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Borgman How To: Understanding How Winter Tires Work

November 30th, 2018

We’ve already had our first major snowfall in West Michigan this season, and we hope everyone made it to their destinations safely. It’s probably not a stretch to say some of us had some trouble getting traction from a stop, going around corners, or braking downhill. There are some driving tips here that might help as a refresher, but the biggest factor in being able to maneuver in the snow and ice isn’t all-wheel drive, it’s your tires. In this Borgman How To, we’ll teach you everything a smart West Michigan shopper needs to know about winter tires including how they’re formulated, designed, and perform.

Is All-Wheel Drive Enough For West Michigan Winters?

All-Wheel drive is popular in our part of the country, mostly because of the advantages it provides when the weather turns on us. With a set of all-season tires on, they perform reasonably well in most situations. That being said, it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Powering all four wheels independently can help if one loses traction and the others have grip, but it doesn’t do much good if you’re driving on a sheet of ice or through deep snow.

This might surprise a lot of folks, but an underpowered front-wheel drive car with winter tires can and very often will out-perform an all-wheel drive counterpart with all-season tires. This isn’t all because of physics or driving dynamics, it’s because tires are your only interface with the road, and bringing the right tool for the job (the temperature & conditions) is what makes the biggest difference.

That being said, equipping an all-wheel drive vehicle with winter tires is that much better. In the sections below, we’ll explain why and how this is.

What Makes Winter Tire Rubber Different

Tires aren’t simply just rubber rings we put on our wheels. A great deal of engineering goes into making them, and the chemical makeup of winter tires is carefully dialed-in for optimal performance in lower temperatures. To contextualize the difference between summer and winter tires, here’s what you need to know: As rubber warms up, it becomes more pliable and flexible, and as it cools, it becomes stiffer. Warm, flexible tires conform more to road surfaces and thus generate more friction, or “grip.” As the air temperature drops, tires get firmer and lose this trait. This leads to skids, poor stopping distance, and trouble getting moving in cold, slippery conditions. The biggest advantage of winter tires is that the rubber is specifically formulated to stay flexible below freezing temperatures, therefore preserving their ability to grip the road and take full advantage of clever tread designs.

What Are The Different Types of Winter Tires?

There are three main types of winter tires you’ll see if you’re doing some research.

  • Studded Winter Tires: These are winter tires with metal studs embedded within the treads. They act like cleats to grab onto ice and packed snow, but are also known to damage asphalt. At the time of this writing, their use is illegal in the state of Michigan.
  • Non-Studded Winter Tires: These work on the same principle as their studded relatives, but without the metal studs. They are incredibly helpful in areas that receive lots of snowfall and if most of your driving is done on country roads. Driving on dry pavement will wear them down quickly through, and they’re known for being noisy on paved roads.
  • Performance Winter Tires: If you live in Grand Rapids or its suburbs, these are what we will likely recommend at Borgman. They’re made specifically for use in cold to sub-freezing temperatures and have special tread designs to remove water and maximize grip on packed snow or sheets of ice.


What’s Different About Winter Tire Tread Patterns?

If you look at a winter tire’s treads, they will look a little bit different than summer or all-season tires, but they’re not as aggressive as they used to be. Back about 15-20 years ago, winter tires had very large and widely-spaced treads. These did a great job of finding grip in the snow but were loud and uncomfortable to drive on. As we outlined above, the bigger problem was with the rubber, and you’ll find that modern winter tires offer comparable ride quality to summer tires.  Now, the industry trend is to design treads that whisk away water between the tire and the road, which is the main cause of wheel slip and nearly eliminates hydroplaning.

You might also see things like tiny, horizontal grooves cut into the tread blocks themselves, and these also serve a purpose. With the rubber being more flexible at lower temperatures, these will actually widen when they come into contact with the pavement. It seems a little odd, but their purpose is to pick up snow and make it cling to the tire. Snow on snow actually grips pretty well – think of it like rolling a snowball to make a snowman. It will naturally fall off if the road conditions change.

Note: Some tire shops may offer a service called “tractionizing,” where tiny holes or grooves are cut into a winter tire to improve performance on ice and snow. Unless you’re entering your vehicle into a winter road rally, this is completely unnecessary and dramatically cuts the life of your tires short. Tire manufacturers ship winter tires with the precise optimization needed for everyday city and highway driving.

Why Do Winter Tires Look Thinner?

You might notice that winter tires appear to be a little thinner than all-season or summer tires, and that’s because some of them are. This is intentional, and often winter tires are mounted on their own dedicated, thinner rims. In the summer, you want more of the tire pushing against the ground to spread the total force of the wheel evenly. In the winter, you don’t want all that extra tire trying to overcome a pile of snow (remember that snow is sticky, and once you start to dig it only gets worse.) This is an extreme example, but it’s easier to move through a snow bank with a pizza cutter than it is with a rolling pin.

The Borgman Service Center can help you select thinner rims and dedicate them to your winter tires. Ensuring the combined dimensions of your rim and tire match the vehicle’s specifications is important for maintaining predictable performance, correct fit (so the tires don’t rub against the wheel well or suspension components,) and to preserve the accuracy of the speedometer, anti-lock braking, stability, and tire pressure monitoring systems.

Are Winter Tires A Good Investment?

The only person who can decide of winter tires are worth it is you, taking into account your level of comfort driving in winter, which part of West Michigan you live in, what sort of road conditions you often drive in, and whether you have the space to store them properly. The initial expense is a little higher, though ultimately the vast majority of people save money in the long run with the added benefit of safety. There may be an impulse to only buy two winter tires for the drive wheels to save money, but for serious safety reasons you absolutely should not mix-and-match.

The added cost for comes from buying a second set of rims specifically for your winter tires. Note that a good set of rims will often last for longer than you own the vehicle, and add value by making the swap between wheels in the spring and fall much quicker. Also, mounting a tire once or twice isn’t a big deal, but repeatedly changing the tires between one set of rims can cause stretching or cracks – wearing them out faster.

By switching these wheels in response to the seasons, you’re not only driving safer in the West Michigan weather, you’re not going to need to buy new tires as often either. This is both because they’re only being used one set at a time (obviously) and because summer or all-seasons are more likely to wear faster in the cold.


Upgrade to Winter Tires at the Borgman Service Center in Grand Rapids, MI

If you’re ready to upgrade to a set of winter tires, or just want to see which ones are available for your vehicle, visit the Borgman Service Center today and talk to one of our tire experts. We’ll show you tires that will be the exact fit for your vehicle, the best performing ones for your typical winter commute, and give you the best deal possible with the latest tire deals.

Should you decide to make the switch, we’ll happily swap them for your all-season or summer tires in the spring and fall too. Remember, we’re here for all of your automotive needs. Schedule Your Appointment online today and come see why we’re the Best in the West!


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