Depending on where you live, switching to snow tires could be a winter ritual. But then what’s the deal with all-season tires? Let’s discuss the reasons you would need one over the other.
First, the winter tire question depends on where you live. Folks in Phoenix, San Diego or Miami can skip this post altogether unless you’ll be driving in a snowy region. For the rest of you, read on.
Second, don’t confuse all-wheel drive with snow tires or all-weather tires. All-wheel drive only works if you have traction. Your tires play a big role in maintaining contact with the road. If you’re driving on a slick sheet of packed snow that resists the grip of the tires, the all-wheel-drive won’t do you any good.
Research from Consumer Reports shows winter tires are more important than all-wheel drive in heavy snow and ice conditions. Winter tires actually help most while stopping in slick conditions.
Popular Mechanics found that winter tires improved braking performance by 5% and cornering performance by 20% compared to all-season tires.
The good news is, a set of winter tires is usually cheaper than buying a vehicle with all-wheel drive. Experts recommend mounting winter tires on all four wheels for maximum traction. If you install them only on the drive wheels, the other wheels could easily spin.
The need for winter tires can also depend on how well local officials plow the roads. If you can count on swift snow removal in a day or two after a big storm, you may be able to make do with all-season tires.
You’ll notice we’ve been talking about winter tires, not snow tires. That’s because they’re suitable not only for snow but also low temperatures. Winter tires are made with unique rubber compounds that stay flexible in colder weather.
Tires made with that special rubber recipes also grip better on slippery wet surfaces like ice and slushy roads. The treads have more blocks with corners and edges to channel away ice and snow and grab the road surface. Little grooves called sipes flex as the tire rolls, directing away water and helping the tread grip the road surface.
If you drive in extreme conditions, studded tires are the ultimate snow fighter. Little rubber studs stick out from the tire tread, punching through the white stuff to reach the pavement. Keep in mind that studded tires are not legal in all states, so check your local laws before you buy.
Winter Tire Tips
- If you live in the northern portion of the U.S., winter tires are probably a good idea.
- Swap to winter tires in late November and back again around April.
- Buy four tires.
- Buy inexpensive steel wheels to mount your winter tires. You can save your stylish alloy wheels from damage, and it’s easier to just swap the wheels instead of remounting tires.
- Store your winter tires in a cool, dry area away from the sun.
- Tire totes are made for transporting and storing tires easily and without getting dirty.
- Carry a set of snow tire chains if you’ll be traveling over a mountain pass.
Most vehicles wear all-season tires when they hit the dealer’s lot. These tires are a good bet for most climates because they can handle wet roads and some light snow.
However, tire engineers have to make some compromises for them to perform well in all seasons. During extreme cold, the tread rubber of an all-season tire stiffens and is less able to flex enough to deliver sufficient traction. The comparatively shallow treads can get clogged with icy slush and snow, reducing the grip of the tires, especially during corning and braking. If you’ve ever skidded through a stop sign on a snowy day, you know the meaning of fear.
Snow-rated all-terrain tires, and 3-Peak Mountain Snowflake rated tires fit between true winter tires and all-season tires. The main differences are in the rubber compounds. Winter tires remain more pliable at lower temperatures than the all-season versions for light trucks and SUVs. We identify 3-Peak Mountain Snowflake tires with the following symbol to make shopping easier.
If you do mount winter tires, don’t forget to swap them for summer or all-season tires when the snow melts away. Winter tires wear a lot faster when the road is dry and warm.
Of course, buying another set of tires will cost money. Some people also buy another set of wheels for their winter tires. Or you can have a tire shop swap the rubber on your existing wheels. One plus is that your summer-season tires will last longer because you’re using them only part of the year.
If you’re still wondering whether you should buy winter tires, think of it this way: use the right tool for the job. If you’ve lived through a few blizzards, driving through layers of snow and slop, then winter tires could make your commute safer and less nerve-wracking. Talk with a local tire dealer to decide what the best tire choice is based on your location and your vehicle.