Recently, we had the opportunity to drive a bunch of Mazdas vehicles in the snow at Crested Butte, Colorado, mainly to test Mazda's all-wheel drive system. As part of the exercise
Suffice it to say, there were some stark differences.
We started in the front-wheel drive CX-3, and the little SUV scrabbled for traction like a dog on a tile floor, ever so slowly moving away from a dead stop on the slippery, snowy surface. Taking a corner even at slow speeds felt treacherous, and when it came time to stop, even from a moderate 20 mph, the CX-3 slid for a long time before finally gliding to a stop.
Next up was the all-wheel drive CX-3 on the standard all-season tires, and in its own way, it was scarier than the front-drive model. It accelerated and cornered with few of the problems the front-drive CX-3 had, and in corners the all-wheel drive system did a good job keeping the SUV from sliding wide one way or the other. It was easy to gather more speed…and that was the problem. We entered the braking area a good 10 mph faster than we had in the front-wheel drive model, and the CX-3 took forever to stop. The distance was much longer than the front-wheel drive model, and it reminded us of an important fact: All-wheel drive is great for acceleration and cornering, but contributes little to braking. For unaware drivers, the extra confidence you get from the improved traction can get you into big trouble.
Finally there was the all-wheel drive CX-3 with Blizzaks, and what a difference. The Blizzak-equipped car accelerated with virtually no drama, and cornering felt more like wet pavement than snow-covered ice. But the biggest change was in braking, which even at the same speeds was roughly half what the non-Blizzak all-wheel drive model could manage.
How is this possible? It turns out that winter tires are pretty high-tech stuff. The rubber stays flexible in freezing conditions that would have all-season tires turning to stone, and losing grip. The tread design features jillions of tiny grooves that capture snow, because snow-on-snow provides surprisingly good traction. The rubber is also designed with discreet microchannels that wick moisture away from the tire's surface, ensuring a layer of slippery water doesn't form between the tread and the road surface. The upshot is that you gain a huge advantage in control, and therefore safety, when using winter tires. And don't think that being "good at driving in snow" will help you. Trust us, you can't stop better than a car with anti-lock brakes, and the stark difference in stopping distances between the two all-wheel drive cars -- the only difference being the tires -- was remarkable.
Of course, winter tires aren't magic. They can't be used all year, since the rubber wears extremely fast at temperatures above about 60 degrees. They're noisier than all-season tires at high speeds. They still have to contend with the laws of physics, so you can't let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security; be careful out there always.
They're not free either, and the roughly $140 per tire price tag -- not including mounting and balancing -- could put some people off. We get that. But contrast that with the thousands of dollars you're likely to save yourself -- not to mention the time and hassles -- by preventing an accident in the first place, and they're really a bargain.