Winter-tire testing north of the Arctic Circle: The ultimate challenge
The toughest snow tire tests take place in Scandinavia, so we enlisted the help of a translator to find the best snow tire reviews. We scrutinized tests by five Norwegian and Swedish auto associations and magazines, which put winter tires through their paces on icy, snow-packed test tracks north of the Arctic Circle.
How else could we find out which snow tires can pass the moose test -- a panicked swerve on an icy road to avoid hitting wildlife that wander into the road?
Do I need snow tires?
Experts agree: If you drive regularly on ice or snow, you'll be safer on winter tires than on all-season tires. Hit your brakes on an icy patch, and you'll stop a full car length sooner with snow tires, reviewers say. Tests by Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, Edmunds.com, TireRack.com and ConsumerReports.org confirm this.
"It's true all-season tires offer a good compromise of all-weather grip, but winter tires are the only choice for braking, cornering and traveling through tough snow and icy winter conditions," say ConsumerReports.org editors.
Winter tires aren't just for snow; cold temperatures can harden regular tires' rubber, reducing their ability to grip pavement. But softer, more porous snow tires absolutely thrive in cold climates. The colder it gets, the more tenaciously they grip.
Once the snow melts, you'll need to switch back to your regular tires. For the best picks, see our separate reports on:
What if I have all-wheel drive?
Just because you have an all-wheel-drive car doesn't mean you don't need winter tires, as the editors of Popular Mechanics found out. In a test, reviewers drove two identical Chevy Equinoxes -- one with front-wheel drive and one with all-wheel drive (AWD) -- on a packed-snow track with a milled-ice underlay.
The AWD Equinox equipped with snow tires braked the quickest from 60 mph; when equipped with all-season tires, the same Equinox went from first to worst in terms of stopping distance. The front-wheel-drive Equinox also handled better when using snow tires than with all-season wheels. "On snow tires, both cars came to a halt about a car length sooner -- often the difference between a close call and a call to your insurance company," testers wrote.
Both models also enjoyed a slight advantage in acceleration, cornering (how tightly a vehicle hugs the road in curves), and climbing a 10-percent grade when using winter tires. Bottom line, according to Popular Mechanics: Winter tires trump all-weather tires in ice and snow.
Which type of snow tires?
No matter what or where you drive, there's a winter tire for you:
- Snow tires for passenger cars. Unlike all-season tires, snow tires have special tread designs and compounds to grip better on snow, ice and cold pavement. The best ones we found cost about $100 apiece.
- Snow tires for SUVs and light trucks. These are similar to passenger-car snow tires, but they're designed for bigger, heavier vehicles. Expect to pay about $135 each for these bigger tires.
- Performance winter tires. These are designed for high-performance cars. They grip better on wet and dry roads than regular snow tires, so they're also great for mild winters -- you'll be ready in case it snows, without giving up performance when it's warmer. They don't cling quite as stickily to ice, though. The best cost about $245 per tire, but we found a worthy runner up for just over $100.
- Studded snow tires. In the frozen north -- where black ice and packed snow cloak the roads from fall until spring -- experts and drivers swear by studded tires, which have built-in metal teeth to chew into the ice. Some states and localities ban studded tires, though, because they tear up the roads. The studs send a constant noisy rattle into your car's cabin, too. For most drivers in the U.S., they're probably overkill. The best studded tire in our report costs about $130 per tire.
A word about price estimates
Unless otherwise indicated, pricing estimates for passenger car tires in this report are for size 195/65-15 tires, such as those appropriate for a base-model 2013 Honda Civic. Prices for SUV/light truck tires are for 245/70-17 tires, such as those appropriate for a 2013 Chevrolet Silverado or Jeep Grand Cherokee.
How we pick the best snow tires
Apart from Scandinavian reviews, ConsumerReports.org conducts the most exacting snow tire tests. Canadian testers are demanding, too, and they often have personal tales to tell about how various tires hold up in their frigid winters. We scoured hundreds of owner reviews, as well -- they're an essential piece of the puzzle -- to find out whether a given snow tire will really help you stay safe this winter. While analyzing these reviews we take into consideration how well the tire grips on icy, snowy, wet and dry pavement, the quality and noise of the ride while using the tires and whether the tread wears quickly.
Special thanks to Henrik Nordström of Scandinavian Translation Service for research assistance.