Good tires can make all the difference in ugly weather
When was the last time you thought about car tires? It might have been last week, when you discovered how poorly your car handled snowy roads. It reminds me of billionaire investor Warren Buffett's bon mot, "you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out." After all, people ignore their tires until they fail. But a little bit of knowledge and preventive maintenance can help you avoid such catastrophes.
As you may have discovered, nothing affects your car as much as an under-inflated tire, which happens easily here in regions where the temperatures swing high and low. According to Goodyear, a tire typically loses between 1 and 2 pounds of pressure for every 10-degree decline in temperature. So if the mercury plummets as a snowstorm nears, it's a good idea to check the tire pressure on all five wheels. You'll find the proper air pressure for a tire is located in the owner's manual, not on the tire's sidewall. It's also listed either in the glove box or on the driver's side doorjamb.
Tire pressure is important when driving through deep snow because you want the tire to dig down to the pavement where it can gain traction, something that won't happen with a soft, under-inflated tire.
Of course, once it's inflated properly, you also want to make sure to check the state of the tread itself. Take a penny and place it upside down into several places across the tire. If the top of Abe Lincoln's head is showing, it's time to replace the tire. You may find that the tire is worn on both edges, a sign that it's been driven extensively while underinflated.
But say that, unlike most motorists, you pay attention to these routine maintenance items and everything is fine. Even then your car or truck might need a new set of shoes.
Most passenger cars are equipped with all-season or all-season performance tires. The former will have more grip in foul weather than the latter, but will also not handle or stop as well in dry conditions as an all-season performance tire will. Generally, all-season tires have a speed rating of S, good for speeds up to 112 mph, or T, for speeds up to 118 mph. Both ratings are on the tire's sidewall. By contrast, all-season performance tires have speed ratings of H, for 130 mph, or V, for 149 mph.
If you have a high-performance car, or a luxury sedan, chances are good that you have a high-performance tire with a speed rating of ZR, for speeds above 149 mph; W, good until 168 mph; or Y, for when you might find yourself driving somewhere at 186 mph or less. The tread isn't designed for cold, icy conditions – as you might have recently found out. So opt for a set of winter tires, which have a snowflake on the sidewall. Save the other set of tires for warmer temperatures.
When it comes to truck tires, your options are simpler: all-season tires or all-terrain tires. Most drivers will find the former fine.
If you do any off-road work, all-terrain is the way to go.
No matter what your vehicle or tire, keep in mind that some all-season tires grip better than others.
So it's good idea to check the traction score of the tire you're about to buy. This score measures its ability to grip. AA is the top score; avoid those labeled C. You'll find this rating on the sidewall.
Most likely, you haven't read your current tires' sidewall, but you should.
If it has a low traction score and little tread left, have it replaced with a higher-quality tire.
That way, should it snow again, you'll find your car can handle frozen precipitation a lot better than you'd ever expect it to.
After all, a great track star can't be effective with lousy sneakers.
Neither can your car.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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