We've actually covered winter tires, specifically the Blizzaks, on Autonotas before. But after this snow storm, I decided it was important to cover it again.
When I bought my 2016 Subaru BRZ last year, I knew I'd be getting a dedicated set of winter tires. As the cold months went on in Seattle, I decided to hold off because it looked like we weren't going to get any snow. However, a huge snow storm (for Seattle) came early February and my summer tires from the factory simply weren't going to cut it. They weren't particularly good summer tires to begin with and the tread was well worn.
Many people in the Pacific Northwest have this intense desire for AWD cars. They think it is absolutely necessary to deal with the treacherous conditions of rain and more importantly, snow. The two questions I always ask these people are: How often will you be driving in the snow? Do you regularly go skiing or snowboarding every winter season? Most people will answer, "no". The fact of the matter is, AWD or 4WD will only help you get going, but it does nothing to help you stop. Failure to stop is how a majority of accidents occur.
Let's break down the three different tire categories: summer, all-season, and winter. Summer tires are fantastic for warmer temperatures, not only in the dry but in the wet as well. The tire remains a reasonable stiffness even in hot climates. They do not have tread for snow or ice so they allow for uncompromised wet and dry traction, but start getting stiff below 45 F. This makes them less than ideal and even dangerous for snow and ice conditions. All-season tires, like the name suggest, offers mediocre year-round performance. They do decent in dry and wet while offering some snow and ice traction. The saying "jack-of-all-trades and master of none" definitely applies here. Anything that claims to do everything is always compromised in some way. Winter tires are a forgotten thing in Seattle. It doesn't snow often enough for people to think about them. When you have a RWD sports car though, you want a dedicated set of winter tires.
Winter tires are made with a softer rubber compound that stays flexible even in freezing temperatures. The tread is designed to dig through snow and there's little crevices that are designed to stop better on ice. Remember, stopping is the most important reason for winter tires. These tires stopped beautifully in the snow. When you can stop confidently, it means you have the grip to get going as well. I was able to safely pass big SUVs with their fancy 4WD systems. The fact of the matter is, it doesn't matter how competent your AWD or 4WD system is if it can't put its power down. Similarly, it doesn't matter what drive wheels you have as long as you have a good set of tires that are fit for the job... to an extent.
Obviously I wasn't going to take my BRZ to go snowboarding, but that's not the point. I would've picked up a WRX for that (and I would still get dedicated winter tires). The point of mounting winter tires was to get through the inch or two of snow on the ground that may not have been plowed. The point of winter tires was for confident stopping in snow, ice, and even slush.
The BRZ handled like a champ even in slippery conditions, contrary to what everyone told me. "You can't drive a RWD sports car in the snow!" You can, you just have to be smart about it. If you want it to slip, it will. I drove with the traction control off most of the time, otherwise it would intervene every time the car slipped. In snow, you sometimes have to let the tires spin a bit to get the car moving. The car tracked confidently and stopped confidently as long as you don't slam on the brakes and rely on ABS. Again, you have to be smart and cautious. The benefit of winter grip means that you don't have to crawl along at 20 mph holding up traffic. When the car started slipping, it was in a very predictable manner and you'd know to gently back off on the throttle, allowing the back end to come back around.
How are these specific winter tires? They're Bridgestone's famous Blizzaks, specifically the WS80's which are a very common choice. I personally wanted a more performance oriented winter tire like the Pirelli Sottozero 3's but they were out for the season. Although the Blizzaks were fantastic in the snow and ice, they're very average in the dry. Wet grip is actually pretty great. In the dry, the traction control cuts in often to prevent slipping. It's also a very mushy feeling tire so the fantastic steering feedback you get in a BRZ is missing. With that said, a common complaint about these tires is that they're very noisy for daily driving. In my case, I think the BRZ's factory Michelin Primacy HP's are so noisy, that these Blizzaks were actually an upgrade.
If you want to run your BRZ in the snow, I highly recommend picking up a set of winter tires. Not only is the car un-driveable with summer tires, it becomes an absolute pleasure to drive even in the snow as long as you put on some nice winter tires. I mounted the Blizzaks on the standard wheels but I went down a size for width. The standard tire size is 215/45 and I stepped down to 205/50 since you want narrower tires for winter. It allows the tires to bite into the snow better. If I had purchased early in the season instead of waiting, I would've chosen the Pirelli Sottozero 3's I mentioned earlier. They would still perform competently in the snow while maintaining sporty dry handling characteristics of a summer tire. In an ideal world, I'd get the Michelin Alpin PA4's but they are not available in 17".
The bottom line is this, if you live in Seattle and you don't do snow sports, you don't need AWD or 4WD. You just need to have smarter driving habits and pick up a dedicated set of winter tires. If you have RWD, enjoy it, even in the snow.