Studded winter tires are specialty wheels designed for motorists who have to contend with extreme winter-weather conditions on a prolonged and regular basis. These tires have built-in metal teeth that bite into ice. They're loud, and they can damage pavement. Still, studded tires outperform studless versions at a crucial task -- braking on slippery ice.
Tests have long pointed to the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 as the best studded tire you can buy in North America, but that tire is being phased out in favor of the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 (Est. $120 and up). The new version has won a ton of awards in European automotive magazines and sites, and is starting to make 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. One plus over the earlier Hakkapeliitta 7 is lower noise -- a real sore spot with the older tire. 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. $85 and up) and Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 (Est. $85 and up), profiled in our section on the best winter tires. "The Hakka 8 replaces the Hakka 7 as the new king of the mountain, says Jean-François Guay.
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.
ConsumerReports.org recommends that most drivers in North America -- where roads tend to be clear between snowstorms -- opt for studless winter tires. However, if you routinely drive on ice -- and you're OK with the noise that even the Nokian 8 produces compared to a studless tire -- it's a clear top choice. Note that while Nokian tires can be tough to find on line, 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 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. $85 and up) (covered in our section on best winter tires) in one top test. With its studs, it still can't grip ice as fiercely as the formerly top-rated studded tire, the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 (that reviewer has not yet tested the newer Hakka 8).
Owners love the Altimax Arctic anyway; they say 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."
Do you needed studded snow tires?
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, including ConsumerReports.org. In another test of studded snow tires, TireRack.com looked at the performance of the General Altimax Arctic 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 province 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.
Elsewhere in this report: