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A car fitted with ‘all-wheel drive’ swerves in tight turns to avoid snowballs in the latest BMW ad. Could it perform these clever maneuvers without winter tires?
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/28/2005 3:37:29 PM ET 2005-10-28T19:37:29

In the latest BMW commercial, an old fashioned truck on a country lane is bombarded with snowballs by mischievous children. In its wake purrs a brand new BMW, swerving effortlessly in tight turns to avoid the children’s snow. “All-wheel drive reacts in milliseconds for maximum traction, no matter what the road throws at you,” says a calming voice.

It’s a nice maneuver, but BMWs all-wheel drive system would not work nearly as well if it wasn’t accompanied by four winter tires notes Russell Datz, a spokesperson for The Tire Rack, a South Bend, Ind.-based company that sells tires online.

“The right footwear on a car is just as important as the right footwear on your feet,” Datz said. “In snow or icy weather, a car’s stability controls and gizmos will not perform as well as they should on your car if you don’t have good set of winter tires; it’s the way to get the most performance.”

Cars using sophisticated driving systems may be able to smoothly slice through snow-covered roads in television commercials, but if you think your car’s all-season tires can carry you through a snowy winter, experts say you might want to think again.

Mounting winter tires on a family car every autumn has ceased to be a seasonal ritual. These days, most cars drive happily all year round wearing all-season tires, consigning winter-season tires with their thick treads deep grooves to off-road adventurers and those living in deep snow for most of the winter.

Another reason for the decline in winter tire usage has been the rising popularity of four-wheel-drive light trucks and SUVs, and the increasing availability of all-wheel-drive systems aided by electronic traction control.

Experts caution that these new technologies can give drivers a false sense of security, and without a good set of winter tires they might not be getting the best possible performance from their vehicles. Improvements in steering technology have not eliminated the need for a good set of winter tires, they note.

Last winter, for example, Tire Rack tested sets of tires on a Volkswagen Touareg SUVs with anti-lock braking systems, one with winter tires and another with standard all-season tires. Testers drove both cars down an icy road, accelerated to 35 miles an hour and applied the brakes in a panic stop. The Touareg with winter tires came to an almost immediate stop, while the car with all-season tires took over 70 feet longer to come to a stop.

“When you start looking at it this way, these brake systems give you a false sense of security,” said Matt Edmonds, vice president of marketing at The Tire Rack. “You think you have great traction, but once you turn sharply, or brake, you’re not getting much help any more.”

Until Bridgestone introduced its Blizzak winter tires in 1995, winter (or snow) tires either had studs, or chunky tread blocks that were noisy and handled poorly on dry roads. The Blizzak contained a network of tiny pores to wick the water away from the surface of the tire and a tread pattern with biting edges to improve the tires grip on the road. Other manufacturers followed suit, experimenting with a host of other additives to tires — including coiled wire and crushed shells — for a smoother winter grip.

Because winter tires are designed to grip the road in colder conditions, in warmer summer temperatures they wear out quickly. All-season tires — which are standard on most new cars and light trucks — are a compromise designed to spend most of their time on a dry road and are made with rubber compounds that provide adequate traction and long life. But when temperatures drop, these rubber compounds harden and traction is compromised.

“The easiest way for customer to understand this concept is if you walk out of a building with shoes that have a smooth sole and they are warm, it’s slippery under foot because the warmth of the shoe melts the top layer of ice, creating a thin film of water,” explained Matt Edmonds, adding that winter tires have small channels, or “sipes,” cut into the tread surface to provide a channel for the water to escape.

An attempt to solve this problem is a tire like the Goodyear Assurance TripleTred, which includes a rubber compound containing volcanic sand was rated best overall in tests of 18 different all-season tire models by Consumer Reports magazine in its November issue. The magazine said it has seen a “substantive improvement in the performance of all-season tires” since it last rated them in 2001.

“The aim here is to devise a tire that can be used and perform well in all seasons, because most of the time in winter the roads are clear, so you don’t need tires on your car that are loud and clumsy and only needed when the roads are blocked with snow,” said Bob Toth, Goodyear’s marketing manager for auto tires.

Toth also notes that today’s trend toward lower profile tires with a wider tread — which do not suit all-season tires well and deliver less traction — is increasing the demand for winter tires.

The market for winter tires took a dip in the mid-70s when Goodyear put the first all-season tire on the marketplace, but since then demand for winter tires has shown a modest rebound, said Goodyear’s Toth. He points to the most recent industry data, which show sales of winter auto tires — including studded tires and those made of new composite rubber compounds — rising from 3.1 million to 3.6 units from 2002 to 2004. In Canada, he adds, sales rose from 4.5 million units in 2002 to 5.2 million in 2004.

“We’re constantly developing our all-season tire technology, and it’s getting close to where you won’t need a winter tire at all, but the market in the United States is still going,” said Toth.

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