If you drive mostly on cleared roads, experts say all your car may need is a good winter performance tire. These tires are specifically designed to keep sports cars and performance sedans safe at high speeds in cold weather on wet or dry pavement -- and the best ones handle confidently on snow and ice, too -- but are an appropriate choice for any type of car if you live in an area where winters are milder. Note that the prices estimated reflect the smallest size readily available; performance cars often use larger rims than nonperformance cars.
The Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4 (Est. $210 and up) is pricey, but experts and owners say it's worth it for maximum winter driving fun. At TireRack.com, it finishes on top in a test of tires for performance vehicles. Though some competitors come close, editors say, "The Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4 delivers the best balance of performance in this group, driving well on the road plus providing good ice, snow and very good wet traction." In another independent test, it's a top pick "for winter driving without compromising handling." Testers confidently plow through snow, stop on ice, swerve and corner on dry roads, and cruise through standing water without hydroplaning.
The PA4 isn't the best tire for drivers who must contend regularly with severe winter weather -- the top-rated Michelin X-Ice Xi3 (Est. $85 and up) is a better choice for extreme conditions, experts say -- but the PA4 is sharper than the Xi3 on cold, clear roads, wet or dry.
The Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2 (Est. $105 and up) is another tire to consider in this category. About.com's Sean Philips drives a set on an Audi RS4 for a trip through "Nokian's 'White Hell' test center in Finland. While he does not have the chance to drive the tires to their limits (such as putting the car into an intentional slide to see where the tires regained their grip), he still is impressed enough to call the R2 "crazy good," driving over hard-packed snow as if it was bare asphalt.
The Dunlop SP Winter Sport 4D (Est. $95 and up) are also well rated. TireRack.com experts rank the Dunlop right behind the Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4, with good ice and wet traction, but handling that's just a step behind. Likewise, it finishes right behind the two tires named above in one independent test., but still well enough to be "a very good choice" for typical winter driving.
Most "all-season" tires get a bad rap for winter weather from both experts and owners, and deservedly so. However, a very small handful perform well enough in the ice and snow to sport a snowflake symbol on its sidewall, indicating that it's a true winter tire. Best among those might be the Nokian WR G3.
Dan Proudfoot of Canada's The Globe and Mail tests a set of the Nokian's on his Mercedes-Benz B200, then drives through a Southern Ontario storm that delivers snow, slush and ice in quick succession. He finds that the tires drive well through slush and snow, with great traction even when faced with wheels lodged in snow accumulations. Handling on ice is sure as well, but braking not so much as a foot-to-the-floor test found tires that failed to grip on the frozen surface. His take is that the WR G3 delivers surprisingly good performance, in the right situation: "I'd feel confident enough traversing a Toronto winter on WRG3s, but not while weekending in cottage country to the north in conditions colder than -10 C, with snow measured in feet rather than centimetres."
ConsumerReports.org is also impressed with the Nokian WR G3. In a free article, the editors call it "the rare winter tire that provides performance for all seasons." In testing there, it rates well for snow traction and braking performance on ice. Forgetting winter performance for a moment, editors say that it would have received "a respectable mid-pack overall score" among all-season radial tires. "Not a bad compromise for any tire … and even more eyebrow-raising considering that it's a winter tire," they add.
Autos.ca contributes to the positive feedback for the WR G3 with a still-on going year-long test. Mike Lynett remains impressed thus far. "This is a solid tire in all conditions," he says. "It's not designed for high-performance nor extreme winter driving but for what you'll face in the city, it's a safe, comfortable and well-rounded performer."
Elsewhere in this report: