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 -- in every single Scandinavian and North American test.
Tests confirm that the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 (Est. $130) is the best studded tire you can buy in North America. This perennial favorite's Swedish version, the Hakkapeliitta 8 (which has lower rolling resistance to comply with a new Swedish tire law) aces four separate Arctic tire tests, earning top honors at the Swedish auto magazines Aftonbladet, Auto Motor & Sport, Motorföraren and Vi Bilägare. 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. ConsumerReports.org says that for most drivers in North America -- where roads tend to be clear between snowstorms -- studless winter tires are still the best option. However, if you routinely drive on ice -- and you're OK with the noise -- the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 "is the best choice," ConsumerReports.org says.
The budget-priced General Altimax Arctic (Est. $70) 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."
Are studded tires safer on ice than studless? In Scandinavian tests, the answer is often yes. "Year after year tire tests show that studded tires provide better traction than studless winter tires. This test is no exception," says Sweden's Vi Bilägare magazine, one of the most respected Scandinavian winter-tire test sources.
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.