Winter in the Northeast can be a brutal, bitter time of year. Rain, snow, ice, sleet, you name it; if Mother Nature can concoct it, you can expect it just when you want it least. As all of us in the automotive community know, summer tires are absolutely inappropriate for getting around once the temperature falls below forty degrees or so, and only get worse and more dangerous from there as the mercury continues to drop.
My Subaru WRX come from the factory with summer tires, it’s a no-brainer to grab a set of dedicated winter set to simultaneously assure your safe-going and protect your summers. Going with a cost-effective but high-performing combination, I picked out a set of General Altimax Arctics and Sparco Terras to help get me, and my beloved Subaru, through the worst that winter can throw at us.
Read on to see how they fare.
Selecting a wheel and tire package on a budget is nothing short of strenuous. I knew I wanted a rally-inspired wheel, one that is lightweight and inexpensive. Not an easy profile to fit, but Sparco – maker of everything from seats to shift knobs – had exactly what I was looking for in their Terra, which is priced an easy-to-swallow at around $100 each. For reference, the size here is 17×7.5” and weighs around 21 pounds per corner. Pretty good for the price, and having a large and reputable company backing the wheels sweetens the deal.
My tire choice was heavily driven by price, but somehow the least expensive tire I was considering also had the best reviews. General Tire is a well known brand, and the Altimax Arctic is their well-regarded, bargain-priced but not bargain-performing winter tire. In this 215/50/17 size the Generals are a bit narrower and shorter than my stock tires. With the wheels, this results in an eight pound drop per corner, but I heeded the advice of Tire Rack and went with their recommended size. So, how’s she do?
On the appearance front, they’re just right. The gold wheels, which up close have a beautiful flake to them, offset the World Rally Blue paint perfectly and really help buy into the traditional Subaru rally image. With a fairly aggressive tread pattern for a car tire, the Generals also help add some visual aggression; together, they make the WRX look like just the winter weather monster that it’s transformed into with this set underneath the car.
Out on the road, the car rides remarkably well. The increased sidewall translates to a softer, cushier ride than on the 18” stockers, something very much welcome in the pothole-ridden winter months. It doesn’t coast as well, but overall it rides great and is actually quieter on any surface. Somehow, despite the decreased weight at each corner, I’ve been seeing slightly worse gas mileage, but the winter gas blend and occasional days of letting the car warm up before leaving work probably isn’t helping the case.
As for handling, the car has become a bit floaty, but that’s totally to be expected. The major difference is most apparent in its turn-in characteristics; whereas on the summer tires the car changes direction at the smallest turn of the wheel, on the snow set it becomes a lot less responsive. I can best explain the sensation like this: on the summers, when you turn hard into a corner, it’s one single motion. On the winter set, when you turn in equally hard, the front dives in and then the back end comes in after, in what feels like a secondary motion versus the one single motion on the summers. There’s definitely less communication through the steering wheel, but the car remains fun to drive and still corners well.
Despite the cold, I’ve had the car in the rain a few times on this setup, and it does well in these conditions. It’s marginally unstable at high speed in severe downpours, more so than the summer set, but it’s nothing worrisome. The temperature hit around 65F on a rare warm winter weeknight, and in an emergency braking situation the car was fairly squirrely and nowhere near as stable as on the summers, but it still kept me out of the intersection that was dead ahead.
Over the last two months I’ve been treated to a number of chances to explore one of the WRX’s best qualities: snow performance. Between the Generals and the AWD system the WRX is basically unstoppable in the winter, short of debilitating ice or high-centering in snow deeper than the frame. It’s so good at handling the white stuff that when playing around in an open lot covered in less than 4-5” of snow you really need to use the throttle, and a ton of steering input, to induce sideways action, and that’s with the traction control system fully off.
That being said, the General/Sparco combo makes the Subaru extremely competent here in the hilly areas of Connecticut, where the weather is unpredictable and can change from snow to ice to rain and back again without so much as a minute’s notice. With this setup, the WRX makes commuting in even the worst of conditions extraordinarily easy. To say it’s confidence inspiring is a drastic understatement. The total cost from tirerack.com was $1013, mounted and balanced.
As a whole, I’m remarkably pleased with the General Altimax Arctic tires and Sparco Terra wheels as a winter package for my WRX. The ride quality improvement has left me craving a similarly sized set for my summer package, and that the car looks properly badass is only helping the cause. On this setup the Subaru has become nearly unstoppable in the snow, and is as confidence inspiring as I can imagine a standard-height car to be; that’s not only the telltale sign of a good car, but one of tires that are doing their job admirably. The WRX is a great all-season car as-is, and the General tires and Sparco wheels have only made the harshest of seasons not only easier to navigate, but have made the car great to look at as well. I couldn’t be more pleased.