For most motorists in North America, winter tires without studs are the right choice for cold-weather driving. The best snow tires power through snow and ice, improve stopping distances and handling, and ride smoothly and quietly on roads.
For this year's installment of this report, we found three truly excellent tires that rise to the top in most if not all experts eyes. Someone has to rise to the very top, and for 2016 we are granting that honor to the Nokian Hakkapelitta R2 (Est. $110 and up), but it was a very, very close call. If you (or your favorite tire installer) are more comfortable with a more familiar tire brand, either the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 (Est. $70 and up) or the Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 (Est. $85 and up) are excellent choices as well -- so much so that it's fairer to call them alternate choices than second choices.
That said, every expert that has tested the Hakkapelitta R2 puts it at the top of their list. At Car and Driver, the R2 bettered or tied its competition in every test save one, price (and we'll get to that in a moment). "The most eye-opening trait of this Hakkapeliitta R2 is the way it steers on the snow and recovers from understeer," says K.C. Colwell, who adds: "It feels more like a summer tire in the wet than a winter tire in the snow."
Others fall in line with that assessment. It ties for the top spot (with the Michelin X-Ice Xi3) in one large comparative test. Canada's Automotive Protection Association (APA) puts it in the highest, top rated, category alongside the Bridgestone Blizzak WS80. It's the highest rated studless tire with U.S. availability in testing by the Norwegian Automobile Federation. About.com's Sean Phillips didn't drive the R2 to its absolute limits, but testing under what he describes as "real-world conditions" reveals the tires to be "crazy good." He adds: "On hardpack snow they drive like pavement, handling the Audi's power and agility with confident authority and out-of-this world grip."
There are a couple of small caveats with the Hakkapelitta R2. One is that U.S availability up to now has been relatively limited. That appears to be changing, as these tires are now readily available through retailers such as Amazon.com and even Walmart. However, they are still not sold through some other major retailers, such as TireRack.com, and that means that user feedback from U.S. drivers, while good, is very limited compared to the more well-known, more widely available Michelin X-Ice Xi3 and Bridgestone Blizzak WS80.
The other caveat is value. The R2 is a little pricier than other top-rated tires. Colwell notes that in the Car and Driver tests, the R2 cost nearly $50 more per tire than the second place X-Ice XI3, adding "That's a bitter pill when you are talking about something most drivers consider a wintertime luxury." Still, he says, "If the best winter traction is what you want, and you can afford the premium, look no further."
However, if you can't afford the premium, or if you are simply more comfortable with a better-known brand with a bit more user feedback, the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 and Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 draw excellent recommendations in their own right. Which one is better is in the eye of the reviewer. The Michelin shares top honors and identical scores with the Hakkapelitta R2 in one large comparative review, with the Bridgestone sitting just a few points behind in the third spot, and all three earn recommended status there.
At Car and Driver, the X-Ice Xi3 finishes just a whisker behind the R2; it is actually its equal in some tests -- snow acceleration, snow braking, and ice braking -- and wallops it in price. "In terms of objective results, the first- and second-place tires are essentially the same," Colwell says. On the other hand, his disappointment in the overall test results for the Bridgestone is palpable, saying its fourth place finish in Car and Driver's test "shocked us." That said, it's not all bad news for the WS80: "Fortunately, the WS80's major highlight is one of the more desirable traits for a winter tire: stopping in the snow," and Colwell adds that it actually tied the R2 in snow braking while turning in mid-pack results in ice breaking.
Others, however, have a different take. Canada's Automotive Protection Association (APA) put the WS80 in its highest Top Rated category and now places the X-Ice Xi3 one step below in its Very Good category.
The Blizzak also takes first place in a four-tire test at TireRack.com, finishing narrowly ahead of the X-Ice Xi3. "All four tires delivered very good snow traction with a small overall advantage for the Bridgestone Blizzak WS80, especially noticeable when asking the tire to brake and turn at the same time," note the site's editors. The WS80 holds some small advantages on dry and wet roads as well. The Blizzak finished first in dry and wet panic stop tests, and in cornering on dry roads, but the X-Ice Xi3 was close behind, and the Xi3 performed slightly better in test of cornering on wet roads.
User feedback for the Bridgestone and Michelin tires is excellent. In an online survey at TireRack.com, the Blizzak WS80 takes first place overall, with 100 percent of reviewers saying it's the best tire in the category. However, the X-Ice Xi3 finishes right behind in second place, with 98 percent saying that it is the best tire. Both earn identical 4.4-star average ratings from owners based on ample feedback (more than 210 reviews for the Bridgestone and more than 380 for the Michelin).
Of the three tires we consider to be top rated, Michelin backs its products with a stronger warranty, but with some caveats. The Xi3 carries a six year, 40,000-mile treadwear warranty-- a rarity among snow tires, which usually carry no tread warranty at all -- and six years for workmanship or materials, with free replacement for the first year (prorated thereafter). However, while Automobile Protection Association (APA) editors say that the tires are "long wearing," they simultaneously gripe that the "Tricky mileage warranty requires the tires to be virtual banana peels before you can collect." The Blizzak WS80 has no treadwear warranty, and is covered for five years (prorated-only, no free replacement period) for defects in workmanship or materials. The Nokian Hakkapelitta R2's warranty is similar -- 5 years from purchase/6 years from manufacture, but for defects in materials and workmanship only, pro-rated.
While a few other snow tires draw mentions in some quarters, the overwhelming consensus is that one of the above three tires should be what you put on your car for superior winter performance under a variety of conditions. We are granting the Nokian Hakkapelitta R2 Best Reviewed status on the strength of its overwhelmingly strong expert feedback, but the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 is, in reality, nearly as well liked and may be a better choice for some, especially where value plays an important role in the buying decision. The same can be said for the Bridgestone Blizzak WS80, last year's Best Reviewed selection. Expert reviews this year are a little more uneven, yet it still ranks in the upper tier of snow tires, and a cut above the rest of the competition.