University of Michigan faculty member Dorothea Gail remembers a few bad moments driving the slippery, hilly streets of Ann Arbor last winter.
"I was going up an incline and my car couldn't make it," says Gail. "I had to get out and put floor mats under the tires to get better traction."
Gail says as another winter approaches she considered putting snow tires on her 2001 Mazda 626. The cheaper alternative: walk to work or take the bus when the weather gets nasty.
Snow tires today are taking a back seat to all-weather radial tires, according to the tire industry, car dealers, automakers and consumers. In most instances the year-round tires, if well-maintained, get the job done.
"Industry tracking for winter auto tires shows that the North American market for dedicated snow tires declined from around 20 million units in the mid 1970s to around 10 million units through the mid-1990s and is currently hovering around 15 million units, says Jim David, Goodyear Tire and Rubber spokesman in Akron, Ohio.
Demand is down even in parts of the country where you might expect a stronger market for snow tires.
Like Tomah in chilly northern Wisconsin. Brenengen Chrysler Ford spokesman Robb Murphy says most customers accept the factory-installed tires on a new vehicle. Those tires tend to be all-terrain, all-weather types.
"Sure, some ask what kind of tires are on their cars, but after 10 years of doing this, I've never had a customer order winter tires," Murphy says.
Not everyone is satisfied with original equipment tires. Neil Rapp lives in Harrison Township, a suburb of Detroit, and drives a sturdy-looking silver 2008 Dodge Ram pickup with rear drive.
"I got stuck in my driveway last winter," recalls the professional tree trimmer. In November, Rapp bought two used tires with rubber studs to put on his rear wheels.
At Longmont Ford in Longmont, Colo., parts manager Ro Schamberger recently put snow tires on his 2007 Ford Focus.
"This is the first winter I'll be driving a car instead of a light truck," Schamberger says. "I have a 24-mile commute here from my home outside Denver."
Longmont, like Denver, is at an elevation of about 5,700 feet and the weather, according to Schamberger, doesn't match media hype. At 6,200 feet, the town of Craig, population 9,300, likely faces tougher Colorado winters. And Cook Chevrolet Subaru parts manager Charlie Williams says he gets many requests for winter or snow tires.
"We don't sell tires at this dealership, but we're happy to mount and balance them and we can order them from a local dealer," says Williams, who answers up to 50 requests for snow tires in a season.
Winter or snow tires have a different tread and are made from a softer rubber compound than all-weather tires, Williams explains.
"The softer compound is more pliable in cold weather and grips the road better, including on ice pellets and sleet," Williams says. "A harder material tends to shrivel."
Goodyear's Davis adds that the widespread availability of traction control, which helps reduce wheel spin on slippery surfaces, coupled with wide acceptance of all-weather tires have affected the need for a separate set of tires for the winter.
Sipkje Pesnichak did some homework and recently decided to put new, all-weather tires on her 2006 Hyundai Sonata.
Pesnichak, of Ann Arbor, Mich., read consumer reviews. Praise for features like tread wear and road noise convinced her to purchase Pirelli P45 Four Seasons. She is getting two for starters and will put them up front.
"When Dad was here a couple of months ago, he noticed that the tread was getting quite worn and the tires needed replacing," says the church musician and music teacher.
"Dad" is Ron Pesnichak, who recalls living in Albany and Oneonta, N.Y., where winters can be severe. He was driving a 1979 Camaro and made a point of putting winter tires on the rear-drive sport coupe.
Radial tires were expensive, he says.
"I also purchased a second set of metal rims to accompany these two snow tires," says Pesnichak, who now lives in Cincinnati. "Snow tires made driving better in the snow but never good."
Pesnichak says he stopped using snows when he purchased a new 1982 Mazda 626 with front-wheel drive and radial tires.
How auto makers choose
Selecting tires for new vehicles is an exacting process, says Cameron Kurth of Hyundai-Kia's Technical Center. It can take up to two years to make a choice for a vehicle.
"Often the first tire tested for a production car is evaluated before the first prototype vehicle is even built," says Kurth. The Tire and Rim Association publishes standards for load and speed ratings, he continues.
"Typically a vehicle manufacturer runs one load and speed ratings above (that) as a factor of safety," Kurth says.
"The tire manufacturer will work with the automaker to develop a target for each of the different performance factors, wet/dry/snow grip, rolling resistance, handling, ride and noise," he says.
Over the next 12 to 24 months, Kurth says, there will be up to 10 rounds of tire evaluations to find the tire that best meets the targets.
Gregory Lang, corporate manager of North American Product Planning for Toyota, says all Toyota general market vehicles come equipped with all-season tires which have mud and snow ratings.
"Performance-oriented Lexus models may come with summer tires," Lang says. "There are no Toyotas regularly equipped with summer tires."
Lang says in general special tires — like performance tires — likely won't have the same road life as standard all-weather tires. It's a tradeoff for those buyers, he adds.
Williams at Cook Chevrolet Subaru in Colorado adds that winter tires also tend to have a shorter life.
In Ann Arbor, Dorothea Gail's mechanic dismissed her winter driving concerns.
"He told me, 'you'll be fine,'" says the academic. She is taking a middle road, not investing in winter tires and deciding to walk or rely on public transportation when the roads are scary.
Goodyear spokesman Jim Davis says that weather extremes can substantially change the surface conditions on which any given tire operates. It is important to make sure that a car is equipped with tires capable of providing traction in the expected conditions. Drivers should adapt driving styles to match changing conditions.
AAA's preparing vehicles for winter includes tire tips. The association says "traction" is the operative word. In regions with heavy winter weather, snow tires on all four wheels will provide the best winter traction. All-season tires work well in light to moderate snow but must have adequate tread depth.
How to check tread depth? Try inserting a penny with Lincoln's head first into the tread. If the head is completely visible your tread is worn.
Tires air pressure drops with the temperature. Under-inflation and over-inflation of tires increases wear and reduces their effectiveness. Inflation information for a vehicle is found on the B-pillar or on the driver's door.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times