The best snow tires have
- Strong grip on snow and ice. Almost any winter tire will grip better on snow and ice than an all-season tire. With the best snow tires, you'll see a dramatic difference.
- A comfortable ride. In the past, snow tires' chunky treads made for a punishing ride, but the best studless snow tires roll quietly and comfortably, although studded snow tires still clatter noisily.
- Durability. Snow tires' softer rubber wears out faster than all-season wheels, but good models should last 20,000 miles or more (about three winters, as a rule of thumb).
- A warranty. Winter tires don't usually carry treadwear warranties (although a few do), but the best ones always carry at least a five-year warranty against defects in materials and workmanship.
Know before you go
Do you need winter tires, or will all-season tires suffice? If you regularly drive on snowy, icy roads, just about any winter tire will stop faster, climb hills better and prevent your car from sliding around icy corners more effectively than all-season tires. Even if there's no snow or ice, winter tires will stay softer and perform better in cold temperatures,
Do you see a lot of rainy or dry winter days? If so, performance winter tires might be your best bet. They'll keep you ready for snow and ice storms, without sacrificing grip on cold, dry or wet pavement (like regular winter tires often do). Despite their name, performance snow tires are a good choice for any type of passenger vehicle driven where snow and ice are likely, but where heavy snow accumulations are not a common occurrence
Do you need studded snow tires? Studded winter tires have built-in metal teeth that bite into ice. They grip better on ice than the studless versions in tests, but they have two big drawbacks: They're noisy and they can damage pavement. For that reason, some states ban or restrict studded tires. Some studies have shown that studs are most helpful for a relatively narrow range of conditions -- when temperatures are at or near zero. After testing both types, ConsumerReports.org concludes that "studded models do indeed grip well on ice, but they do not always out-perform studless models, which have more advanced winter tread compounds that stay pliable in the cold."
Buying tactics and strategies
Always buy four matching winter tires. You might be tempted to buy just two winter tires for your drive axle, but don't do it. When two wheels grip and two don't, your vehicle can easily pinwheel out of control (as demonstrated in a test conducted by TireRack.com).
Don't forget to budget for installation. Tire shops usually charge $10 to $20 per tire for mounting and balancing, but some charge more. A few will include the cost of installation in the price of a tire.
Buy early. Tire retailers stock snow tires in the fall, and that's it. If you wait until the snow flies, you'll be stuck with a picked-over selection.
Consider getting the wheel package. You could re-mount your tires onto your existing rims every time you switch, but it's easier if your snow tires are mounted on their own wheels. Traditionally, this has made installation cheaper, too. "This can save up to $50 each time you swap tires," Canada's Automobile Protection Association says. Having your tires mounted on wheels also makes the seasonal change-over something that do-it-yourselfers can handle more easily.
Check with your installer first, though. If your car has a wheel-mounted tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) sensors, you'll have to buy sensors for your snow tires' wheels, too, (or just use your existing wheels, or install your snow tires yourself). That's because a federal rule prohibits installers from "knowingly [making] the TPMS system inoperative." A ConsumerReports.org staffer learned this new rule the hard way.
You can get them installed -- whether you buy in-store or online. Tire stores will install your new snow tires immediately, but you're limited to the brands the store carries and available stock. Online retailers carry a wider selection, but you'll have to pay for shipping and then find a shop to install them. Some online retailers partner with local installers all over the U.S. and will ship the tires directly there, if you prefer.