Every so often I find myself checking out the tires of the vehicles around me when stopped in traffic, wondering how this or that one performs compared to the factory tires on my pickup truck. My questions become even more pointed in winter: Should I invest in a set of winter tires? Would mud tires be a good choice or all-terrain? Would it be worth the investment to buy a dedicated snow tire and run them half the year?
To find out, we went to the snow-covered hills just a few miles outside Steamboat Springs, Colo. Carved into the deep snow were three perfectly groomed snow courses with big berms and a variety of twists, turns and elevation changes. These tracks are the training grounds for the Bridgestone Winter Driving School. They also serve as the perfect location to test tires — and for us to see how popular pickup tire tread patterns compare when pitted against each other under controlled winter driving conditions.
And even though it's spring, the information we're offering here should help you decide what kind of tires you want next winter.
We spent two days this past winter with Woody Rogers and T.J. Campbell, product information specialists for Tire Rack, comparing popular 275/65R18 tires on a twisting, curving half-mile section of track three behind the wheel of two identical 2016 Ford F-150 4x4s. The tire comparison contenders were:
- Goodyear Wrangler Fortitude HT OWL SL (P-metric)
- Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2 SL (P-metric)
- Goodyear Ultra Grip Ice WRT LT (E load range)
- BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 RWL LT (C load range)
- Firestone Destination MT LT (E load range)
The two F-150 SuperCrew 4x4s came from the factory equipped with the Wrangler Fortitude HTs. The other four sets of tires were chosen by Rogers based on the most popular tread type with the highest customer satisfaction ratings from Tire Rack's customers: mud, all-terrain and dedicated winter tires — one studless (Blizzak DM-V2) and one studded (Ultra Grip Ice WRT.)
All tires were fresh from TireRack.com's warehouse, delivered to our test site mounted and balanced on steel wheels without tire pressure monitoring sensors. Sensors were not necessary for the type of closed-course testing we were doing because we checked each tire's pressure before rolling onto the test track. We should add that our P-metric tires (the Fortitude and Blizzak) had lower load capability ratings than the BFG All-Terrain (which had a C rating) and both the Goodyear Ultra Grip and Firestone Destination (both with work-truck E ratings).
Setting the Stage
As noted, our test platforms for the tread comparison were two brand-new, identically equipped 2016 Ford F-150 Lariat SuperCrew 4x4s with the 5.0-liter V-8, 3.55:1 axle gears, a locking rear differential and features such as heated front and passenger seats to make our time on the snow track as comfortable as possible in the subfreezing temps.
Each truck's 36-gallon tank was filled and tire pressures were set to the factory-spec'd 35 pounds per square inch for the SL-rated (standard load) tires and 50 psi for the LT or light-truck tires. Rogers and Campbell then set up each F-150 with a Racelogic DriftBox data logger to record every aspect of the vehicle's movement around the half-mile section of our closed track. We also were able to set up an acceleration/braking area for the tests. The data from each tire's test session was then downloaded to laptops for analysis and comparison.
Rogers, who has a decade of experience doing testing for Tire Rack, was our driver for the data runs over the road course, while Campbell handled the acceleration and braking tests. Mark Williams, PickupTrucks.Com's editor, Campbell and I also did additional laps on the snow course to evaluate how each tread performed in overall handling. We should note that we also became the de facto pit crew, ready to make the tire changes when needed. In the end, our findings were interesting, but not exactly what we expected.
Acceleration and Braking Performance
Braking and acceleration testing was straightforward. We accelerated the F-150 as hard as our traction control allowed up to 30 mph. That speed was maintained for a few moments, then the brakes were hit hard to duplicate a panic brake stop, allowing the antilock braking system to bring the truck to a stop as one would in a real-world emergency-stopping situation.
The DriftBox recorded time and distance for acceleration and braking, and each set of tires was tested six times. The testing cycle, which we followed throughout the two days of testing, was to run the Ford factory control tires first, followed by two sets of contenders, the control tire again, then the remaining two sets of contenders. Finally, we tested the factory tires one last time. This alternating regimen allowed us to incorporate any temperature deviations in the track surface as we tested throughout the day. Here's how they performed:
How They Compare
During our acceleration runs, the Bridgestone Blizzak tires were impressive, needing just 82.1 feet to get to 30 mph, but close behind were the studded Goodyear Ultra Grip WRT tires, needing just 83.9 feet. The factory Goodyear Wrangler Fortitude tires on the F-150s took 89.1 feet, while the BFG All-Terrains needed 92.3 feet. Well behind the pack were the Firestone Destination M/Ts, taking 162 feet to get to 30 mph.
