CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

How much difference do snow tires make?

My car is a RWD 2008 Lexus IS 350. It is great on dry pavement and horrible (HORRIBLE) on snow and ice. I live in the DC Metro area and last year I spent a lot of time pushing my car and figuring out how to turn off the traction control features so it would move in the snow.



My wife wants me to replace it with something that is better in the snow, like the 2011 model of the same car with AWD. Well, no, she doesn’t want me to spend the money to buy a new AWD version of my car.



What I’m wondering is whether replacing the OEM “all-season” tires with good winter tires (e.g. Blizzaks) would make a significant difference and save me some money, or whether I should just take the opportunity to buy a new car with AWD?



Assuming the winter tires would work as well or better than coughing up the $$$ for a new AWD car, what is the easiest way to do this? I’m thinking about purchasing a set of steel rims with the required TPMS sensors and having the tires mounted on those, then I could just change from the OEM tires to the winter tires without having to have the tires remounted twice a year. I ask because I’m under the impression that remounting the tires repeatedly is going to damage them.



I realize this is similar to a previous question, but I hope it is different enough. I’m not asking if my car will be as good in the snow as my wife’s 2010 Subaru Outback. I’m just looking for a less expensive way of dealing with the 3-5 days/year on average that the roads here are unusable.

Replace the OEM tires with better tires…see tirerack for reviews. The safest thing to do in your area is stay home since most of the drivers have never driven in snow. I spent 1 year in the area and most people panic at the first snow flake.

I’ll second that. Used to live in DC myself. It’s dangerous out there when it snows.

That said, yes, winter tires will make a significant difference, but it won’t get you through a 12" unplowed snowfall in that car. I think your plan to get them on steel rims is a good one - They’re cheaper, and when you bash a curb with them, you don’t care as much. Plus it’s just much more convenient to swap rims than it is to swap tires, since you can swap rims at home if you want.

I’d just put on the winter tires and call it good. Anything that your car can’t get through after that is going to be pretty rare, and a very good excuse to stay home in front of the fireplace :wink:

For the number of days that DC has snow, I would not necessarily invest in snow tires. Find past issue of Consumer Reports and look at their all season and winter tire reviews. Pay particular attention to the ice and snow performance parts of the tests. If you want to change out tires, make sure you get ones that will do a good job for the conditions you are most concerned about.

If you choose the snow tire route, then I would get wheels and tires. There is still no guarantee that the snow tires will deal well with the ice issues. Short of chains, not much deals well with severe icing.

Putting weight in the trunk over the rear wheels can also help out in the traction department, and it is cheap. My wife put 2x8x16 concrete patio blocks (about $1 each) in the trunk of her Chevette, and it worked fine in snow. It also didn’t take up as much space as sand tubes, etc, giving her reasonable trunk storage space.

Back in the 1950’s, all we had were rear wheel drive cars and here in the midwest, we commonly put snow tires on the rear wheels. I know that my dad put snow tires on the 1952 Dodge that my mother drove to work and she thought the tires made a great deal of difference. On my first car, a 1947 Pontiac, I bought a pair of recapped truck snow tires and it gave the old Pontiac great traction.

Today, you will want the snow tires on all 4 wheels.

Dag

One difference between the cars of the '40s and early '50s and the RWD cars of today is weight distribution.

Your mother’s '52 Dodge and your '47 Pontiac had their motors mounted much further back–relative to the front wheels–as compared to an '08 Lexus. The weight distribution of the cars of yesteryear helped to give them somewhat better traction for the rear wheels.

Then, we have the issue of torque. The lower torque of the older cars also helped them to get going with less wheel-spin.

So, even though the tire technology was primitive in those years, as compared to today, many folks were able to get around fairly easily with snow tires on those old cars.

Another factor to consider is the fact that there were a lot fewer cars on the roads in those days, as most people worked very close to where they lived. Nowadays, some people believe that it is reasonable to commute 50 or more miles each way for work purposes. The higher density of road traffic during winter storms raises the potential for accidents nowadays.

