Once Bluto the 2004 X5 and I warmed to each other, I was faced with the age-old winter wheel-and-tire conundrum: Are the all-season tires good enough for winter, or should I pony up for proper snow boots? And if so, should they have their own wheels?
There are a few schools of thought on this. For nearly four years I’ve been daily-driving the E39 530i Sport; not only is it useless in the snow with all-season radials, I’ve been unable to reliably back it out of my slightly inclined driveway now that the Blizzaks have worn down to 5/32″ of tread depth. This is in line with the guidance on the Tire Rack website, which advises that when snow tires are down to 6/32″ of tread, they’re pretty much done, since the outer soft compound layer is gone. If I hadn’t bought the X5, I was planning on doing something for winter rubber on the E39.
The X5, of course, has full-time all-wheel drive, and that’s certainly worth something in the winter. But how much? In snow, a car needs to do three things: go, turn, and stop. All-wheel drive is certainly better at the going part, making it less likely for you to get stranded while parallel parking (or, in my case, backing up my slightly inclined driveway), but AWD is only slightly better at the turning part, and is no better at all at the stopping part. For those things, you need proper snow tires, just as you do on a rear-wheel-drive car.
When Maire Anne and I bought her 2013 Honda Fit and she began regularly commuting in it, it was an easy choice to spend the money and order a full set of steel wheels and snows from the Tire Rack. The little 185/65-16 tires made it so that the whole set was only about $500, and that was mounted, balanced, and shipped to my door.
However, the economics for the X5 are different; the Tire Rack’s least expensive set of winter rubber starts at about $150 per tire, and there’s no steel-wheel option. Even if I found a set of $150 used wheels, with mounting and balancing, that’d be $900. You’ll forgive me if I didn’t run right out and spend that kind of coin.
These days, I work from home and thus have zero commute. The car came shod with the original Style 131 18×8.5″ wheels and ContiProContact 255/55-18 run-flats, installed about 30,000 miles ago and still quite serviceable with between 7/32″ and 9/32″ of tread. Considering all that, and the car’s AWD, I probably could get by through the winter on the Conti all-seasons. But if I was going to spring for snows, since the Contis were on the original correct-for-the-sport-package Style 131s, respect for the car would dictate that I get some dedicated winter wheels.
Fortunately, not having a pressing need gave me the time to scour Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for deals while I adopted a wait-and-pounce strategy. Unfortunately, many ads simply say, “BMW winter wheels and tires” without listing what the wheels came off, or the tire size. This is compounded by the fact that CL and FBM don’t put tire sizes in a proper database, so searching for “255/55R18,” “255/55 R18,” and “255/55/18” will usually yield different results. However, sometimes the best values can be had by recognizing from the single bad photo that the wheels are what you’re looking for.
For winter rubber, the question of tire wear is key, as worn-out snow tires simply aren’t worth buying. Unfortunately, very few sellers own a tread-depth gauge, and statements like “30% tread depth left” or “good for a few more seasons” aren’t worth much. I saw one ad on Facebook Marketplace that said simply “Blizzak wheels off BMW X5 set of 4 $100.” It showed a set of four aftermarket Moda wheels with Blizzaks on them. I could read the correct 255/55-18 tire size on the sidewall, but the tread depth didn’t look great. A few years back, this would’ve been the kind of ad I would’ve jumped at, but this time I texted the seller and asked her to take “the penny pic.” I never heard back.
Ah, “the penny pic”! This habit of photographing a Lincoln-head penny head-down in the tread appears to have originated because for a non-snow tire, 2/32″ tread is generally considered worn out, and at that depth, the tread doesn’t reach to the good former president’s hair. The problem is that for greater depths, the features of Lincoln’s face (e.g., nose, eye, etc.) aren’t centered, which makes any photo somewhat ambiguous. In addition, integral numbers of 32nds don’t seem to line up exactly with facial features. If you want to try and interpret someone’s “penny pic,” the tread depths that I have measured using a penny and calipers are:
|about even with nose
|about even with brow
|close to where forehead meets hair
|about halfway covering the hair
The back of the penny, placed with the Lincoln monument upside-down in the tread, actually provides a much better set of metrics, as the monument is both symmetric and centered. I measured the following:
|top of the pillars
|top of the monument
|halfway between “E Pluribus” and “Unum” lines
|doesn’t quite reach “E Pluribus” line
Unless an ad includes a photograph of a tread-depth gauge being used, you need to look in person and take a measurement to be certain.
