Early-season prep for winter driving

By Allen Penticoff
Mr. Green Car
Contributor

It is November 23 as I write this column. We just got through a near record-breaking (and in some areas well exceeding record-breaking) November snowstorm. Winter is back.

By no small coincidence, the November issue of Consumer Reports has an article on winter driving and the effectiveness of all-wheel drive and types of tires in winter conditions. I have written in the past on both subjects, but gleaning from Consumer Reports and my own experiences it is always worth bringing up the subject again.

For years now the automakers have marketed all-wheel drive (AWD) to us as a must have for safe all-weather driving. Having personally owned several AWD and four-wheel drive trucks that indeed, when it comes to getting going in snow, they cannot be beat. But that’s really only where they excel (as Consumer Reports reported too) – and they do well in going up snow covered driveways as well.

But AWD and four-wheel drive don’t do much for stopping or turning. In fact, they can be a detriment. I often found in the case of our AWD Subaru, its traction would allow me (not so much my wife Ruth) to get going too fast for conditions, then finding that I had not allowed sufficient stopping room or was going too fast around a corner. With AWD, once the front tires start sliding while stopping or turning, you have lost control and will drift out of your intended path.

The get going traction of AWD also leads one to believe that any old tire is fine for winter. Here Consumer Reports dispelled that notion – and where my personal experience has confirmed. AWD without the proper winter tires is barely any better than front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive for driving safety. While one can obtain “performance all-season” tires that perform better in rain and snow than ordinary “all-season” tires, most of us do not buy them due to cost – and they are not usually installed as standard equipment on new cars.

Since tires are now lasting from 60,000 to 100,000 miles, many owners never change tires in the time they own their cars. The reason we can get this much mileage out of tires is in part due to the harder wear resistant rubber compounds in the tires. This same hardness works against us when it comes to getting good traction on wet or snowy roads.

Consumer Reports says that all-season tires have a stopping distance of 134 feet on dry pavement, a stopping distance of 143 feet on wet pavement and a whopping 668 feet on snowy pavement from 60 mph on a 2015 Honda CR-V with AWD. The same CR-V stopped in less than half the distance on snow – 310 feet with winter tires. Winter tires make all the difference in the world in snow.

We sold our Subaru and fitted our old Honda Civic that is front-wheel drive with winter tires all around (and so far, leave them on all year round). The soft rubber and extensive siping (little cuts or slots) and more aggressive lugs have made the old Honda nearly as good in snow as the Subaru (actually stops and turn better). I did have to pledge to myself to do a better job of keeping our driveway clear – it never mattered to the Subaru, it does to the Honda. If driven extensively on dry roads, the winter tires will wear out very fast.

But the old Honda is our “winter car” now, driven mostly when the snow is too deep for the Volt to contend with (the Volt, by the way, does quite well on snowy, slushy roads and hills – just not deep snow due to its low ground clearance).

So if you’d like to upgrade to AWD-like traction, without the expense of paying for an AWD drivetrain and its associated maintenance, then consider the modest expense of buying four wheels and winter tires. Since many vehicles now come with aluminum wheels, you may want to look into buying plain steel wheels – either new or used, then purchasing good winter tires and having them installed.

Inexpensive plastic wheel covers can dress up the steel wheels – which are resistant to damage from potholes. You should be able to do this for under $1,000. Since they are only going to be used intermittently – they will last you many years – perhaps as long as you own the car and the next owner as well. It is a bit of a hassle to store them and have them swapped twice a year, but well worth the effort.

If you own AWD already, consider upgrading to a tire that has better winter performance and leave them on all year. Or consider getting the most out of your vehicle and have a separate set of winter wheels and tires as well. Then you will be getting the kind of winter driving safety you thought you were going to get when you bought the vehicle.

Lastly, Consumer Reports tested three small SUVs in the snow. Their testing found the Subaru Forester did very well, the Honda CR-V was okay, and the Toyota RAV4 was marginal (my description not theirs). You can view video of these vehicles being tested in snow at ConsumerReports.org/video. The same November 2015 issue has the “Ten Best and Worst” cars for winter driving (an owner survey report). There is also an extensive “everything you need to know” article about tires, including rating 21 winter tires.

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