Winter Tire Test and Tips

By Jonathan Spira on 11 February 2010
  • Share

We compare two categories of tires for winter driving along with tips for driving on ice and snow

Driving a car with high-performance summer tires is great – until the temperatures start to dip.  DSC_0080
Summer tires are standard equipment on many high-performance cars such as those from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and other manufacturers, and the tires are designed to provide optimum dry-conditions performance and good handling in wet conditions.

There is, however, a catch.  At 7° C (45° F), their compound loses adhesion and, as a result, they cannot be used safely under wintry driving conditions.

This is where winter tires (formerly known as snow tires) come in.  DSC_0502Today, drivers have a variety of options so there is no need to sacrifice handling and performance in colder climes.  A choice of tires that provide maximum traction on snow and ice (typically labeled “snow and ice” for that matter) as well as the relatively new high-performance winter tires are available.  There is also a third category, all-season tires, which, although beyond the scope of this review are generally a compromise.

Many countries mandate the use of winter tires from November through March but failing to fit winter tires can have far more significant consequences than a ticket: simply put, one’s ability to accelerate, steer, and brake can be significantly compromised without the right tires in wintry conditions. Cars with summer tires are an accident waiting to happen.DSC_0581

But most winter tires can have a dramatic (and negative) impact on how the car handles.   Especially at speed, they can be less responsive and somewhat mushy compared to the connected feeling one experiences when driving on summer tires.

Enter winter performance tires.  Even if you reside in an area that gets significant snowfall, you’ll probably be driving on plowed roads and this is where the argument for performance winter tires comes in.

To find out what the best tire is for winter conditions, we tested both sides of the equation.  The answer, we came to find out, is “it depends.”  As you will see, winter performance tires are a worthy substitute for summer performance tires in the colder seasons and snow and ice tires simply don’t have the dry grip that many drivers expect when they are not driving in snow and ice.DSC_0625

For our tests, we drove the BMW 335d in a variety of winter conditions, from the Roßfeldhöhenringstraße  near Berchtesgaden at an altitude of 1560 m to the cold and (this year) very snowy streets of New York City.

In Europe, the 335d was shod with Goodyear Ultra Grip winter tires on 17″ Borbet CA wheels, excellent snow and ice shoes which are endowed with superb grip.  But drive over 130 km/h (80 mph) on a dry road and the 335d starts to flounder and the steering starts to feel far less precise.DSC_0630

On snow, however, it was a different story.  For a drive through ski country, we found you couldn’t be on better snowshoes.  The Goodyears were confident and gripped the road without hesitation.

If you see more snow than pavement in winter, think Buffalo or Fargo (or Philadelphia and Washington D.C. this year), this would be the way to go.

Back in the States, we fitted the 335d with Pirelli Winter 210 Sottozero winter performance tires on 17″  BMW Style 158 wheels.  DSC_0077Pirelli engineers designed the Sottozero to be effective as the temperatures drop near freezing in autumn until they warm up in early spring.  Did this mean that drivers would no longer dread the day they had to give into Mother Nature and swap tires?  Judging by the 335d’s gains in acceleration and braking compared to the Goodyears, the answer is “you betcha.”

Pirelli explains that the Winter Sottozero tread compound utilizes cap and base technology that combines two different compounds.  The portion of the tire that comes into contact with the road uses Pirelli’s latest generation silanes to bind the silica and polymer to provide greater stability during hard driving in both wet and dry conditions, while the tire’s base uses nano-composites to provide stiffness that translate into enhanced stability and driving precision.

The asymmetric tread pattern has distinct inner and outer elements that Pirelli claims are able to combine traction in snow and ice with drivability on dry and wet roads.DSC_0064

Inside, these tires utilize the same ultra high-performance structures that are found in Pirelli’s summer performance tires, adding to the level of performance that the Sottozero can provide.  After several hundred kilometers in sub-zero February temperatures, we found we got no compromise sports-car like responsiveness on dry roads along with excellent traction and braking in New York City’s latest blizzard.


  • Use the correct tires (see main article). Store your summer tires carefully (we use Kurgo Tire Totes and label tote and tire each for proper reinstallation in the spring)
  • Check tire inflation regularly.
  • Know where you are going (and via what route) and check forecasts on the Web before leaving.
  • Do not use cruise control on slippery surfaces (ice, rain, leaves, sand).
  • Allow for conditions. Accelerate and decelerate slowly.  Slowing down on ice and slush takes longer.
  • If you begin to skid, look and steer in the direction you want to go
  • Don’t stop as you go up a hill.
  • Take supplies along (snack, water, medication, blankets, gloves, shovel, and ice scraper).
  • If you get stuck, stay with the vehicle.
  • ICE – ICE stands for “in case of emergency” and storing an emergency contact in your mobile phone under the name ICE can help rescue personnel quickly locate a friend or family member if warranted.Winter Diesel Driving