all season tires are fine. Far less snow…

Thanks for the responses. The sizes I listed above are indeed from my owners manual for acceptable tires on the stock wheels:

So I had read that less rigid tires are generally better for snow/ice, and I know there is a direct relationship between aspect ratio…wider aspect ratio (say 65) is less rigid than an aspect ratio of 55. So when andrew_j states “less profile” I’m assuming that this is what you’re referring to?

What doesn’t make sense to me however, is why narrower tires would be better for snow/ice, it seems rather unintuitive.

On narrower tires better the reason is a wider tire will ride on top of the snow vs a narrower one will have an easier time cutting throw to hopefully traction below. Think of digging in dirt by dragging a pen and how easy it goes down vs a hand trowel which take more effort.

I should correct my statement sorry. The higher profile(eg 65) tires are better as the width(eg 185) tends to narrow. Higher profile tires are less rigid and have more give which is favorable in starting on snow/ice. The truth is though with an AWD car this is essentially a non-issue in your case at least on getting moving. Stopping & lateral traction however winter tires always will be superior in winter conditions vs any other tire.

I suggest that you go with the 185/65 size when it comes to winter tires. And, remember that winter tires help you to stop the car in a much shorter distance than the best all-season tire can.

Ultimately, being able to stop the car without hitting something is the most important part of safety, and being able to stop in a shorter distance can be the difference between hitting something and avoiding it.

Based on those tire sizes…the 185/65-15 will give you the BEST traction in snow. The narrower the tire the more weight per square inch. With snow you want the tires to dig down to the pavement or harderpacked snow. With a wider tire the vehicle may ride on top of the snow…which is NOT good. The tires will break loose and slide.

Well, I hate to disagree with everybody here, but the “narrow tire” school of snow driving won’t work in a Subaru and the “wide tire” school of thought will play more to the AWD systems advantage. The weight distribution on a subaru is very good, and there’s not a lot of weight to distribute in the first place, so even on the 185 tires, none of the tires are going to get enough weight to really dig in.

Also, with the fancy-schmancy AWD system that you pay such a premium on, the wheels shouldn’t need to dig in and “grab” anything-- you should be able to get all four of them spinning and sort of “propellor” yourself out of slippery snow. The wider tires will give better results in these partial traction situation, as well as giving better floatation over less tightly-packed snow, which will help you avoid high-centering, which is really what you need to look out for in a Subaru.

Thanks so much for the input everyone. So I think I have a better understanding of how different tire measurements relate to handling (and why) in winter conditions. Here are my circumstances:

  1. I need new tires, mine are done
  2. I live in California where it is dry 9 months out of the year
  3. The 3 months when it is not dry, I spend a good amount of time traveling through rain, ice and snow to hit the good ski conditions in the mountains
  4. Plan on going on a 12-day road trip over Dec/Jan to various ski areas in Tahoe, Salt Lake, and Jackson Hole w/ a high probability of hitting winter conditions

Given your input, and my circumstances, I think that I’m probably going to stick with the 195 width tires as a balance between winter and summer driving. Also, I don’t think that I’m entirely justified in purchasing separate summer and winter tires given that even during the winter months, I’m only occaisonally running into very bad winter conditions (but enough to the point where it doesn’t make sense for me to get lower profile or wider tires). I’m leaning toward getting some good all-weather tires.

Are the Nokian WR’s overkill for my needs, and if so, are there other all-weather tires that would suffice?

Thanks again!

Agree; I just put a set of X-ICEs on my wife’s car and it happened to coincide with the first snow. The car handles great and the tires are not noisy, as is often the case.

There are no other all-season(all-weather) tires besides Nokian WR’s that are winter rated. I don’t think they are overkill. Pure winter tires in your case seem so.

So I did some more research on the wide vs. narrow discussion and in the end, I think I’m likely going to stick w/ the tire original tire sizing of 195/60-15. I’m used to driving on tires this size and have done so through some pretty treacherous conditions over the past 3 years in the mountains. I do see a lot more literature on the web that supports the “narrow” tire theory, but there are really 3 components to this discussion that I don’t think we’ll solve here: (1) Snow/Ice driving and handling, (2) Snow/Ice braking, and (3) AWD vs. FWD.

In a consumer reports study discussing plus size tires (subscribers only):

Ice Braking was actually handled much better by plus size tires while snow handling was severely impacted by plus size tires. So at first glance, it seems as if you are considering snow handling (driving, cornering, turning, etc.) then narrower tires may indeed be better (this isn’t considering the affects of AWD as GreasyJack points out), but if you’re talking about Ice Braking (I would also include packed snow in this category as anecdotally I’ve felt these to have the same affect on my car) it seems that wider is better.

Like I said, a lot to consider so in the end, sticking with what I know is probably the best.

Now, I did some shopping around and the Nokian WRs are very expensive ($199/tire here in northern California). Is this normal? any place to get these cheaper or is this what I should expect to pay? Non-snow rated “all season tires”, even the high-end, are in the $140/tire range and usually I it seems like I can find good web deals. $200/tire is likely out of my price-range for the Nokain’s so I’ll let you know what I end up running w/.

Thanks again.

Well, I hate to disagree with everybody here, but the “narrow tire” school of snow driving won’t work in a Subaru and the “wide tire” school of thought will play more to the AWD systems advantage. The weight distribution on a subaru is very good, and there’s not a lot of weight to distribute in the first place, so even on the 185 tires, none of the tires are going to get enough weight to really dig in.

I disagree with that totally…I had wide tires on my Vega and switching to narrower tires made all the difference in the world when driving in snow. Going to a narrower tire on a car that weighs 2000lbs can add as much as 30lbs per square inch…

Lots of great comments. For a Subie I agree with sticking with the OEM 195/60 size. Narrower tires may bite a bit better in snow, but there’s a handling tradeoff that comes with them. has a good primer on tires.

I generally am in the narrow camp with most 2wd cars, because increasing weight per-square inch is the only way that really works for them. But with an AWD system, the idea is to reduce the amount of torque-per-square inch necessary to get the car moving. Obviously the AWD system halves this, but running narrower tires reduces this advantage somewhat, whereas wider tires will amplify it.

For my anecdotal evidence, I have two pickups, a 76 Full-size 2wd Chev and an 89 4wd Toyota. The 2wd’s “snow tires” were really just very skinny all-season Toyo Hyparradials (a commercial tire) which is good in the snow for a 2wd pickup. The Toyota came with some wider than stock all-season tires and skinnier than stock snow tires. Although the snow tires are noticiably better in 2wd, the big wide all-seasons are much better in 4wd. The all-seasons are pretty terrible in 2wd mode, so I leave the snows on for highway driving, but the fat tires in 4wd are clearly the best combination for snow. With an AWD system you can use on the highway, I’d probably leave the wide ones on all year.

I agree 100% that if there’s a handling issue then stick with the OEM tire size. I just wonder how much of a handling change there would be for a tire size that IS RECOMMENDED by the manufacturer. I’ll also agree that on a AWD system the narrower tire may NOT be needed.

I’m not saying all tire manufacturers doing this, but in general snow tires are desined to perform best at the original sizes so you do not have to use narrower tires for better tractions/handling. As mountaibike mentioned, there would be a trade-off. I’d suggest you start with the original size or just follow the manufacturer recommedations if available.

Any advantage due to tire size change will pale in comparison to changing from all season to winter tires. Just relax and put on the standard size. You will be very pleased with the results.

On Nokian pricing my mum got 205/70/15 for her Forester installed for $120/each. I placed 205/55/16 on my 2004 WRX for $150/each installed. I think the tires should fall between there. Always call around.

$200 is crazy but I don’t know your local market.