Piston Slap: Wider is better in the winter?

Kyle Smith

Hagerty Community Member DUB6 writes:


With the onset of winter weather—in MOST of your readership areas, at least—I’m seeing examples showing up of an age-old question.  I have my own opinion, but perhaps you can set us all straight: Wider tires or skinnier tires for driving in snow?

Sajeev answers:

This is a fantastic and timely question from one of the Hagerty Community’s most cherished commentators! Might I first start this off by saying that the width matters far less than the need for running dedicated winter tires?

Clear the rubber compound hurdle and the answer might depend on your zip code. I’ve mentioned this previously, because automotive needs are nearly as diverse as that of our populace. Not all of America has the same terrain, the same level of infrastructure, and the same types of vehicles driving on said infrastructure. If you live in a rural area, I reckon you’re more likely to have a truck or an SUV as a winter vehicle.

Most of these vehicles are heavier than a car or crossover and can take further advantage of the extra contact patch provided by a wider winter tire for all-terrain/unplowed road use. That contact patch might really come in handy when braking to avoid a deer. And they look cooler: That shouldn’t be a concern, but it certainly comes into play when up-fitting a truck. And there ain’t nothing wrong with wanting a cooler looking truck!

winter tire snow slush opel

Conversely, if you own a family sedan, a rear-wheel drive performance car, and live in the suburbs, you’re more likely to go on plowed roads and are light enough to have a harder time pushing down on wider winter tires. The average Toyota Corolla or BMW 3-series can take advantage of narrower winter tires slicing through soft snow to firmer ground below, but braking might suffer because there’s less rubber to make contact with the ground. Fuel economy will be better, and that’s important for areas with gridlock and endless rows of stop lights.

At least that’s the theory. The reality is that tire width, sidewall height, wheel + tire weight, rubber compounds, tread design (including tire sipes), and how much weight you can put above the drive axle all play a crucial role in a vehicle’s winter performance. It’s a lot to digest, and the following test does a good job explaining the complexities.

I started the video at the meaty part of the conclusion, so we can get to the heart of the matter.

  1. Skinny winter tires are better for acceleration.
  2. Wider winter tires are better for braking.
  3. The quality of the rubber compound is more important than the width.

Personally, having spent a few fun and/or terrifying days in snowy conditions, acceleration is likely moot: My all-season-equipped, empty bed 2011 Ford Ranger (even during the shocking Texas snowpocalypse) has active handling that ensured I never did a one-wheel peel on unplowed, slush-filled roads. Ford’s AdvanceTrac even kept the Ranger straight while going up steep hills and icy driveways! I didn’t even need to start in second gear or find trash to weigh down the rear suspension, but maybe everything woulda been harder if the snow stuck around for longer than a few days …

My experience isn’t yours, so here’s the point: Most any vehicle equipped with winter tires can get off the line easily, especially a modern example with computer-assisted technology. But braking for a panic stop? I’ll take the hit to fuel economy and opt for a wider tire every time.

Have a question you’d like answered on Piston Slap? Send your queries to pistonslap@hagerty.comgive us as much detail as possible so we can help! Keep in mind this is a weekly column, so if you need an expedited answer, please tell me in your email.


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Lexus will be fully electric by 2035


    I always heard tall and narrow was best when I was freelance plowing driveways but I ran whatever was cheapest (usually used) and honestly everything performed the same according to my butt. This is an interesting science discussion but once you factor in the wild cards of differing depths, temperatures, density of pack and underlying surfaces you can lose your mind over this stuff. As is usually the case nothing works best in all conditions. My philosophy: run what ya brung and plan extra time. Thanks DUB6 for initiating the discussion!

    If you are snowy mud-rutting a lightweight Model T than super skinny wins.

    Since almost no one does the above anymore… I would just buy the best snow tire (quality varies greatly, M+S is not a snow tire, etc.) in the factory size.