I assumed that what I’d wind up buying was a set of 17″ wheels and 235/65-17 tires off a non-sport-package E53 X5. I read one promising-sounding ad for these on Craigslist for $400, stating that the tires were “like new,” but the ad included no photos. When I asked for some, the seller responded promptly, showing a set of the somewhat unusual-looking Style 56s. The penny pic he sent me had shadow and camera-angle issues, but the tread depth might have come to Lincoln’s nose, which could’ve been as much as 9/32″ of tread. It seemed promising, but with the seller’s location an hour south of me, it lacked the right balance of close and cheap to cause me to drop everything.
Then, waiting paid off when I saw the following ad:
“4 BMW OEM Style 209 wheels with Michelin X-Ice 2 235/60/18: These are OEM and came off a 2010 X5. Excellent shape. Need to be cleaned. Only one or two very small road rash. Picture attached. Tires are in good shape. 10/32″ tread depth. Manufactured December 2017. Package deal only. All 4 wheels with 4 tires mounted. $200.”
What a great ad! Wheel style number, tire size, a tread-depth measurement, the date code on the tires, and photos including one of an actual tread-depth gauge in the tire reading 10/32″: Who could ask for anything more? I wanted to buy this seller a beer.
The skinny tire size struck me as a little unusual, but skinnier tires work better in the snow than wide ones, and an online speedometer-error calculator put the rolling diameter as nearly dead on that of the original 255/55-18 tires. And the seller was only twenty miles west of me: definitely pounce-worthy.
The only issue was that the set was off a 2010 X5. That’s an E70, and mine is an earlier E53. A little research showed that the Style 209 wheels are the same 18×8.5″ size and 5×120 bolt pattern as mine, but that the offset is slightly different (46 mm instead of 48, so two millimeters farther outboard). In addition, the bore size is different. The E53 X5, like the E39 it shares numerous components with, has a 74.1-mm center-bore size, whereas the E70 has a smaller 72.5-mm bore. Fortunately, hub-centric rings that convert the former to the latter are widely available. I quickly searched on a few X5 forums and verified that with hub-centric rings, E70 wheels are usable on E53s. I also learned that the skinny 235/60R18 snow tires had an X5 fan base. I contacted the seller and anxiously waited.
In the morning, I heard back from the seller. I offered to head out to his home in Acton, Massachusetts, immediately, and he took me up on it. When I arrived, I saw that he had a race trailer in his back yard, along with a Tesla and Porsche Cayman in the garage. The wheels and tires were for the X5 he’d just sold, and he simply wanted them gone. They were exactly as described; I verified the tread depth with my gauge, made sure the wheels had no obvious visible dents and the tire sidewalls weren’t gouged or bubbling, then nearly tripped over myself paying him his $200 asking price and loading them in the back of the X5. When I got home, I ordered the 74.1-to-72.5-mm hub-centric rings from Amazon for the princely sum of $12.
On a pre-Thanksgiving 50-degree day, I pulled the wheels off the X5, cleaned a little corrosion off the hub centers, fit the hub-centric rings, and got the new winter wheels and tires on. These days I assume that all used wheels are bent, but a quick test drive revealed nothing egregiously wrong.
Now, to be clear, I don’t want it to snow; in fact, I hope that the fact that I have given Bluto proper boots means that I have done the proper voodoo to ward off snow. But if it comes, we are ready.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back Our Wedding Car After 26 Years In Storage, was just released and is available on Amazon here. His other books, including his recent Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, are available here on Amazon. Or you can order personally-inscribed copies of all of his books through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.