Smaller wheels for winter driving?

Some say that it can be better to change to smaller, higher-profile tires for winter driving. One well-known site says that “A wide, low profile or large tire has to “plow” a wide path through snow which causes more resistance. The narrower the tire, the easier you can get through snow.”

That may be true, but I’m unconvinced that it is the whole truth. Frankly, in winter my top concerns, in order, are stopping, steering, and going. As far as I can tell, the smaller tire would be inferior at stopping, and I’m not sure that it would be any better at steering. As far as going goes, it may only give improved fuel efficiency, and that’s a concern that’s far down my list.

Furthermore, one might argue that a larger, wider tire would be more likely to ride on top if the snow than plow through it.

What do you think?

“Skinny” tires have less contact area but the contact area they do have has far greater pressure bearing down…So if they have an aggressive tread with lots of “edges”, those edges get a much better “bite”…

Your priorities are in the correct order. In snow, and even heavy rain, a wider tire can ride up onto the snow/water and traction disappear completely. Yes, a narrower tread will bite in better all other things being equal.

Having said that, it depends on the car and the tire size. Most cars on the road today have tire sizes that are fine as long as you have good all-season ot winter tires (depending on the environment) with plenty of rubber on them. I would not recommend changing tire sizes on most cars because doing so can adversely affect handling and hurt more than help.

With some cars, such as a 370Z, the tires are very wide, and getting slightly narrower rims with winter tires may be a good idea for anyone that wants to try driving one through the winter. The standard rear tire sizes are like 275mm wide.

A wider tire would be better on dry road, wet road, perhaps even icy road. The issue is only which tire would be better on snow covered roads? If you are following a snow plow or are on packed down snow the wider tire could be better. When there is an inche of loose snow or more the narrower tire would be better.

This is largely an academic question and perhaps the important variable not mentioned is the compound of the rubber of the tire. Winter tires whether wide or narrow are made with softer rubber to improve traction in snow and/or ice. Some compounds even contain bits of nuts and other “hard” substances to get more grip on snow and ice.

My advice is that if you get winter tires at all, then go one size smaller than the standard tires called for on the vehicle. Winter treads seem to be a bit wider and deeper so the difference in tire size is so small the speedometer reading is barely affected.

Don’t know about the rest of it, but narrow tires to get through the snow are a big deal for folks who encounter lots of driving through 6" or more - farmers, ranchers, rural homeowners, mountain roads. Your “wider tire…ride on top” doesn’t happen. The weight of the vehicle is too much. In these situations, speeds are at 45 mph or less and the snow pushes out in front until you lose traction. When you turn, the snow push suddenly increases and you keep going straight ahead - hopefully not into the ditch. With bigger vehicles, 4wd, awd not so much of a problem anymore. Rural boys in big 3/4 tons and tires a foot wide just love to go blasting through the snow. But that’s mass in motion overcoming anything and you can forget me.

Agree, narrower tires typically do better in snow. Just so others know, these aren’t ‘smaller’ in overall diameter, just narrower. They can go with smaller-diameter wheels, but the overall tire diameter is the same.

A few good reasons for smaller wheels besides those cited already. Larger tires are more expensive. Also larger tires(rim size) have a lower profile which does not bode well for the wheels in rougher roads and also they slip easier as the tire have less give.

I remember that I could buy four 13" rabbit wheels and 13" 70 series winter tires for a Jetta GLI 16v for less money than a two 15" stock size 50 series winter tires. I also saved those expensive BBS wheels that came from the factory.

I dunno. I’ve heard all this before but my experience is that the greater footprint on the road will give you better traction and that’s what counts. I’ve never seen a narrow tire bite through an inch or two of pack snow to get to the roadway below. Just doesn’t happen. It’s also not that often that you are pushing away 6 inches of snow-even so its the drive traction you are concerned with. If you want to test it, go get a couple more skinny compact spares and put them on the car, then see how white you get when you take it out in the snow and ice.

The one experience I relate back to is back in school. I had a 59 Pontiac that had come with the old wide oval tires on the back when I bought it. They were nearly worn out slick but there was a hill on the way to school that I got up in snow and ice no problem. During Christmas vacation I put the standard size narrower snow tires on and when I went to go up the same hill, I couldn’t make it. Traction was severely reduced from the deep tread narrower snow tires from the slick wide oval tires with no tread on it. That’s my story, do what you want and put bicycle tires on your car if you think your physics is correct.

I dunno. I’ve heard all this before but my experience is that the greater footprint on the road will give you better traction and that’s what counts.

I take it you don’t do much driving in snow. A bigger footprint is DANGEROUS for driving in snow. With a wider footprint…you get a lot less lbs per square inch. Thus…a lot less traction. There is no traction with loose snow. The whole idea of skinnier tires is so the tires will grip the road or the hard packed snow below…NOT ride on top. Your story is inconsistent with physics and everyone else I know who has far far far more snow driving experience then you. When you grow up in a town that averages over 300" of snow a year…you learn how to drive in snow and you learn all the tricks you have to do so you don’t get stuck. Skinnier tires is one of the first lessons you learn. I remember when I was a teenager always changing the tires on my Dad’s F-150 over from the 31x10 to the 29x9. That 1" made all the difference in the world in snow traction.

