Do you need snow tires?
Experts agree: If you drive regularly
on ice or snow, you'll be safer on winter tires than on all-season tires. "When
temperatures drop and snow falls, there is no question that dedicated winter
tires provide the best road-holding grip," says Gene Petersen in a
free-to-the public article for ConsumerReports.org. He adds that in
their testing, ConsumerReports.org found that "winter tires easily command
a 20-percent benefit in snow and ice traction over all-season tires, and some
of the best winter tires have nearly twice the grip as some all-season models."
Keep in mind that winter tires aren't
just for snow; cold temperatures can harden regular tires' rubber, reducing
their ability to grip pavement, especially when things get icy. But softer,
more porous snow tires absolutely thrive in cold climates. The colder it gets,
the more tenaciously they grip.
Types of Snow Tires
Snow Tires for Passenger Cars
Unlike all-season tires, snow tires for passenger cars have special tread designs and compounds to grip better on snow, ice and cold pavement. Experts unanimously say that if you live somewhere that gets serious amounts of snowfall, a real winter tire will keep you much safer than any all-season tire on the market.
Snow Tires for SUVs and Light Trucks
These are similar to passenger-car snow tires -- and some lines are also available in sizes suitable for coupes and sedans -- but are top performers when installed on bigger, heavier vehicles. Again, these tires do a better job of keeping vehicles and drivers safe under hazardous winter driving conditions than other options.
Studded Snow Tires
Studded winter tires are 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.
What if I have all-wheel drive?
Just because you have an
all-wheel-drive car doesn't mean you don't need winter tires, as the editors of Popular Mechanics found out. In a test, reviewers drove two identical
Chevy Equinoxes -- one with front-wheel drive and one with all-wheel drive
(AWD) -- on a packed-snow track with a milled-ice underlay.
The AWD Equinox equipped with snow
tires braked the quickest from 60 mph; when equipped with all-season tires, the
same Equinox went from first to worst in terms of stopping distance. The
front-wheel-drive Equinox also handled better when using snow tires than with
all-season wheels. "On snow tires, both cars came to a halt about a car
length sooner -- often the difference between a close call and a call to your
insurance company," testers wrote.
When using winter tires, both models
also enjoyed a slight advantage in acceleration, cornering (how tightly a
vehicle hugs the road in curves), and climbing a 10-percent grade. Bottom line,
according to Popular Mechanics and virtually every other expert we consulted: AWD
or not, winter tires trump all-season tires in ice and snow.
A word about price estimates
Unless otherwise indicated, pricing
estimates in this report are per tire, and for the least expensive size
available at retail. Be aware that larger tires can cost more, sometimes a lot
more. Pricing also doesn't include installation -- sometimes free, depending on
your retailer -- and you can incur extra costs for balancing, stems, tire
disposal, etc. If buying online, some sellers offer free shipping, but others
do not; shipping costs on one tire, let alone four, can sometimes be
Finding The Best Snow Tires
"Studless Ice & Snow Winter Tires: Finding Which is Best When Winter Weather is at its Worst"
"Tire Ratings -- Winter/Snow"
A scandal of sorts erupted last year
when Finnish tire maker Nokian confessed that, at times, it had supplied
tires for testing by the automotive media that were not identical to the tires
sold at stores. The maker has promised that it had ended the practice --
though also claiming it was widespread in the industry; something other makers,
of course, have denied. Nokian also noted that major testing organizations
have, for years, gotten their tires from tire retailers rather than
manufacturers, and those tires are, of course, the same ones that motorists buy.
Because of this, and to ensure our
judgements aren't overly influenced by tests of tires that might or might not
be something other than stock, we are basing our recommendations for this
edition of our snow tire report on testing by reviewers that state that they
purchased their tires at retail, such as ConsumerReports.org and the Norwegian
Automobile Federation, as well as the Automobile Protection Association of
Canada, which bases its ratings on the opinions of experts, as well as tire
retailers. Feedback at TireRack.com, which tests the tires they sell and is the
biggest single source of user reviews, also plays a major role. To provide
background and additional impressions, we also referenced the opinions of some
of the most reputable reviewers in the automotive media, such as Car and
Driver, but did not heavily weigh their input when deciding which winter tires
were Best Reviewed.