If there’s anything everyone knows about Los Angeles, it’s that it’s always sunny. Except when it’s not. It’s been an unusually wet winter in California, and in many places, including the infamous Grapevine section of I-5 north of Los Angeles, that means snow. For most, it’s a curiosity, an Instagram moment; but for drivers of cars with summer tires, it’s anything but fun and games.
Snow and rain being a rare occurrence here, we encourage automakers to fit their local press cars with the highest-performance tires they offer for the best test results. The Alfa, naturally, is on Pirelli P Zero summer tires; they help it handle brilliantly on dry roads but can be a liability in freezing temperatures. To add insult to this atypical injury, we’d declined the all-wheel-drive option for the same reasons.
Summer and winter tires don’t just have different tread patterns; they also have completely different rubber formulas designed to maximize traction in the appropriate environment. Summer rubber turns hard in extreme cold and generates less friction with the ground, and water, snow, and ice can build up between tread blocks that aren’t designed to flush them away. Some summer tires work better in the cold—or at least hang on at lower temperatures—but there’s always a limit.
Knowing the exact tires isn’t always a guarantee, either. Different automakers spec different rubber compounds and tread patterns, so even though two tires both say P Zero on them, they may in fact be quite different.
Still, we make the best decisions we can with the information we have, and returning from a disappointing concert in Sacramento with heavy snow falling on the Grapevine, I had no intention of playing it safe. I know from previous experience that P Zeros perform surprisingly well in snowy conditions, at least when they’re fitted to a Porsche 911. I also know that if the Grapevine closes, it’ll be hours before it reopens, and all the ways around add hours to the trip and are susceptible to weather closures themselves. With work looming the next morning and hotels at the base of the Grapevine likely already filling up, I went for it.
Desperate to make the Tejon Pass before the California Highway Patrol closed the interstate, I forewent a planned fuel stop at the base of the Grapevine knowing I had enough range to make it to the gas stations just over the pass. Snow fell harder and in ever larger flakes as we climbed the mountain, with speeds dropping to 50 mph and then 35. A CHP escort pulled out ahead of our pack of cars, lights ablaze, and I held my breath. Would they force us off the freeway at the next exit, short of the pass? Escorts are the CHP’s last-ditch move to slow people down and prevent accidents while the Grapevine is still passable, but they generally end quickly with full freeway closures.
I got lucky. Our escort continued on past the Frazier Park exit and continued up the hill, setting us free in Gorman on the far side of the pass where the weather was a bit more Southern California typical. I followed the cruiser off the freeway and beelined to the gas station, the needle hovering on empty.
Despite the freezing temperatures and the snow piling up on the freeway, the Alfa and its Pirelli summer tires never put a wheel wrong. The Grapevine derives its name both for the tiny town at the bottom and for the way it snakes up the hillside, so the tires had ample opportunity to let go of the road. No pucker moments, no dab of oppo, just a relaxed drive over the summit with the car set to All-Weather mode and nothing else. Winter performance isn’t something we often get to test locally, but the Alfa passed with flying red, white, and green colors.
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