The problem you have to worry about with skinnier tires is loosing dry pavement traction and stability. That’s why it’s good to consult the dealer or a GOOD tire place to get proper tires. Some vehicles are NOT designed to go with skinnier tires then what’s already on the car.

I have driven in snow for over 20 years. Best car for snow ramming, a Pinto with 4 of the largest 15’ or 14’ SNOW tires. Yes Virginia, there is such a thing . Most people buy only 2 SNOW tires for the drive wheels. Mistake that comes to life in the middle of 5pm traffic with a major storm to help slow ALL vechiles. B’ecept the story high 4WD that just pasted you at twice the speed of all other vehicles on the road. Buy 4 tires to keep up with him! Forget about all that tech talk go with experience!

The “sport” of off-road driving was made possible by WW-2 surplus Jeeps… These vehicles came with 600 X 16 military “cross-bar” tires. They had a center rib and then staggered cross bars running at right angles to the center rib. Very simple, very effective. Of course, enthusiasts tried to improve on these tires by installing the biggest, fattest tires and wheels they could find. Monster Mudders… And indeed, high flotation tires DID improve traction in certain conditions. But for driving on paved or graded dirt roads in “winter driving conditions” those old 600X16 surplus military jeep tires were hard to beat…They dug down and got a bite when fat tires just floated along on the surface and control became difficult…I suspect nothing has changed today…

That’s exactly what I found to be true, caddyman. Many years ago I bouoght several junk jeeps(M138A1) and assembled one good one from the parts and had many wheels and tires to choose from. The original millitary tires were by far the best for all driving conditions except very soft mud. My boys and I drove that monstrosity through everything and anything. On hard snow it would skate and under steer terribly with the big wide mudders.

Experience will make you a believer. Before experience, all we have is advice and “advice”. There are many conditions for many different vehicles. Wide tires are never generally cosidered to improve traction in snow.

If you can walk and run in snow, you can own anything. I own a 4WD truck because I can’t do the walking. When the roads are clear, I MIGHT drive the Yaris. Might not.

Like I said test your theory by putting on four space saver spares and see how well it does on ice and snow. Minnesota only gets 50" of snow a year so if you get 300" I think you’ll need chains on those tires and you have my sympathy. As for not driving much, you’re right, I’m over a million miles but still working on two million so kind of wet behind the ears compared to you.

Regardless, tire sizes are specified so that’s what you use whether you want narrower ones or not. I can’t imagine that a standard sized radial tire is “dangerous” on the freeway and a model T sized tire would not be. 300" of snow, wow.


First off I never said you don’t have years of driving experience…I said you obviously don’t have much experience in driving in SNOW. 50" a year…I’ve seen more snow in 2 days. So compared to myself and many people I grew up with…you have very very little experience in driving in snow. Sorry…but it’s a fact.

I NEVER said that using the standard tires is DANGEROUS…I said using a BIGGER footprint is DANGEROUS. The standard footprint should be fine for MOST part of the country. And I specifically said that a NARROWER tire CAN be dangerous at highway speeds…HOWEVER…The car manufacturer or a good tire shop will know for sure. I specifically said some vehicles are NOT designed to go with a skinnier tire.

As for trying your method…I HAVE…I’ve put tires that were very skinny on a F-150 pickup I had. I only used it for driving around town…I went from a 235 down to a 205. The difference in driving in snow was STAGGERING. Most of the time I never had to put it 4wd. With the 235’s anything over 5" and I locked the hubs to make sure I was able to shift into 4wd (which was pretty much my whole trip). I wouldn’t recommend using this tire for highway or any hauling…But for pure snow driving…couldn’t be beat.

I think it depends on the type of winter driving. Some winter tires are made for driving on top of the snow. Like snow shoes, they should be wide tires, and making them smaller in diameter can lower their weight. Most of us, however, drive on the streets, and tires that cut through the snow are desired. However, I would not go so far as to buy a non-stock size of tire to improve traction. I think it would be wiser to buy the size tire your manufacturer recommends, but get the best winter tires you can find in that size.

I would love to see some real data that addresses this issue. I can not accept the new-age logic approach that boils down to “If it sounds good, it must be true”.

Move to Watertown NY for a winter and try the different tires yourself. If your car can safely handle a skinnier tire then switch them out. You’ll notice a HUGE difference in cutting through the snow with the skinnier tires. I recommend Watertown because of the snow fall…I think this small city averages about 250"/yr. So you’ll have plenty of practice.

Some winter tires are made for driving on top of the snow.

What tires are made to go on TOP of the snow?? You can something light on top of the snow like a snowmobile. But a CAR???

Maybe these “tires” are good for on top of snow???