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Our brake testing, like our acceleration runs, was done on the same stretch of snowy open road where the surface was even and flat. The tires that stopped from 30 mph in the shortest distance were again the Bridgestone Blizzaks, halting in just 85.1 feet. Close behind were the studded Goodyear Ultra Grip WRT tires at 86 feet. The BFG tires stopped in 97.7 feet, the Goodyear Wrangler Fortitudes in 108.2 feet, and finishing in last place, again, the Firestone Destination M/Ts needed 150.8 feet to come to a halt.
Our Firestone tires were our representative of typical high-void mud-terrain traction tires favored by many pickup owners worldwide who need to dig and sling their vehicles through mud, sand or deep water. These conditions require a tire that grabs and throws debris from the trail to get traction; unfortunately, snow traction is predicated on keeping snow packed in the tire treads, not ejecting it. The M/Ts' ability to dig and sling away traction was glaringly evident in their acceleration and braking performance results — or lack thereof. Of note: They took 80 percent more track to accelerate and stop than the Goodyear Fortitude and nearly wore out the Ford's ABS and traction control systems trying to keep these tires from spinning and sliding at takeoff. These tires were by far the players most out of their element. TireRack.com price per tire: $219.
Zero-to-30 mph: 162 feet
30-mph-to-zero: 150.8 feet
Overall rank: 5
These tires served as the control set for all our testing since they were the stock factory tires under our Ford F-150s. They performed better than expected on snow-packed roads when compared to the tires with the all-terrain or mud-tire tread patterns. The Fortitude's four-rib design, tight tread blocks and deep tread sipes (multisurfaced grooves) allowed it to hold snow in the tread just long enough to provide the truck with a decent amount of grip during acceleration to 30 mph and braking from 30 mph. We found the Fortitude HT was better accelerating on packed snow than either the all-terrain or mud tires in this test, but it didn't provide the grip characteristics of either of the dedicated winter tires. TireRack.com price per tire: $131.
Zero-to-30 mph: 89.1 feet
30-mph-to-zero: 108.2 feet
Overall rank: 4
The BFG tires were a good representative of all-terrain tires that have exceeded the Rubber Manufacturers of America's severe snow traction performance requirements to achieve a "three-snowflake" rating; as a result, according to TireRack.com surveys, consumers like its all-season performance. However, although the A/T KO2s are snow rated, they did not hook up off the line as well as the F-150's factory Fortitude HTs during acceleration. But they made up for it in braking against the control tread. The grip provided by the BFGs' all-terrain tread pattern during braking surprised us until we took a closer look at how the tread pattern keeps the snow packed in the tire more than some other competitors. We learned the tires that keep the snow packed in the treads are the ones that have the better stopping distances unless you're using studded tires. Snow on snow provides the best traction. TireRack.com price per tire: $200.
Zero-to-30 mph: 92.3 feet
30-mph-to-zero: 97.7 feet
Overall rank: 3
Our studded competitor was also a highly rated TireRack.com option for both pickups and automobiles. Like the Blizzak, the Ultra Grip WRT uses a specialized ice tread compound that provides enhanced traction on ice- and snow-covered roads, resisting the natural inclination of rubber to go rigid in subzero temperatures. It also offers a directional tire tread pattern that helps channel water and slush away from the tread face for enhanced winter traction and handling while cornering. As an E-rated tire, it can carry heavier loads than three of our other contenders, a good thing to consider if you need to haul a load year-round. We chose the studded version for this test to see how studs compare to non-studded tires. The Ultra Grip WRT LTs have fewer sipes in the tread blocks than the Blizzaks and wider grooves/voids between the blocks. The WRTs performed right on top of the Blizzaks but, as you might expect, were noisier. TireRack.com price per tire: $167.
Zero-to-30 mph: 83.9 feet
30-mph-to-zero: 86.0 feet
Overall rank: 2
If there's a tire name that resonates with cold, slippery, snow-covered streets, it's Blizzak. The DM-V2 tire is a dedicated studless winter tire engineered specifically for larger, heavier pickups and SUVs. It represents the latest in tread compounds and design for driving on snow and ice. A major key to their success are tread blocks designed to stay flexible in subfreezing temperatures while the tread design has narrow grooves between tread blocks that are laced with deep micro ridges inside the sipes to hold snow. During our stopping tests, we found the DM-V2s stopped in a little less than half the distance of the mud-terrain tires. The DM-V2s' excellent acceleration and braking characteristics with our empty-bed half-ton on packed snow was reflected in the fact it had the fastest acceleration times and impressive stopping abilities. It's worth noting this tire also does quite well on cold pavement. TireRack.com price per tire: $164.
