AutosIs it better to use narrow tires on snow and ice? A comprehensive test

Is it better to use narrow tires on snow and ice? A comprehensive test

Images source: © Press materials | Marcin Łobodziński

6:41 AM EST, November 14, 2023

It is a commonly held belief among seasoned drivers that narrow tires fare better in winter since they exert more pressure on slippery surfaces. In theory, this stands to reason, but it was decided to put this claim to the test.

Tire Reviews, a tire review platform, performed a series of tests on four different winter tires of various widths, all mounted on a BMW 3 Series. The tires used in the tests comprised the following combinations:

  • 1. Size 205/60 R16
  • 2. Size 225/45 R18
  • 3. Size 255/35 R19
  • 4. front 255/35 R19; rear 275/35 R19.

The fourth combination was implemented as they could not mount 275-width tires on the front axle. The smallest tire size was used in a different model as not every size was available in one model, which may have swayed the results.

These tests were conducted under the characteristic winter conditions of Finland, abundant in snow and ice at low temperatures. The ultimate aim was to determine whether narrower tires truly offer superior performance under such conditions.

Are the results conclusive?

The tester noted that narrow tires made maneuvering on snow-covered tracks easier. As the tire width increased, the balance between the front and rear axles diminished, leading to more understeer and oversteer. Despite this, wider tires exhibited improved turning response.

Interestingly, the fourth combination, which featured the widest tires on the rear axle, re-established the balance akin to the narrower tires. Yet, the test driver emphasized that the differences among tire sizes were slight and hard to perceive.

Similarly, the differences in driving times were marginal, but the gap between the best and the worst results had widened. The 225-width tires clocked the fastest (82.29 s), while the broadest set took the longest (84.87 s). However, the traction and braking tests added an unexpected twist to the results.

The narrowest tires achieved the best acceleration results (the time taken to accelerate from a standstill to 21.7 mph was 6.35 s). The 225 tires came second, the fourth set third and the 255 tires on the rear axle fared worst. In contrast, the 225-width tires achieved the best outcome in the snow braking test, followed by the 255, with the narrowest tires bringing up the rear.

As for tests conducted on ice, the narrowest tires performed the best during acceleration, followed by the 255, with the 225 tires trailing. The combination of wider 275 tires on the rear axle performed slightly worse than the one with narrower 255 tires on the rear axle but was slightly better than the even narrower 225. This emphasizes the complexity and unpredictability of the findings.

Moreover, during the ice braking test, the widest tires outperformed all (the fourth combination), while the narrowest tires were least effective. The 255 set did not fare as well as the 225 set.

On separating and averaging test results according to snow and ice, the narrowest tires turned out to be the best performing. The outcome on snow showed a direct correlation: the wider the tires, the worse their performance. However, this trend was not replicated on ice as the widest tires ranked second, and the 225 size ended up fourth.

By examining the acceleration and braking results individually for both surfaces, we can deduce that narrow tires provided the best acceleration but were worst at braking, whereas wide tires exhibited the best braking but were worst at acceleration. Considering the differences in the tread pattern for the narrowest tire and the minute variances among the other three combinations, it could be concluded that tire size doesn't significantly impact performance on snow and ice.

The tester underscored that the differences among tire models from different manufacturers were more palpable, as confirmed by numerous tests. More importantly, the discrepancy between the best and the worst tires in these tests is considerably more comprehensive than that among different sizes of a single-tire model. This observation has led to a critical conclusion: it is more prudent to opt for a smaller (presumably cheaper) version of a high-quality tire rather than insisting on a larger size of a more economical option.

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