Everything your car does is translated to the ground via the four fist-sized patches under your tires. Power, handling, and braking improvements will be pointless if your tires just spin, slide, and lock, beyond the limits of adhesion. It can be argued, then, that the most significant upgrade you can make to any vehicle is a new set of tires. Fortunately, replacing tires is three or four dozen times easier than most of the other performance mods you need.
Tires are available for all arenas, but we’ll focus on middle of the road applications like daily driving and spirited street performance, which is a euphemism for “serving ambitious light-jumpers.” We will also assume that you hail from a place with warm summers and cold, snowy winters.
The single smartest thing you can do is to run high performance tires during warm months and have a second set of wheels and tires for cold, snowy, and icy weather. The reason is simple: climate specific tires will provide enhanced grip and traction. While most vehicles come with all-season tires which will just make your vehicle’s performance decent in each condition, some high performance vehicles come with summer tires from the factory.
Not all rubber is the same. Summer tires are made out of a softer compound, have stiffer sidewalls, and wide tread blocks which stick to the ground better and squirm less under cornering. These properties all work to improve launch grip, turning transitions and improved mechanical grip in turns, allowing for higher Gs and shorter stopping distances. Drivers often choose to upsize their wheels with performance summer tires due to shorter and stiffer sidewalls.
The downsides of performance summer tires are reduced tread life due to the softer rubber compound, increased road noise due to the larger tread blocks, and a stiffer ride from the sidewall construction. But the biggest drawback is that they don’t work well in cold weather. The rubber, formulated to soften at much higher temperatures, stops sticking to the ground.
What you really need is a second set of tires and wheels for colder weather. Winter tires are formulated for a much lower softening temperature, and they have softer sidewalls. They’re also crisscrossed with a pattern of something called “sipes,” little hairline cuts that help the tire flex in colder temperatures. They’re designed to compact snow in into their treads and use that compacted material to improve grip for reduced wheelspin and lateral slide.
As mentioned earlier, wheels are an important component to consider when making your tire choice. The 2010 Mustang GT is a good example of a vehicle with multiple wheel and tire options available from the factory:
The Mustang GT comes with 18 inch wheels and tires in size 235/50-18.
The Shelby GT500 comes with 18 inch wheels and tires in size 255/45-18 front and 285/45-18 rear.
The Base V6 Mustang comes with 17 inch wheels and tires in size 215/60-17.
The Shelby GT500 wheel/tire combination is a great upgrade for the Mustang GT for summer. The wider wheel and tire provide a bigger contact patch and better traction for warm weather driving. The base Mustang wheel/tire combination is a perfect winter option for the Mustang GT. The taller sidewall will help protect your wheels from unseen curbs obscured by snow and ice.
While not all vehicles have multiple tire and wheel options from the factory, there are plenty of aftermarket combinations available for enhanced handling no matter the season and no matter your ride. Do your homework and drive safely.