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Is it safe to drive on only three winter tires?

Published January 28, 2013
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Eric Lai answers readers’ questions every week for Wheels.

Q: One of my winter tires was destroyed by a pothole, so I put on my full-size spare, which is an all-season tire. Is it okay if I just drive for the rest of the winter with this setup?

A: Winter and all-season tires have markedly different grip properties, which could cause you to lose control during evasive maneuvers.

This is also true if a compact “donut” spare is used. For that reason, it’s safest to replace the temporary spare tire with one of the same type (i.e. winter or all-season) as the other three tires as soon as possible.

More: When using winter tires all year is a good idea

More: Winter tires on a beater car? It’s worth it

Q: Should I include my full-size spare tire when rotating them? Can I just get three extra rims (plus my spare’s) for a second set of winter tires?

A: You may include your full-size spare tire into the rotation pattern provided it matches those on the four wheels.

This doesn’t apply to compact “donut” spares, directional tires, or if your vehicle has different size tires on the front and rear.

Five tire rotation including the full-size spare will extend overall tire life, since each one spends some time off the road. Check the owner’s manual for recommended rotation patterns and intervals for your car.

This procedure also helps ensure that tread depth is relatively similar throughout the useful life of all five tires. On all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive automobiles, this can prevent possible driveline damage from putting a never used, full-tread spare into the mix with three partially worn tires after experiencing a roadside flat.

On all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles, get five new tires when replacing. For other autos, you can either replace all five tires or just get four and keep the best old tire as a spare – but no longer include it in the rotation.

As to getting only three additional rims (plus your spare’s) for winter tires, see answer above as one of your off-season tires will end up in the trunk as your spare. Note that winter tires wear quickly in summer heat.

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