We Merrimack Valley drivers favor all-wheel-drive vehicles for the added safety and security four-wheel traction brings in winter weather. But my most harrowing experience while driving on snow occurred in an expensive sedan equipped with all-wheel drive.
The lesson I learned was, as much as we value all-wheel drive in winter, tires are equally important. Realizing that, I went to an expert for a summary of the differences between summer tires and winter tires – what makes each type well-suited for its season.
Two separate incidents sent me to Will Robbins, an engineer and product manager at Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, the tire company based in Nashville, Tennessee. The first was the terrifying experience I just mentioned, which happened a few years back. The second was a positive experience that just occurred, in a BMW 3 Series equipped with the company’s xDrive all-wheel drive. The good incident in the BMW redeemed my outlook toward pricey performance cars on snow. It also made me think more about tires.
The earlier experience involved a four-door luxury sedan about the size of the BMW 3 Series, also equipped with all-wheel drive, and also with a slant toward spirited and athletic motoring. Descending a mountain road when snow was just beginning to cover the pavement, the car began to slide. And slide. And slide.
It broke traction completely, on all four wheels, and simply skated downward. I had absolutely no control, and nothing I tried brought back any control. I couldn’t even brake, because the tires where simply planing over the snow coat.
After some moments, the car drifted against the hard, crusty plow bank pushed alongside the road from earlier snows. That slowed it enough for me to get some control, and I held it against the bank till friction stopped it.
Apparently some concern from that earlier incident stuck with me because I felt anxious about driving the BMW 3 Series in similar conditions recently. The White Mountains of New Hampshire saw an early blast of snow the first week of November, when I happened to be visiting, and when I happened to be test driving an all-wheel-drive 3 Series. But the BMW stayed steady and well controlled on the snow-coated road. It redeemed my outlook toward pricey performance cars on snow.
The 3 Series is a top-selling, critically acclaimed luxury sport sedan – a car that both pampers and drives with engaging and entertaining spirit. Its primary variations, the 330i rear-drive and 330xi all-wheel-drive sedans, entered model-year 2019 as re-engineered and re-styled, next-generation cars. The 330i starts at a list price of $41,745. The xDrive all-wheel-drive systems adds $2,000, bringing the starting list of the 330xi to $43,745.
With a long, muscularly shaped hood, conspicuous width, and an assertive plant upon the pavement, the new design has the look of a stallion. It is generously powered, with an advanced four-cylinder engine that accelerates the car very quickly, yet still yields impressive fuel economy. Through my week-long evaluation, I averaged a tad under 35 miles per gallon in mixed driving, much better than its official government fuel-use rating of 28 mpg.
The 3 Series has the exacting construction and the abundance of technological add-ons that distinguish upper-crust autos. Its cabin has the high design, the pampering amenities and deluxe finishes that impart distinction. Its comfort is immediately apparent. During my first excursion in the evaluation model, I commented to my passenger, “this is a very quiet car.”
It turns out the tires on the 330xi played a role in that. The sedan wore Bridgestone Turanza tires. Turanza is Bridgestone’s line of comfort-enhancing tires that are designed to absorb road noise. Turanzas are all-season tires, intended for year-round use. They’re engineered to grip on wet and snowy roads, as well as dry pavement.
By contrast, the sedan that a few years back took me on the wild mountain slide was shod with speed-rated summer performance tires, designed more for fast driving on a track than for snow slogging.
Alerted to the critical difference tires can make, I went to Bridgestsone to find out how much of an advantage winter tires might bring. A step above year-round, all-season tires, winter tires are made specifically for use in low temperatures and on snow.
For New England’s cold-season climate – especially in upper New England regions like the Merrimack Valley – “winter-specific tires are still the best option for providing traction on snow and ice. Tire rubber begins to stiffen in cold temperatures, but winter tire compounds are specially designed to remain flexible in cold weather,” explained Will Robbins, the product manager at Bridgestone Tire.
On top of that, the treads of winter tires are sculpted specifically to grip better on snow-covered pavement.
“The tread pattern on a winter tire is designed to retain snow as it makes contact with the road. This is because snow sticks to snow, giving the tire increased traction,” Robbins stated.
By contrast, summer performance tires use unique tread compounds that enhance the tire’s grip on asphalt. Stiffer shoulders hold the specialty tires steadier during cornering. But, cautions Robbins, “the combination of cold temperatures and snow would put the tire outside of the operating conditions for which it was designed to perform.”
For hard-charging drivers who want to run year-round treads that also support spirited, athletic maneuvers, “newer performance all-season tires, like the Bridgestone Potenza RE980AS, have been designed with tread patterns and compounds that can provide reasonable traction in colder temperatures and light snow,” he noted.
Those are exactly the conditions in which I drove safely on the Bridgestone Turanza all-season tires beneath the BMW 330xi earlier this month.
All-season tires are an alternative to shouldering the added expense of owning a second set of cold-season tires – and switching tires as the seasons change. But Robbins pointed out that changing between two sets distributes the miles you put on them, so that each set lasts longer than a single set of tires would.
And the winter-specific tires certainly will provide greater safety and security when our white season arrives in earnest. With the unpredictability of New England weather, exactly when that will happen this year is anyone’s guess. So when would a driver put on the winter treads?
Said Robbins, “although we don’t have any hard and fast rules, we generally recommend switching to winter tires once temperatures start falling consistently below 40 degrees, or when it’s cold enough to see your breath outside. It is in this temperature range where the tread rubber compounds of winter tires start to show an advantage versus all-season tires, and especially summer tires which should not be used in cold temperatures.”
That last point I learned by careening down a mountain road on summer tires in winter.
Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.
2020 BMW 3 Series
Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, rear and all-wheel-drive luxury sport sedan
Price range: $41,745 to $43,745 (plus options)
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged I4
Power: 255 horsepower at 5,000 rpm; 295 lb.-ft. torque at 1,550 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed geared automatic
Fuel economy: 25 mpg city; 34 mpg highway
Wheelbase: 112 inches
Length: 186 inches
Width: 72 inches
Height: 57 inches
Weight: 3,582 pounds
Fuel capacity: 15.6 gallons