Sunday, December 18, 2016

Snow Tire Benefits

Snow tires are amazing. Yes, in many places, with the advent of front-wheel drive, you can live without them. If you have a heavy vehicle, you can even do pretty well, even in snowy climes. Our Dodge Grand Caravan plowed through snow, and did okay on ice, with all-season tires, here in American Siberia.

But snows help so much. I first re-discovered snows for our small cars: Ford Focus, Honda Civic. Terrible snow/ice performance without snows (especially with OEM low-profile plus-size tires). Add snow tires--they performed better in slick conditions than abovementioned behemoth minivan.

Our kids drive those small cars now, and Beth and I drive a Subara Forester, and Toyota Prius V, respectively. I just got snows for them, and wow, what an improvement. Yeah, the Subaru is AWD, but honestly, for most slick conditions in the flat midwest, snows are more important than AWD. AWD is great for going uphill when slick, but flat & slick is the most common challenge in MSP, and the softer rubber of snow tires is what helps with that.

Snow tires do cost, especially since you need a second set of rims. Here are my tips:

  • The price of steel rims varies widely. For small cars, $50 is fair, for plain-Jane steel rims; for mid-size, maybe $62.
  • Consumer Reports has consistently rated General Arctic Altimax snow tires highly. They are not the very best--usually those are Michelins--but they are close, for 40% less cost. I now have them on all 4 vehicles.
  • I have ordered online, from TireRack. They will ship either directly to you, or to a designated installer. Their prices are great, but the high cost of shipping does tend to eat up much of the savings. Here's the thing--if you are getting rims + tires, they will preinstall them for you, saving the cost of installation. On top of that, if you live in a major metro area, such as MSP, you may be able to pick them up at the TireRack warehouse, for no charge. That's what I did this time.
  • When evaluating the cost, you need to use lifecycle amortization techniques. In the long-term, the substantial cost of the snow tires is partially offset by the fact that you aren't wearing out your summer tires as fast. Granted, snows may cost a bit more (not that much), and wear faster (softer rubber), but that is maybe a 30% premium. I.e., if a snow tire costs $75, the true incremental cost for that tire is probably $25. The second set of rims, on the other hand, the rims, at $50-$65 per, are pure incremental cost (unless you can use them on a future vehicle).
  • A major pro tip is "minus sizing". If you have a mid-size or larger car (>16" rims), both rims and snows become very, very expensive. I was almost going to pass on snows for the Forester, for this reason. The cost was double the Prius, which has 16" rims. Then I read TireRack's recommendation for minus-sizing winter tires. It cut the cost in half.
  • Another bonus to ordering online: you can avoid the cost of TPMS (about $20 per wheel). Many states require installers to add a TPMS sensor, if the car is so equipped. But the mail-order sidesteps this. (Of course you lose the benefit of TPMS. But really, you should not rely on TPMS, you shoudl check your tire pressure at least every 3 weeks,)

A downside, beyond the obvious financial impact--you have to store the tires. We put them under our our deck. For a few years, I tried covering them with a tarp. Results were so-so. Then I thought to search Amazon, and found these--inexpensive covers forr stacks of tires. Highly recommended.

Oh yeah, the other downside is spending an entire Saturday in November, and another in March, swapping tires. You can hire this out, but if you have 4-5 cars, like me, it is easier to just DIY than go back and forth to the shop.

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