Zero-to-30 mph: 82.1 feet
30-mph-to-zero: 85.1 feet
Overall rank: 1
Road Course Evaluation
The second part of our tire testing was done on a half-mile curvy and sloping road course where the strengths and weaknesses of each tire were magnified. The abbreviated section of our road course (called track three) was quite diverse; it had a long, fast sweeping section followed by a sharp left-hander into a dip, followed by another short straightway leading into a gradual sloping downhill left turn into an off-camber right back uphill (this is the spot where things were fun). We ran each set of tires in 4-High with the traction control off, which is most likely the mode a normal driver would select in these conditions. This was a true test of a tire's ability to brake, steer and accelerate the F-150 4x4s on packed snow with a couple icy spots along the way.
Rogers ran several practice laps with each set of tires before doing four with the DriftBox recording data. The tests were then repeated, giving us a total of eight evaluation laps on each set of tires. We tested the factory Goodyear Wrangler tires first, followed by the Blizzak DM-V2s and BFG T/A KO2s, then back to the Goodyear Wranglers followed by the Destination M/Ts and WRT LTs, ending the track test, once again, with the factory tires. Our weather conditions were partially cloudy for the most of the day, with some sun at midday that warmed things up to about 30 degrees. We started the morning at 20 degrees.
For this section, we combined both raw data and test-driver feedback to provide the real differences in how each of these tires performs in these conditions. Our results are combined and scored using a 10-point scale to highlight how the different tread types faired in a driving environment relatively similar to real-world conditions on plowed-snow roads; 10 is the best and 1 is the worst. Here are the averages of how each set of tires fared compared to the control tires, along with a driving comment from our Tire Rack expert.
Firestone Destination M/T; overall rank: 5
Average lap time: 74.7 seconds
Average lateral G/180-degree turn: .190 g-force
Comments: Very weak grip. You feel it right away. Very weak braking, very weak cornering, weak acceleration. It certainly digs, but doesn't grip. Spins tires even in 2nd gear. Very slow to recover once a slide is started. A slippery tire on snow that has no forgiveness.
Goodyear Wrangler Fortitude HT (factory-installed control tire); overall rank: 4
Average lap time: 64.9 seconds
Average lateral G/180-degree turn: .198 g-force
Comments: Good initial grip, decent acceleration. Modest brake ability at limits. Good initial steering response, but front grip falls off rapidly with lateral g-force when steering into corners. Once the rear starts to slide it's slow to recover.
BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2; overall rank: 3
Average lap time: 61.1 seconds
Average lateral G/180-degree turn: .253 g-force
Comments: Good longitudinal strength, weaker lateral cornering. Front washes out easily. Rear slides with longer recovery time than DM-V2s, but not as bad as the factory tires. Transition from longitudinal to lateral is not as predictable as DM-V2s or even the factory tires. Grip is there, and then it isn't.
Goodyear Ultra Grip WRT LT (studded); overall rank: 2
Average lap time: 59.2 seconds
Average lateral G/180-degree turn: .302 g-force
Comments: Very good longitudinal grip. Excellent acceleration, very good braking. Decent lateral, but the transition from straight to turn isn't as smooth as the DM-V2s. Overall capability is very good. Ice grip is good around the off-camber 180. The F150's rear end feels very planted everywhere.
Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2; overall rank: 1
Average lap time: 57.5 seconds
Average lateral G/180-degree turn: .332 g-force
Comments: Better in all directions. It brakes like it accelerates. Great lateral; excellent reserve. Just keeps on working no matter what the attitude of the truck is. Equal balance in all directions gives driver confidence and is easy to trust in all situations.
Our final ranking factored in acceleration and braking as well as the tires' performance on the test track, where only two tires finished a lap around the road course in less than 60 seconds. The Firestone Destination M/Ts finished almost 20 seconds behind the test track winner. The factory Goodyear Wrangler Fortitude HTs finished in fourth place, well behind third-place finisher BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A. In second place, missing the top spot by a slim margin, the studded Goodyear Ultra Grip WRTs did a great job in every area except road noise (especially on pavement). The overall winner of our decathlon-style event were the Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2s.
Between driving the twisting road course and the straight-line acceleration and brake testing, it's no surprise the dedicated snow tires — Bridgestone Blizzak and Goodyear Ultra Grip (whether studless or studded) — came out leading the way when compared to the factory all-season treads. And it's no surprise that the popular and more aggressive all-terrain and mud tires didn't come close in performance either.
What was surprising was how poorly an aggressive mud tire performs on snow-packed and plowed roads. We also were expecting the all-terrain tires to fare better than they did. But as we learned from this comparison between tread types, tires with fewer voids and more sipes that keep snow packed into the tread face provide better traction than those that eject the snow.
The other enlightening and impressive aspect of driving these different tires back-to-back-to-back in these conditions is today's modern technology found in studless winter tires and how well they increase grip on icy, snowy road surfaces. Pickup owners concerned with maximizing vehicle control and minimizing the risk of accidents should keep that in mind when thinking about making seasonal tire changes.
Cars.com photos by Bruce W. Smith and Mark Williams