You are absolutely correct about the weight distribution. The 1947 Pontiac I owned was available in either an inline 6 or an inline 8. I had the 6 cylinder engine and the engine was right back against the firewall which shifted the weight balance to the rear of the car. There was even a large shroud around the fan to be certain that it would pull enough air through the radiator.

I replaced the 1947 Pontiac with a 1955 Pontiac and it had very poor traction. I attribute that to a higher percentage of weight on the front wheels. I didn’t test this car with snow tires. However, I did have a set of tires chains that someone gave me and these did give the car good traction.

My mother was having to drive a 25 mile round trip to her teaching job in those days on one of our busier highways (we didn’t have interstates in those days). The snow tires did get her through. The 1952 Dodge had the “Lift and Clunk” semi-automatic transmission. There was a fluid coupling between the engine and the transmission, so there wasn’t a lot of torque delivered to the rear wheels when one started in the normal driving range.

I looked up your car on TireRack.com, and it says that your car came with 4 different tires from the factory as OEM. 2 were Max Performance summer only tires, and the other two were high performance All Season tires.

All of those tires are poor choices for snow use.

here’s the survey results for the two all season tires for you to look at their snow performance ratings:

Dunlop
http://www.tirerack.com/tires/tires.jsp?tireMake=Dunlop&tireModel=SP+Sport+5000+M&frontTire=245VR75000M&rearTire=445VR75000M&vehicleSearch=true&fromCompare1=yes&autoMake=Lexus&autoYear=2008&autoModel=IS350&autoModClar=&tab=Survey

Bridgestone
http://www.tirerack.com/tires/tires.jsp?tireMake=Bridgestone&tireModel=Potenza+RE92&frontTire=245VR7RE92&rearTire=445VR7RE92&vehicleSearch=true&fromCompare1=yes&autoMake=Lexus&autoYear=2008&autoModel=IS350&autoModClar=&tab=Survey

Buy a snow tire for your car, and I bet you will be very happy with the way it drives.

BC.

In fact, here’s the Michelin Pilot Alpine tire that is recommended for your car.
Notice how much better the overall survey scores are for the tire.

http://www.tirerack.com/tires/tires.jsp?tireMake=Michelin&tireModel=Pilot+Alpin+PA3&frontTire=245VR7PA3XL&rearTire=445VR7PA3XLV2&vehicleSearch=true&fromCompare1=yes&autoMake=Lexus&autoYear=2008&autoModel=IS350&autoModClar=&tab=Survey

I would bet you would prefer these tires much more than your current tires.

BC.

4 winter tires will make a big difference. You can look for aftermarket wheels at local auto parts and tire shops. If you get the winter tires mounted on wheels fall and spring changeovers are easy.

Nokian makes very good winter tires. They also make a good tire for winter and snow that doesn’t need to be taken off in the summer, I’m not sure what that model tire is called. Blizzack is fine, and Michelin X ice is very good too.

With winter tires you will get some wheel slip, but should have no problems getting around safely.

I would add to VDC that those older cars were also heavier and generally had more ground clearance.

I would also like to note that if you choose to put winter tyres on the front, where they will get the most traction forward, remember to put them on the back as well.  The back needs at least as much traction as front because even it it is not pushing the car, it is performing an even more important function of keeping the back end of the car in the back and not sliding around to the front and causing you to loose direction control.  Very bad idea.

If it were just me, I would stay home on those days. But my wife works in a hospital and if I don’t drive her to work when it snows then she will try to drive herself, relying on her AWD and plenty of luck. Or maybe get a ride from someone at work that may not have any winter driving experience either.

I don’t like either of those solutions. I grew up driving in snow, but never had a RWD car before this one. There’s a learning curve…

The ground clearance does make a difference. However, I think weight distribution is very important. I owned a 1961 Corvair (engine in the rear, driving the rear wheels) and it was a wonderful winter car. It had the PowerGlide automatic transaxle, and with its small engine, didn’t produce a lot of torque. The Corvair was a relatively light vehicle, but it was great in winter weather. If GM would make something equivalent, I would buy it.

