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 point to the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 (Est. $100 and up) as the best studded tire you can buy in North America. At ConsumerReports.org, the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 "proved to have excellent snow traction and the shortest stops on ice of any winter tire -- even slightly better than the impressive studless Michelin X-Ice Xi3."
But those metal teeth tend to skid over bare pavement in tests. In addition, road noise can be a problem, as Canada's La Presse, a French-language newspaper, reports -- though not enough so to keep it from being a clear number one choice for driving on snow or ice. Canada's APA lists it among its Top Rated passenger snow tires. "Top tire for deep snow and poor winter weather conditions, coupled with good ice traction," it notes.
ConsumerReports.org recommends that most drivers in North America -- where roads tend to be clear between snowstorms -- opt for studless winter tires instead. However, if you routinely drive on ice -- and you're OK with the noise -- the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 "is the best choice."
While the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 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. $55 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-braking on ice as the top-rated Michelin in one top test. With its studs, it still can't grip ice as fiercely as the top-rated studded tire, the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7. Owners love it 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."
The Uniroyal Tiger Paw Ice & Snow II (Est. $75 and up) is another studdable tire that's worth considering. It gets a Recommended rating in one independent review. Tested with studs in place, it gets superior snow tracking and is a very good performer when it comes to braking on ice. The downside? Handling isn't top shelf, and road noise will be a constant companion.
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. To find out whether studded tires are legal in your state, check with your state road authority. The American Automobile Association provides a list of laws in each state. The AAA also maintains a similar list for the Canadian provinces.
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 7 stands apart, and is our Best Reviewed choice.
Elsewhere in this Report:
Best Reviewed Snow Tires: Whether you live where the snow piles as high as the Rockies or in milder climes that see a few inches a year, these Best Reviewed snow tires will see you safely through.
Best Winter Tires: If you live where winter means at least a bout or two of ice and heavy snow, studless winter tires are your best bet. We name the top performers according to tests and reviews.
Winter Performance Tires: Performance cars need winter tires, too. These top choices keep your wheels firmly on the road through snow and ice, and without robbing your ride of all its panache
Snow Tires for SUVs and Trucks: Tough tires for tough rides. Some are good choices for passenger cars as well.
Buying Guide: Need more info to help you make an informed choice about snow tires? Our Buyers' Guide lays out important considerations to help make your decisions easier.
Our Sources: Expert reviews and user feedback help us find the best winter tires. These are the sources we relied on, ranked in order of helpfulness, that we used in compiling this report.