Bridgestone Puts the ALL In a Better All-Season Tire For Winter03/01/2022
Lecture first: If you live in an area where snow routinely falls and you can afford to do so, you should have a set of winter tires on hand and stored in your garage or shed. You simply can’t beat a dedicated winter tire on ice and in deep snow, period. But owning a separate set of tires isn’t necessarily practical for many drivers, so the compromise the industry has pushed is the all-season tire. Until now, though, all-seasons have followed the old maxim “jack of all trades, master of none.” The Bridgestone Alenza AS Ultra all-season tire was designed to break that mold.
About Tires, and Winter
When you think of tires in general, the most important thing to remember is they’re the only places where your car, truck, or SUV actually touch the ground. Those four spots, known as contact patches, are generally smaller than a sheet of paper. Tires can be expensive, but they’re not the place to cheap out when it comes to vehicle maintenance. Your ability to stop before hitting something or turning to avoid a crash depends entirely on your tires. In the winter, when the roads are snowy and icy, tires matter even more.
Most of the time, winter performance is where the compromise gets made on an all-season tire, given that most people don’t live somewhere where they need to drive through deep snow or over solid ice on a regular basis. In areas where it does snow regularly, the local government is (generally) prepared to plow and salt the roads. If it’s snowing that bad, people will try to avoid driving if at all possible until the weather improves.
Get a typical all-season tire out on ice or in deep snow, and you’re gonna find out real quick it’s not really meant for that. At low speeds, you can creep around all right; other than that, though, it’s easy to overpower the tires and end up spinning your wheels and sliding around.
About the Bridgestone Alenza AS Ultra
The Alenza AS Ultra is the first all-season tire that feels like it actually works well in winter. Grip levels on ice are higher than you’d expect for a non-winter tire, letting you accelerate, brake, and corner harder than you’d be able to on a typical all-season tire. While you should continue to drive carefully and conservatively, you can more safely drive at somewhat higher speeds in bad conditions.
Critically, when the AS Ultra does get overwhelmed, it tends to lose grip gradually and predictably (we say “tends to” because pure ice is unpredictable and can defeat even proper winter tires). Whereas a regular non-winter tire typically gives up completely when the road gets too slick or the speeds get too high, the Alenza AS Ultra starts sliding more progressively by comparison, affording you more time to identify the problem and take corrective action.
For those with extensive winter driving experience, it’s especially reassuring because after the first slide, you’ll recognize that the grip comes back if you’re patient and don’t make sudden, jerky corrections. As your speed starts to drop, grip returns to the AS Ultra faster than a non-winter tire, allowing you to regain control more quickly.
Now, all this isn’t to say you shouldn’t bother buying a real winter tire ever again. It’s impressive how far all-season tires have come—especially this one—but a back-to-back comparison at Bridgestone’s Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, quickly demonstrated how much better a real winter tire is. As good as the Alenza AS Ultra is, it felt at best 70 percent as good as a similarly sized Bridgestone Blizzak winter tire, and really more in the 60 percent as good range most of the time.
How Tires Work in the Winter
Tires grip the ground in two ways. Most important is the consistency of the rubber itself. Different chemicals in the rubber determine how well a tire grips the road, how much fuel-economy-sapping drag it creates, and how well it deals with extreme changes in temperature. This matters even more in the winter, when extreme cold makes the tire’s rubber harden and snow and ice reduce grip. Winter tires add, among other things, silica (sand) into the rubber to allow it to better deal with low-grip situations. There’s only so much silica you can add before the rubber has trouble staying together, though, so a huge amount of research goes into pushing that boundary.
The other grip factor is the tread pattern. On a warm, clean, dry surface, a perfectly smooth tire has the most grip. That’s why race cars use slick tires. Anytime and anywhere else, though, you need tread to channel water, mud, and snow out from under the tire so the rubber can get back on the ground. A barrier of water, mud, snow, or anything else between the tire rubber and the hard surface underneath is what causes a tire to slip and slide on loose surfaces. When it’s water, we call it hydroplaning (or aquaplaning). Clearing that material out from under the tire is essential, and that’s what the channels between the tread blocks do.
The compound helps here, too. Tire rubber is also designed to be porous. Microscopic pores in the rubber absorb moisture and help remove that barrier between the rubber and the road.
Tread blocks also have a secondary function that comes into play on slick surfaces. The leading edge of each tread block is like a fingernail that can dig in against the ice or mud and create more grip. Look closely at a winter tire, and you’ll see all the tread blocks are also covered with little squiggly cuts running across them. Called sipes, they create more edges to bite against the ice.
Why Different Kinds of Tires Matter
These factors also help illustrate the differences between off-road and winter tires. It’s not just about the size of the tread blocks, as viral videos of lifted trucks on knobby off-road tires slipping and sliding in the snow on tiny little hills show.
Building a tire that works well on snow isn’t a new field. Bridgestone’s Blizzak line of winter tires has dominated the U.S. market for a long time. Building a tire that works well on hot, dry pavement isn’t a new challenge, either. Bridgestone’s Potenza range of tires has been doing that for a long time, as well. Making either of those tires quiet, durable, and fuel-efficient is a bigger challenge, because no one wants noisy tires that wear out in 5,000 miles and ruin your fuel economy.
Therein lies the challenge in creating a truly effective all-season tire. Different rubber compounds work well on hot pavement and solid ice, as do different tread patterns. Making one tire do wildly different jobs is asking a lot, but it’s what Bridgestone set out to do with the Alenza AS Ultra.
Make It Count
As we stated at the outset, if you live where it snows a lot and you have the money and the space, it is still absolutely worth it and truly advisable to invest in a set of cheap steel wheels with good winter tires mounted that you can switch onto in the winter. We like Blizzaks and Nokian Hakkapeliittas, in particular. If you don’t have either or both, it’s absolutely worth it to pay more for an all-season tire that actually works in the snow.
Get on TireRack.com and compare ratings for different all-seasons, paying close attention to their winter performance. They’re not all the same just because they’re black and round. The fact a tire says it’s an all-season and has a snowflake on the side doesn’t mean it’s a good one. (Handy tip: A snowflake on the side means it’s rated to work to some degree in the winter. A snowflake and mountains means it’s an actual, dedicated winter tire and can handle deep snow.)
Remember, your ability to stop and turn on snowy and icy roads depends entirely on your tires. Take a few minutes and spend a few more dollars to make sure you’re getting good ones. One thing’s for sure, you could do a lot worse than the Alenza AS Ultra.
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