Piston Slap: Wider is better in the winter?
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?
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!
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.
- Skinny winter tires are better for acceleration.
- Wider winter tires are better for braking.
- 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.
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