    Where I live, insurance on regular-use vehicles gives a discount for using snows on all 4 wheels. Unless you trade in the vehicle often, buying a set of winter rims (with sensors unless you don’t care about warning lights) saves money in the long run. If your factory rims are boring or worn make them the winters and get a set of custom rims for the summer!

    For many vehicles in regions with snow, “all weather” tires are adequate – especially compared with “all season” = 3 season tires.

    From high school physics, friction is independent of area. Also from high school physics, a pneumatic device, like a tire or a balloon, will always have the same are in contact with the ground at the same pressure. Increasing the width of the tire makes the contact patch wider, but shorter. You can see this in the pictures of tire contact patches shown in the video.

    Dynamically, the width, an section, of the tire make great differences in dynamic response. But not because they have a larger contact patch.

    I live in Michigan, where we have days of ice storms. Winter tires, like Bridgestone Blizzaks, have much greater ice traction than all season tires. I have been able to stop on ice much quicker with my winter tires, preventing an accident. (I would have hit a police car, which never has a good outcome!). I have driven lots of rear wheel drive cars, Caprice, Lincoln Mark VIII, Mustang GT, in the winter here with winter tires, and I have gone up steep driveways that all wheel drive cars with all season tires could not.

    I wouldn’t be without winter tires.

    Having driven near Erie PA, in the lake effect snow belt for over 50 years (average 100 and up to 165 inches of snow fall per season), I would go with factory size and load rated winter tires with the best grip rubber compound you can afford. Studded tires are an extra traction help, if they are allowed in the state and areas you drive in. Old days with rear wheel non-positraction, best thing to use was winter recaps that had very soft rubber – only lasted one or two winters, but they where cheap to replace, and our vehicles started to rust out after 5 or 6 years anyway.

    I’ve always put winter tires on all our vehicles (except once) in upstate NY. The most recent winter tire purchase included studs and I won’t do that again. The added grip in ice conditions is not as much as I had hoped and the noise and damage to my driveway is very noticed. It’ll just be high quality friction winter tires for me going forwards.
    Modern “all weather” tires with the 3PMSF marking are also pretty good these days. The one time I didn’t get dedicated winters I got some Nokian 3PMSF tires. They were plenty good but OMG got VERY loud as they wore.

    It used to be that tires were fully winter summer but as time, technology and design advances the line between winter and summer tires is kind of blurred together more than ever.

    Today you have much more advanced compounds and even up to three compounds on a tread surface of a tire. Computer aided tread design has also altered the effects of wider tires so they clean and grip well today.

    In snow many all season and winter tires are more than adequate to get you safely to where ever you need to go.

    The main advantage to most full winter tires is ice traction that most never have much need for unless they are in deep cold climates where salt does not work. Most areas salt works fine and roads are plowed and cleared fast in most metro areas.

    Tires are like tools and you need to pick the right tool for the right job anymore. I live in the snow area of Lake Erie. I can Drive from home with the sun out and dry road to where my work is and have up to 10″ snow and more coming down just 12 miles away. Other areas a little farther north can see 30″ at the same time.

    Winter tires for me would wear fast and not last long. But a high grade winter tire like the Goodyear Assurance Weather Ready can do all I need to get me where I need to go.

    Two other factors many leave out of winter driving is the issue of #1 having good tires period. Many people are on worn out tires and no matter the type they will not do the job. As the price goes up the longer people run them and often too long.

    The other factor is driving skill. Often many people just lack good driving skill. Of late I calk much of this up to the use of so many electronic traction assist on cars. Many people never drove a car that had no stability control or RWD. Sadly some cars you can not even shut these off to learn car control properly.

    When I learned to drive we went to empty parking lots and learned how brake and control cars in a slide. Doing donuts in a safe clear area can teach you much on car control. Even today the electronics have limits and then you reach them the old skills can bail you out.

