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.
Among studded snow tires, the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 (Est. $120 and up) continues to earn respect as a top choice. This tire has won a ton of awards in European automotive magazines and at online sites. In this year's testing by the Norwegian Automobile Federation, the Hakkapeliitta 8 shares first place among studded tires with a Continental tire that's not available in the U.S. Reviewers give it "top marks" in all aspects of winter performance, "with short braking distances and good lateral grip."
The Hakkapeliitta 8 is making its mark on this side of the Atlantic as well. Among reviewers, Canada's Automotive Protection Association (APA) puts Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 in its top rated category. The editors say that it's a top choice for deep snow, but one that also has good ice traction. La Presse, a French-language paper in Quebec, tests a variety of tires and puts the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 (also known as the Hakka 8) in the top spot, ahead of some very good studless tires, such as the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 (Est. $70 and up) and Bridgestone Blizzak WS80, profiled in our section on the best winter tires. Jean-François Guay names the tire "the new king of the mountain."
Toronto's The Globe and Mail newspaper travels to Finland to test Nokian tires, including the Hakkapeliitta 8, at a grueling test facility -- nicknamed "White Hell" -- that's located 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. With the aid of a trained driver, the tires are pushed well past what any sane person would attempt on a public highway -- such as driving at speeds of up to 150 km/h on "a twisting, snow-packed road that runs through the forest like a bobsled track," reports the newspaper's Peter Cheney. In the end, "The clear winner is the Hakkapeliitta 8, a tire that epitomizes winter performance." He adds that the stud technology used is a big factor in the performance. "Constructed from aluminum and carbide, the studs are mounted on an inner cushioning layer that absorbs the impact when they strike the road," Cheney says.
Previously, Nokian tires had been tough to find on line, but we note that there is now availability through sellers including Amazon.com and Walmart. In addition, the company's website has a dealer locator that can direct you to a local retailer.
While the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 comes with the studs pre-installed, most "studded" tires in North America come sans-studs; instead you can have studs installed by your retailer. These are referred to as "studdable" tires.
The budget-priced General Altimax Arctic (Est. $50 and up) is a studdable tire that gets high marks from experts at TireRack.com -- and plenty of satisfied owners. Without its studs, it's not quite as fast when braking on ice as the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 (Est. $70 and up) (covered in our section on best winter tires) in one top test (that reviewer does not currently rate the tire when studded), but that reviewer still calls performance impressive.
Owners love the Altimax Arctic. It's the top-rated studdable tire by consumers at TireRack.com, racking up a 4.3 star score based on nearly 1,300 reviews there. Most say that it plows effortlessly through snow, rides smoothly and lasts a long time.
And it's really pretty good on ice: When TireRack.com experts hauled the General Altimax Arctic up to northern Sweden for ice testing, it "felt sure-footed ... even without studs." That's enough for Sonny Shaw at TireRack.com to name it the best value winter tire. "The General AltiMAX Arctic is easily the best bang-for-your-buck winter tire," he says. "Right out of the box, the AltiMAX Arctic provides fantastic snow and ice grip, but can also be studded for those who wish to optimize ice traction."
Whether or not studded snow tires are must-haves or even a good idea is a matter of some debate. An article in the Alaska Dispatch News notes that citizens of that state love their studded tires, but that might have more to do with their "loyalty" rather than performance, says Jill Burke. Rather, she notes an earlier study in which researchers from Alaska and Washington State found little benefit in studded tires under most driving conditions. Indeed, the study found, the most benefit is seen on smooth ice at or near freezing, with effectiveness dropping as temperatures dropped.
That mirrors the take offered by others. For example, TireRack.com looked at the performance of the General Altimax Arctic (profiled above) with and without studs. Ice performance is significantly improved with the addition of the studs. However, no noticeable improvement is seen in snow, and braking performance on wet and dry roads takes a dip.
Most U.S. states and Canadian provinces permit studded tires during the winter months, but some (such as Illinois and Wisconsin) restrict their use to emergency personnel and Postal Service workers or require rubber rather than metal studs. To find out whether studded tires are legal in your state, and what limitations exist, check with your state road authority. The American Automobile Association provides a list of laws in each state in the U.S. and all provinces in Canada.
The bottom line? For most drivers, skip the studs and opt for a top studless winter tire like the ones outlined in our section on best winter tires. But if studs are a must -- or a necessity because of the winter conditions you most often encounter, the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 stands apart, and is our Best Reviewed choice.