Joseph

This Lexus is a RWD car.

Yes there is, but it’s doable and once you get proficient enough RWD is easier to turn in low-grip scenarios than FWD. If your front wheels are sliding because of low traction, you just goose the throttle (judiciously) and rotate the back end around to drift the car. Note: I do not recommend trying this technique for the first time when you’re on the road in traffic. Find an empty parking lot to practice - a lot - in first.

If you’re driving your wife to work on those days, then you can take her car, eliminating the need for you to worry about replacing yours.

I see that this post was from this morning here in the DC area. We had a small snowfall (abt 1/4-in) early last night, with some drizzle on toward morning. I walked 4 blocks for an errand at 6:45 AM. At that time the snow had turned to slush, which was starting to freeze over. Slick, but you could crunch trhu it for some traction. When I walked back home an hour later it was completely frozen. Treacherous on the sidewalks and side roads, although even tertiary roads were OK. Any surface not coated with slush – e.g., lids of plastic trash cans put out early for morning pickup – had a 1/8-inch thick coating of glass-like ice. The car in the driveway had to be warmed up to melt loose the thick coat of frozen slush and drizzle on the windshield. During the day all the frozen stuff on the side roads is melting back into slush, and will probably refreeze overnight. People from snowier regions like to tell us in DC that we don’t know how to handle snow. Maybe (see below), but we do know how handle this: stay home and wait for it to melt. If, like the OP, you really must get somewhere, you have to be prepared, which is what the OP is rightly asking.

First, realize that no snow tire or winter tire is going to work on ice. (Exception: studded tires, but I think they are illegal.) Snow tires work real good on a few inches of cold snow, and maybe OK in slightly slushy snow. But not on ice. As mentioned, we get the good kind of snow only a few times a year.

If you really gotta go, then four snow tires is a good idea. You have to decide if it’s worth the hassle of storing and swapping twice a year. And I THINK that the snow tires will wear faster when there is no snow.

Second, I’ve spent my whole life in the DC area hearing Chicagoans, Minnesotans, Buffalonians, etc., etc., tell us “People here don’t know how to drive in snow.” Of course not – the people here are from Chicago, Minnesota, Buffalo, etc., etc. They “know how to drive in [good] snow”, but they don’t do much better than the locals in the stuff we get here. Geez, the traffic here is so bad that we get major delays from a heavy rain, never mind snow. In my time in the upper midwest I saw a lot of flat land; nothing like the hills here. Drivers there got away with stuff that would have them in the ditch or merged with a few other vehichles here. Get off our case! :>) End of rant. Your turn.

Hiw much difference do they make? Today they made the difference between crashing and not crashing. I was going around a corner at about 50km/h when my car started sliding into the oncoming lane. This was a problem…cause there was cars in the oncoming lane. Had I not had snow tires, I am pretty sure I would have slid right into those cars. As it was I narrowly avoided them.

You have the right idea of mounting the winter tires on separate rims, though you can save yourself some money by not getting the TPMS monitors and just use the warning light on your dash as a reminder that you have winter tires on(would be a reminder to change to the other tires come spring time.

Don’t take our word for it, watch these videos and see for yourself:






The likely case is you have high performance oriented tires that are likely poor in winter conditions. The best all-seasons I have owned are Nokian WR G2’s which were actually included in Consumer Reports lastest performance winter tire test and topped the category even though all-seasons. Other ones that give you a “fighting” chance but still not a Nokian WR G2 are Continental ExtremeContact DWS.

Dedicated winter tires are much better and around $1100-$1200 typically shipped from tirerack.com.

$1100 or better in the snow tires seems steep however your depreciation on a 2008 in trade in will be immense and approach the $5k-$10k mark.

Good luck…