    Skills are highly under rated as for years we never had good tires and only RWD and we got around for nearly 100 years with few issues and no salt.

    Finally one last thing. Check your tire pressures. Even the best tire will pack snow and lose traction if you under inflate. Tread in most tires are self cleaning but they need to be inflated properly. If not you are snow on snow.

    One more point the proper type of tire for the vehicle you are driving is important. You do not want a Mud tire on snow on a Jeep. Or a passenger tire on a C8, They make winter tires for a C8 so choose wisely to fit needs and vehicle.

    FYI recaps and Studded tires are kind of a thing of the past. Studs were fine back when there was one compound and little tread design on Bias tires.

    Also recaps are not great for todays cars. Most are able to do high speeds and the heat if you should drive fast in the dry can make a recap a liability.

    Even my wifes V6 SUV is speed limited but not till 135 MPH.

    If you live or drive somewhere where you need studs, you probably know because most of your neighbors already drive on studded tires. if you don’t, a modern winter tire will do wonders for you. But don’t discount studs as obsolete technology. Just because they aren’t needed where you are doesn’t mean they aren’t needed in other places. A big factor that doesn’t get talked about much is how your local government manages the roads for snow and ice. Folks in our town usually don’t even need winter tire as the roads are pretreated with brine, plowed and salted multiple times even if only a couple inches has come down. But where I live, ours is literally the last road in the county to get plowed. A couple miles and a couple municipal borders make a big difference in your road conditions.

    I went from a 215 width to a 225 width snow tire due to better selection on the winter side years ago and it did not hurt at all. It was in fact better but that was because of the snow tire being used versus the all season prior. It did look good too.

    Since I live in the Pacific Northwest just north of Seattle we generally do okay with all-season tires. If I was in the market for winter tires my biggest concern would be how well they perform when the snow is gone. I assume winter tires probably go on in November and come off in April, but there will be periods when the roads are wet only. Then wet braking performance would be important. I would think studded tires would be awful in those conditions.

    Back in the 1960’s, top class rally cars like the Saab 96 ran tires that looked like they came off a bicycle for snow events. That was good enough guidance for me. Best car I ever had for traction in the snow was a Citroen 2CV with 135 section tires. Mind you, the lack of power and the tall wheels didn’t hurt either.

    In the 70’s and 80’s there was tire development talk about studs mounted in ‘nylon’ inserts so they would retract to a normal position lower than pavement contact. When the tire was squeezed by acceleration or deceleration (or, presumably, side stress), hysteresis would momentarily force them into extension. I was looking forward to those, and wonder what became of the concept.

    Only the fact that Sajeev knows that I’m from Idaho does it give him license to call me a “common tater”…
    I’ve read all the responses so far, and will say that it’s clear that there are no easy answers – and that people who live in Phoenix have much less of an idea than those in Saskatoon. Like Tinkerah and R B Malcom, I was raised on the belief that tall and narrow was the way to go in snow, as that allowed the tires to “cut down” to a traction surface as opposed to “floating up on top”, which wider tires seemed to do. Of course, when I was raised, there weren’t so many options of tire sizes, tread patterns, and especially rubber compounds to choose from. We basically had street tires and snow tires, and they got switched out regularly just about the same time as the holiday lights got hung and when the crocuses starting blooming. Also, darned near everything (at least daily drivers) were rear-wheel drive. And the snow tires were always narrower.

    I live in Idaho too, right up against the border with Canada. In the past I had RWD cars that I used to swap the “streets” out for “snows” every winter. But road maintenance has improved and everything I have now is either 4WD or AWD so I tend to just leave the “all seasons” on year round. Even on the ’79 F-150 4X4 heading up into the mountains for a christmas tree. Motto’s always been “Go as far as you can in 2WD and when you can’t go any further, shift into 4WD, turn around, and go home.”
    Yeah, I’ve been stuck a time or two, but isn’t that what a winch is for?
    Merry Christmas!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *