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Test shows snow tires outperform all-weather tires

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By Mark Phelan Detroit Free Press
Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A generation of drivers has grown up believing snow tires are relics, but they're wrong.

The cleverly named all-season tires that have replaced snow tires don't provide nearly the security, safety and control of a good set of snow — or winter — tires when the snow flies and temperatures fall.

If you live more than a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in the mountains or just about anywhere winter temperatures regularly stay below freezing, you should at least think about snow tires.

I got a double-barreled reminder about a week ago at Michigan Tech's Keweenaw Research Center in the Upper Peninsula. First, sliding between walls of snow with a professional driver testing Michelin winter tires, then as I wished for more traction for braking and steering during the 540-mile drive back to Detroit the next day.

Michelin's test drivers were evaluating snow and all-season tires, measuring stopping time, acceleration and how much trouble they had staying on the road.

The difference is dramatic. On the fresh, slippery snow cover we compared the results of various maneuvers in a set of snow tires versus a high-quality set of all-season tires. The snow tires were one second faster accelerating from 5 to 20 mph They were a half-second quicker slowing down to 5 mph, and an amazing 13 seconds faster around a 1.2-mile stretch of private road.

A scoreboard in the research center's garage tallied how many times each driver — and one FedEx truck making a delivery — slid off the road and got stuck.

In the real world of public roads, oncoming traffic and the mistakes we all make, the numbers from Michelin's tests add up to a bigger margin for error. Snow tires provide confidence that you won't slip off the road, brakes that keep you from sliding into the next car's bumper at the stop sign and grip to pull into traffic or cross a busy intersection.

Snow tire prices range from as low as $80 to more than $200 apiece, said Chris Lynch, owner of Wetmore's, a Ferndale, Mich., service shop that has specialized in tires since 1928. To minimize winter damage to fancy aluminum wheels and avoid charges for remounting and balancing their tires twice a year, most owners buy basic steel wheels for another $200 to $300 a set.

He figures a set of snow tires will last three or four years. They also extend the life of the customer's other tires by reducing mileage on them.

“It costs money, but what's the value of avoiding an accident?” asked Ron Margadona, Michelin senior technical marketing manager. “People need to know that tires improve their mobility and safety.”

Carefully designed tread features grabby nooks and crannies to dig into snow and loose ice. Winter tires stay flexible and cling to the surface at temperatures that cause other tires to lose their grip.

All-season tires have been common for about 35 years. They've got some grip at all temperatures, but they can't match the road-hugging ability of a tire designed specifically either for warm temperatures or winter conditions.

“Winter tires are designed to keep you mobile and safe in the cold months,” Margadona said.

Mark Phelan is a Detroit Free Press columnist.

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