Snow seems to be everywhere this winter. From the UK to the southern US we’ve seen an abundance of the white stuff over the past few months. Here in Chicago we’ve gotten 24” in less than 24 hours. But for those of us who have to (or are excited to) venture out into the snow, there’s an cheat code: winter tires. What are winter tires and why do you need them? Surprisingly the answer isn’t only snow. How do we know? One winter we were forced to find out.
If you’ve been following MotoringFile for any time you’ll know we are big proponents of winter tires for climates that see cold temperatures and snow fall. But one aspect that gets missed about winter tires is that they’re not just designed for snow. Modern winter tires are created with compounds that adhere to the road no matter how cold temperatures get. Compare that to summer tires which not only have no grip in snow but little to know grip on dry cold pavement as well.
Summer in the Winter Doesn’t Work
Having to deal with a front wheel drive car with summer tires through a Chicago winter doesn’t fall into the fun category. With big blocks of tread that don’t adhere well to anything below 40F, summer tires simply aren’t intended to ever deal with the white stuff (let alone the cold stuff). Why? Winter tires work due to more flexible sidewalls, winter tread patterns, deeper tread depth, and most importantly, rubber compounds that remain soft in the lowest temperatures. In other words chemistry.
A few years back we ended up with Summer tires on your F56 Cooper S for longer than we’d like one winter. Due to a mix-up we soldiered through hoping that relatively small size 195 width would help. It didn’t. Our Goodyear summer tires simply could not dig into snow no matter what the depth. While they had better lateral grip than we would have expected (thank God) the ability to get off the line was all but zero in snowy conditions. Serious skill was required to do pretty much anything from starting at a light to parallel parking. Luckily we had our own snow package which consisted of the largest possible square-point shovel that would fit in the boot.
In case you skipped to the end, the official MotoringFile position is pretty clear. We don’t recommend summer tires in winter weather. That means any environment that is consistently below 40F and gets any kind of freezing precipitation.
Winter Tires or All Seasons?
This is pretty simple. All seasons are ok at everything and great at nothing. If you can afford the hassle and extra cash, we would highly recommend a set of dedicated summer and winter tires if you live in an environment that gets any type of snow or the cold dips regularly below 40.
Our Winter Tires Recommendation
There are plenty of good snow tire options out there. In our experience if you live in an area that gets a fair amount of snow and care about dry performance, the Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 is a good bet. We prefer it over the LM-32s we have on our current JCW Countryman as they deliver better non-snow performance while being respectable in snow. But there are plenty of other newer options out like the Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4 or the runflat Dunlop SP Winter Sport 3D DSST.
What makes all of these tires great (and pretty much all winter tires for that matter) is the use of a winter ready compound that features a hydrophilic coating and microscopic bite particles that are meant to absorb water and create grip through snow. But beyond working in snow this combination allows the compound to remain flexible and maintain grip in temperatures well below-freezing. That last bit is just as important as snow performance as much of our Chicago winters are spent on dry cold roads.
Winter tires coupled with the JCW Countryman all wheel drive system you tend to feel invisible in most scenarios. The combination plays along nicely with near seamless torque transitions from front to back and side to side. The best part however is the fact that up to 80% of torque can be routed to the rear wheels giving the JCW Countryman (and Clubman) the ability to quickly pivot from understeer to oversteer if provoked. Not a bad trick for empty snow-covered country roads.
Our recommendation is rather simple. If you live in an area that regularly gets snow and can afford to have two sets of tires, get winter tires. Summer tires are ideal for temps above 40 degrees and winter tires are ideal for temps below. It’s really that simple. And all-season tires (as good as they have gotten) aren’t great at anything. So if you want your MINI to have the ultimate no matter what the weather, consider dedicated summer and winter tires.