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Larry Printz: Good tires can make all the difference in ugly weather

February 24, 2014

   

When was the last time you thought about car tires? It might have been last week, when you discovered how poorly your car handled snowy roads. It reminds me of billionaire investor Warren Buffettís bon mot, "you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out." After all, people ignore their tires until they fail. But a little bit of knowledge and preventive maintenance can help you avoid such catastrophes.

As you may have discovered, nothing affects your car as much as an under-inflated tire, which happens easily here in regions where the temperatures swing high and low. According to Goodyear, a tire typically loses between 1 and 2 pounds of pressure for every 10-degree decline in temperature. So if the mercury plummets as a snowstorm nears, itís a good idea to check the tire pressure on all five wheels. Youíll find the proper air pressure for a tire is located in the ownerís manual, not on the tireís sidewall. Itís also listed either in the glove box or on the driverís side doorjamb.

Tire pressure is important when driving through deep snow because you want the tire to dig down to the pavement where it can gain traction, something that wonít happen with a soft, under-inflated tire.

Of course, once itís inflated properly, you also want to make sure to check the state of the tread itself. Take a penny and place it upside down into several places across the tire. If the top of Abe Lincolnís head is showing, itís time to replace the tire. You may find that the tire is worn on both edges, a sign that itís been driven extensively while underinflated.

But say that, unlike most motorists, you pay attention to these routine maintenance items and everything is fine. Even then your car or truck might need a new set of shoes.

Most passenger cars are equipped with all-season or all-season performance tires. The former will have more grip in foul weather than the latter, but will also not handle or stop as well in dry conditions as an all-season performance tire will. Generally, all-season tires have a speed rating of S, good for speeds up to 112 mph, or T, for speeds up to 118 mph. Both ratings are on the tireís sidewall. By contrast, all-season performance tires have speed ratings of H, for 130 mph, or V, for 149 mph.

If you have a high-performance car, or a luxury sedan, chances are good that you have a high-performance tire with a speed rating of ZR, for speeds above 149 mph; W, good until 168 mph; or Y, for when you might find yourself driving somewhere at 186 mph or less. The tread isnít designed for cold, icy conditions ó as you might have recently found out. So opt for a set of winter tires, which have a snowflake on the sidewall. Save the other set of tires for warmer temperatures.

When it comes to truck tires, your options are simpler: all-season tires or all-terrain tires. Most drivers will find the former fine.

If you do any off-road work, all-terrain is the way to go.

No matter what your vehicle or tire, keep in mind that some all-season tires grip better than others.

So itís good idea to check the traction score of the tire youíre about to buy. This score measures its ability to grip. AA is the top score; avoid those labeled C. Youíll find this rating on the sidewall.

Most likely, you havenít read your current tiresí sidewall, but you should.

If it has a low traction score and little tread left, have it replaced with a higher-quality tire.

That way, should it snow again, youíll find your car can handle frozen precipitation a lot better than youíd ever expect it to.

After all, a great track star canít be effective with lousy sneakers.

Neither can your car.

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  McClatchy-Tribune Information Services