Do you 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. "When temperatures drop and snow falls, there is no question that dedicated winter tires provide the best road-holding grip," says Gene Petersen at ConsumerReport.org. He adds that in their testing, ConsumerReports.org found that "winter tires easily command a 20-percent benefit in snow and ice traction over all-season tires, and some of the best winter tires have nearly twice the grip as some all-season models."
Keep in mind that 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.
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.
When using winter tires, 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. Bottom line, according to Popular Mechanics: Winter tires trump all-weather tires in ice and snow.
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 for passenger cars have special tread designs and compounds to grip better on snow, ice and cold pavement.
Snow tires for SUVs and light trucks. These are similar to passenger-car snow tires -- and some lines are also available in sizes suitable for coupes and sedans -- but are top performers when installed on bigger, heavier vehicles.
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.
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. For most drivers in the U.S., studded tires are probably overkill, and some states and localities ban them, or limit the months in which they can be used, because they tear up dry pavement. The studs send a constant noisy rattle into your car's cabin, too. You can get studded tires that come that way from the factory, or purchase tires that accept aftermarket studs, which can be installed by your tire retailer for an additional cost.
A word about price estimates
Unless otherwise indicated, pricing estimates in this report are per tire, and for the smallest size available at retail. Be aware that larger tires can cost more, sometimes a lot more. They also don't include installation -- sometimes free, depending on your retailer -- and you can incur extra costs for balancing, stems, tire disposal, etc. If buying online, some sellers offer free shipping, but others do not; shipping costs on one tire, let alone four, can sometimes be substantial.
How we picked the best snow tires
ConsumerReports.org conducts the most exacting snow tire tests. TireRack.com, a tire retailer, also conducts impartial reviews and names best choices. Canadian testers are demanding and they often have personal tales to tell about how various tires hold up in their frigid winters, so we incorporated feedback from sites such as Canada's Automobile Protection Association and Toronto's The Globe and Mail newspaper. 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 in the winter. When 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.