Within weeks of moving to the Pacific Northwest I was hooked on the mountains and knew I would be making many pilgrimages out of the safety of my urban dwelling and into the snowy reaches of higher elevations come winter. Months later as the the temps started to drop, the thought of cold mornings putting on chains entered my head and I started to take a very serious look at winter tires trying to understand if they were all hype or a truly useful tool for adventure.
Before I start on the details, understand that tires alone will not keep you on the road.
While my Buffalo, NY raised father was sure to tell me all about driving in it, I don’t think I actually tapped on the breaks with more than a dusting of powder under my tires until my mid twenties. Skill alone isn’t going to keep your car on the road but it plays a very real role in the equation as I’ve learned over the years since my first real winter ride. Understand that even the “right” tires will not do it all for you but also to accept than just because the same car ahead makes it up a road does not mean yours will; what’s on matters too!
The more severe the weather, the more your tires matter.
As Bridgestone and any other winter tire manufacturer will explain, a winter tire (aka a “snow tire”) is different down to the formula in the rubber tread. Summer tires are designed to handle heat and deliver maximum performance but come winter they stiffen up in the cold (cold being the low 40s f / under 6 or 7c) and lose grip. Winter tires on the other hand are made from softer formula that specifically works in the cold season; that means they perform even when the road is snow-free though their goal is to keep you on the road, not let you hit the corners at 65.
Winter tires also use other technologies like different tread patterns and configurations to specifically bite, dig and hold on icy or snowy ground. I’ve read that Blizzak in particular literally spit out wet material as they move to avoid building up snow all over the tread.
Much of this technology is new or rather newly scaled to a workable, affordable product. Years ago a winter tires came in just one flavor: studded which is a far more aggressive option impacting the pavement, creating a loud noise and wearing down. While technology on studs has improved too , living in mixed condition terrain, they were not viable for me and I’m told really not needed for most of us. There is of course loads more to the science of a tire (seriously, who knew?!) if you’re curious but let’s move on to the real world result.
In the world of snow & ice, traction is everything.
After all my research, I decided to invest in Blizzaks just in time for one of the lamest winters in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Still, I ran up to the snow enough to be happy with my purchase and more so, happy that I could avoid chain controls. Even in National Parks which are notorious for requiring tire chains, winter tires get me by just fine on any road I’m ok driving (4×4 + winter + chains = bad day to be on the road) though be sure to check regulations, places like Yosemite and Rainier require every vehicle to have chains in winter, even if you don’t need them.
My second winter however saw plenty of snowy action and within weeks of having my tires installed for the season, I knew my past investment had finally paid off. The proof of their absolute difference however came on my road trip up to Canada as I drove into Banff’s mountain pass just as a snow storm hit. Crawling through the high roads and down steep, frozen slopes in conditions that I can only describe as evil, I can’t begin to tell you how many wrecks I passed. After a week of winter driving in Alberta and a round-trip tour of the Icefields Parkway which is literally a snow road at best and an ice road in many parts during winter, I made it home without a scratch or even getting stuck.
This winter may have just started but so far it’s put even last year’s to shame. Forget mountain passes and destination trips; here in the outskirts of Portland we don’t tend to get more than a dusting of snow and yet in the past few weeks we’ve had over a foot with no plows, no salt, nothing to clean it up. Watching cars of all shapes and sizes try to navigate deep snow, frozen slush and ice thanks to the regular sub-freezing temps that accompany our storms, has shown me just how different the right tires can be.
Compare that to a short trip I took through the Southwest in a rental car just a week before writing this review and winter tires really are in another class. Driving through Colorado in a solid AWD SUV (SUVs = heavy = good) with mud & snow rated tires was generally good, we still had good traction, I could still stop, but it took longer and seconds matter in the real world. Coming down from a mountain pass on a snow covered road I saw the car ahead, half out of the lane and waiting to turn left. I applied the breaks only I didn’t stop… I couldn’t stop. Thankfully there was enough room for me to avoid the car, skirting into some fresh snow on the shoulder which only impacted my ego. The distance was fine, more than fine, but on the slick road, the traction just wasn’t there. As the video below shows, winter tires just work better.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never felt my breaks lockup on an icy road, never slid into a stop or lost traction with my Blizzaks on but the stopping distance, the grab on a turn, the ability to get out of a slush parking lot, it’s all notably different in winter tires, even against my all terrain M+S rated tires that I usually drive in. In practical, real world use from someone who is not an expert snow driver (but would like to think they’ve learned a thing or two), my Blizzaks have delivered.
Winter tires come at a cost and it’s not just the purchase price.
The hardest part of picking up winter tires was of course forking over the money. Over the years technology has improved and prices have come down but a set of 4 Blizzaks or any other winter tire for my Jeep Cherokee runs in the neighborhood of $600. And that’s just the initial cost as I have to swap into and out of winter tires twice a year.
Since I only have one set of wheels that the tires have be changed onto, rebalanced for and tire pressure sensors adjusted with, that’s another $120 a year (or a bit less at a small shop.) In hindsight, I should have grabbed a second set of wheels and TPMS kits as well for about $1000 all in taking the swap-over cost down considerably or even making it possible to do myself.
Is all that worth it? That depends on how much you winter.
I’ve been in the snow almost every week this winter, often out exploring roads that not many other people are on. I still have to have a cheap set of chains for the National Parks so there was no cost savings there but I’d certainly argue not getting out to put them on time and time again is worth something. Similarly, my Blizzaks should last 15,000+ miles which isn’t long for a pricey tire but it’s certainly 15,000 less miles on my also spendy All Terrains.
Winter tires save me from getting into chain mode, help my car run safer at speeds where chains don’t apply, and I’m convinced they make a very real impact when I need to react which mean an awful lot to me… and to my insurance rates. That said, if I was back in California going to the mountains a few times a year, I’d be just fine using my chains and spending the saved money on a lot of hot chocolates.
Learn more about Blizzak winter tires or search around to find competitive offerings.
* To be clear, I purchased my Blizzak Tires as a regular customer and received nothing from Bridgestone for this review.