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, TireRack.com says. Tests prove that all-wheel drive does nothing to help your car stop and corner safely on slick roads -- only winter tires can do that.
Do you see a lot of rainy or dry winter days? 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).
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 (see below). ConsumerReports.org concludes that studless winter tires are fine for most drivers, after testing both types.
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 (unless you're a do-it-yourselfer). Tire shops usually charge $10 to $20 per tire for mounting and balancing, but some charge more.
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.)
Check with your installer first, though. If your car has 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 new 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.
You may want to minus-size, instead. Narrower tires can more easily cut a path through snow and slush than wider tires. You can minus-size for winter by choosing a smaller wheel size and narrower tread than your original tire (smaller tires are usually cheaper, too). Your tire retailer has guides that list appropriate substitute sizes for your vehicle.