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Best Studded Snow Tires

By: Carl Laron on October 09, 2017

Studded snow tires beat studless tires in the toughest weather conditions

In the frozen north -- where black ice and packed snow cloak the roads from fall until spring -- experts and drivers swear by studded tires, which have built-in metal or rubber teeth to chew into the ice. For most drivers in the U.S., studded tires are probably overkill, and some states and localities limit them to rubber studs only, limit the months in which they can be used, or ban them outright because they tear up dry pavement. The studs send a constant noisy rattle into your car's cabin, too. You can get studded tires that come that way from the factory, or purchase tires that accept aftermarket studs, which can be installed by your tire retailer for an additional cost.

Among studded snow tires with U.S. availability, the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 9 (Est. $135 and up) is the new ice and snow champ. It’s a top performer when winter is at its worst, and features a stud design that reduces noise better, and damages roads and highways less, than most other studded tires.

But it might not be the best choice for areas where roads aren’t under a blanket of snow and, especially, ice all season long. All studded snow tires don’t perform as well on roads that are merely wet, or even dry, and the Hakka 9 does even worse than many. That, unfortunately, is a byproduct of its superior performance on winter surfaces. As noted by the Norwegian Automobile Federation, “It is not physically possible to build top features on all surfaces in one and the same [tire].” If you need a tire that performs well on wet and dry roads, and still pretty darn good on snow and ice, check out some of our recommendations in the section on the best winter tires.

Still for roads that are ice and snow covered, it’s tough to beat the Hakka 9. In comparative testing by the Norwegian Automobile Federation, the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 9 “stands out with good traits on snow and ice.” Exhausted.ca, a Canadian automotive site, takes the Hakka 9 for a high speed ride on a frozen lake. Using cars with their stability controls engaged, the tires provided all the grip needed to take slick corners at full speed without skittering off the track. “Stability control needs maximum grip to work effectively, and the H9s delivered,” Kelly Taylor concludes.

The Hakka 9 is the replacement tire for last year’s Best Reviewed studded snow tire, the still in production Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 (Est. $95 and up). That tire has won a ton of awards in European automotive magazines and at online sites. In last year’s testing by the Norwegian Automobile Federation (they did not test the tire this year), the Hakkapeliitta 8 shared first place among studded tires with a Continental tire that's not available in the U.S. Reviewers give it "top marks" in all aspects of winter performance, "with short braking distances and good lateral grip."

Previously, Nokian tires had been tough to find on line, but we note that there is now availability through sellers including Amazon.com and Walmart. In addition, the company's website has a dealer locator that can direct you to a local retailer. Availability should improve markedly in the coming years as a new Nokian manufacturing plant in Tennessee comes on line.

While the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 9 and Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 come with the studs pre-installed, most "studded" tires in North America come sans-studs; instead you can have studs installed by your retailer. These are referred to as "studdable" tires.

The budget-priced General Altimax Arctic (Est. $55 and up) is a studdable tire that gets high marks from experts at TireRack.com -- and plenty of satisfied owners. Without its studs, it's not quite as fast when braking on ice as the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 (Est. $75 and up) (covered in our section on best winter tires) in ConsumerReports.org's testing (that reviewer does not currently rate the tire when studded), but editors there still call performance impressive.

Owners love the Altimax Arctic. It's the top-rated studdable tire by consumers at TireRack.com, based on reviews of more than 1,550 drivers, and over 11.5 million miles driven. Most say that it plows effortlessly through snow, rides smoothly and lasts a long time.

And it's really pretty good on ice: When TireRack.com experts hauled the General Altimax Arctic up to northern Sweden for ice testing, it "felt sure-footed ... even without studs." That's enough for Sonny Shaw at TireRack.com to name it the best value winter tire. "The General AltiMAX Arctic is easily the best bang-for-your-buck winter tire," he says. "Right out of the box, the AltiMAX Arctic provides fantastic snow and ice grip, but can also be studded for those who wish to optimize ice traction."

Do you needed studded snow tires?

Whether or not studded snow tires are must-haves or even a good idea is a matter of some debate. An article in the Alaska Dispatch News notes that citizens of that state love their studded tires, but that might have more to do with their "loyalty" rather than performance, says Jill Burke. Rather, she notes an earlier study in which researchers from Alaska and Washington State found little benefit in studded tires under most driving conditions. Indeed, the study found, the most benefit is seen on smooth ice at or near freezing, with effectiveness dropping as temperatures dropped. The article also quotes James Harper, a communication specialist with the Alaska University Transportation Center in Fairbanks, who says "The truth of the matter is that tire design (has) evolved to the point where studless tires are equal to or better than studs."

That mirrors the take offered by others. For example, TireRack.com looked at the performance of the General Altimax Arctic (profiled above) with and without studs. Ice performance is significantly improved with the addition of the studs. However, no noticeable improvement is seen in snow, and braking performance on wet and dry roads takes a dip.

Most U.S. states and Canadian provinces permit studded tires during the winter months, but some (such as Illinois and Wisconsin) restrict their use to emergency personnel and Postal Service workers or require rubber rather than metal studs. To find out whether studded tires are legal in your state, and what limitations exist, check with your state road authority. The American Automobile Association provides a list of laws in each state in the U.S. and all provinces in Canada.

The bottom line? For most drivers, skip the studs and opt for a top studless winter tire like the ones outlined in our section on best winter tires. But if studs are a must -- or a necessity because of the winter conditions you most often encounter, the Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 stands apart, and is our Best Reviewed choice.

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