Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Why would my sedan fishtail in the snow going straight?

Hey everyone,

My wife described an odd thing that happened to her in her car. I thought she was crazy until I drove and experienced it myself.

The Details: 2002 Hyundai Sonata, 90K, FWD, V6, Auto, 4-wheel disk brakes.

During the recent snow here in the northeast, I was driving the car on snow covered roads when all of a sudden the rear end starts to fishtail or kick out to one side. I correct and keep going thinking I hit a mound of snow or something that pushed me off course. It happens again and again, even on straight runs with nothing but packed snow in front of me. It makes the car feel very disconnected from the road… like I’ve got no traction at all.

The car recently got new brakes, but the problem was happening before that. The car also recently got 3 new tires (the fourth was almost brand after having replaced it 3 months earlier… it is not the same as the other 3).

I’m trying to figure out what might be causing the fishtailing effect. Could it be the brakes are somewhat engaged in the rear and lock up the rear tires on slick/snow/icy roads… basically causing me to drag the rear? I’ve also wondered if it could be a loose tire causing some sort of wobble that’s exacerbating on ice. But, I’m not noticing noise or vibration on dry pavement.

Any ideas would be great!

The biggest culprit I read is the odd tire. If that odd tire is mounted on the rear it will cause the imbalance since the traction of different all-season tires is not equal. All-seasons means barely any traction - excellent. If you are on different ends of the spectrum you vehicle will be imbalanced in extreme conditions(eg winter roads).

Hey… me again… I was mistaken. The tires on each individual axle match. The fronts are brand new bridgestones, while the rears are Kumho’s, but one of the rears is a good 2 years (30-40k) old while the other has only been on for about 3 months.

It could simply be the tires. Some tires are no good on snow and ice even when new.
Throw in wear, lack of tread depth. or tire mismatches and the situation is even worse.

I was in a neighboring town last week when packed slush froze quickly and the entire town became a sheet of ice. Even with near new tires on my car I was having to ride the brakes the entire time while in town. I seldom exceeded 10 MPH and it took me almost 45 minutes to cover 5 miles across town, fishtailing and sliding the entire time.
A dozen others along that route were not so lucky; they were all in the ditch.

Ice or slush can do it and a crowned road will help it happen. Since other cars were off the road, I know it was slick. Snow over ice is bad too. Rear toe in may be excessive or too little on one side too.

The fronts are brand new bridgestones, while the rears are Kumho’s, but one of the rears is a good 2 years (30-40k) old

I know it is going to sound counter intuitive, but even on FWD cars the best tyres belong on the back. It is for this very reason that the best tyres belong on the back. That said there is still the possibility that there may be some other issue, but I would start there. You might be more likely to get stuck with the better tyres on the back, but you will be safer.

BTW Winter tyres are far better than all season tyres for this situation, so if you have all season, consider four winter tyres.

You can count this as one more vote for the tires being the culprit. Although FWD is superior in winter conditions to RWD, there is a HUGE variation in so-called all-season tires in terms of winter traction. There is absolutely no industry standard for all-season tires, and, in effect, any manufacturer can use that term on his tires, no matter how bad those tires might be in the winter, or the summer, or…
Then, when you throw in the disadvantage that you have created by putting the older tires on the rear, you can create the perfect storm for poor traction on a winter road surface.

Because of the poor showing of so many all-season tires in winter conditions, I use a set of Michelin X-Ice tires from December through March. Besides the obvious advantage in getting the car moving, they allow me to stop the car in a significantly shorter distance, to stay on course on curves, and–yes–even to track straight ahead precisely.

If you are really interested in maximum safety on winter roads, you will equip this car with a set of 4 winter tires mounted on their own steel wheels. Any brand will make an incredible difference, but because so many brands have high noise levels, inferior dry road handling, and rapid tread wear, I recommend the Michelin X-Ice tire–which is superior in all respects.


Please swap the tires front to rear - then report back.

This web site has had lots of discussion over the “Better Tires on the Rear” theory and your experience will add to our knowledge.

Think brakes, regular and emergency. She (the Good Woman) reports this as happening before the new tires? If the brakes are “on”, even a little bit, that could be enough to impede, even stop, the rotation of the tires in low-traction conditions (ice, snow, water).
Some cars have mini-brake shoes for the emergency brakes. If so, they could be dragging because of maladjustment, sticking mechanism (including the emergency brake cable, or handle).
The regular rear brakes could be dragging because of water frozen in the brake line or hose. Sticking caliper(s), deteriorated hose, internally, which blocks the full release of brake fluid pressure (from the last time the brakes were applied).
Fix: Inspection. When the vehicle has been inside a heated garage long enough to thaw any possibility frozen brake fluid, loosen the brake bleeder screws (all four wheels wouldn’t hurt), one at a time and bleed about a pint of brake fluid. As always, RSVP.

My vote is the mismatched tires, then. You really want equal treadwear on each axle as well as equal or better traction on the rear. You have neither.

I also agree…mismatched tires.

the tires don’t sound plausible. possible, but not probable.

on a non snowy day go for a drive. after a good session of stop and go, pull over, and immediately get out. feel the wheel hubs. (don’t burn your hand) you don’t have to hold and grab the wheel hub, just feel for a hotter than the other three hubs.

since you mention having the brakes done, it is likely that one of the calipers is sticking. this is a common occurence. what type of mechanic did the brake job?
have you gone back there? look over the receipt. what parts were replaced?

About 6 or 7 years ago I had a set of Kelly Springfield tires on my Lincoln and the car was near undriveable on wet or snowy roads due to traction issues.
Even 55 MPH on the Interstate required both hands and concentration and that was with 3/4 of the tread left with no pooled water on the roadway.
The rubber would simply not bite at all.

On more than one occassion I’ve simply let off the brake pedal on wet streets (no pooled water, only a light sprinkle) and even the daintiest touch of the accelerator pedal would spin the rear tires and cause it to fishtail at times.
People in the next lane would give me an odd look while obviously thinking I’m trying to street race them or something.

Ditched those tires and the problem was solved.

the tires don’t sound plausible. possible, but not probable.

Have to totally disagree with that…Not only plausible…but the MOST LIKELY candidate.

To support what ok4450 stated, let me repeat that there is no industry standard for so-called all-season tires. Many will do relatively well on slippery surfaces, and some are essentially useless in that situation, despite that “all-season” wording on the sidewall or in the tire company’s advertising.

ok4450 found that a particular model of Kelly-Springfield tire had no traction in slippery conditions, while I found the same thing with one particular model of Bridgestone tires (the Potenza RE-92). Undoubtedly other Kelly models and other Bridgestone models are acceptable for winter driving, even though these particular models were not.

In the absence of any industry standard, all I can suggest is to read the tests and consumer reviews on the Tire Rack website, prior to buying a tire. Even if you plan to buy the tires elsewhere, the information on that site can be very helpful in selecting which tires to buy, based on your own needs. And, of course, the tire tests published by Consumer Reports provide very useful information also.

Obligatory link for those who don’t believe that the best tires go on the rear:

I don’t believe the best ones should go on the rear; obligatory link or not.
Try putting a pair of new/very good tires on the rear of your vehicle, a pair of well worn ones on the front, plow through rain puddles at 60 MPH, and see what happens.

Especially with a front drive car when one driven wheel starts breaking loose and causing extreme torque steer.

Personally, I want those new tires with deep tread depth leading the way and plowing a path for the rears to follow.

How about when you brake (the other part of driving). Best on front means the rear will swing around due to less traction and skids are no fun on FWD.

“Could it be the brakes are somewhat engaged in the rear and lock up the rear tires on slick/snow/icy roads… basically causing me to drag the rear?”

It’s a definite possibility. Easy way to test is to jack up the rear end of the car and see if the wheels spin freely when you turn them by hand.

the brakes may not be an issue, but they can be just about completely ruled out by checking for a hanging caliper.

if the brakes are operating correctly, then sure the tires are suspect. but the brakes are a whole lot easier to eliminate from the equation.

also the mention of having a brake job done is too cooincidental to not consider the hanging caliper issue.