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Snow Tires vs. All Season Tires

Snow tires outperform “all-season” tires under snowy and icy conditions. They’ll give you better traction, more stability in turns and better stopping power.

Photo courtesy Getty images/Daniel Loiselle

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Snow tires outperform “all-season” tires

If you wonder whether your “all-season” tires perform just as well in snow as snow tires, we have the answer. They don’t; not even close. Most “winter tires” (the new term for snow tires) outperform all-season tires in snow, rain and even on ice. They have a more aggressive tread pattern and are made from a softer rubber compound. The softer compound allows the tread to squash around the snow, compact it, and then toss it out as the tire rotates. Some winter tires even incorporate closed-cell bubbles in the tread material. But as you drive, road friction cuts the outer layer of bubbles and “sharpens” the edges of each one. It’s like having a few thousand freshly made squeegees wiping the road as you drive. The end result is better traction, more stability in turns, and much better stopping power.

Of course, you’ll have to fork over the dough (about $600 or more for a set) to outfit all four wheels (yup, you have to put them on all four). The best approach is to mount them on a spare set of used wheels to avoid the spring/winter, mount/dismount headache.

Not just for snow

Winter tires perform much better than the “snow” tires you may remember (if you’re old enough). They work better in snow, ice, slush and mud and on cold, dry pavement. The rubber compounds are entirely new. Most manufacturers include silica, and some spruce up the formula with traction bits and hollow “cells” that squeegee and suction water off the road. Tread designs are far more aggressive to provide better acceleration and shorter stopping distances (Photo 1).

Increased performance on snow

Since snow-on-snow contact creates far more traction than rubber on snow, winter tires are designed to grip and hold more snow. That means better (and faster) acceleration and shorter stopping distances. An independent test by Tirerack.com shows a 33 percent improvement in acceleration over all-season tires (and that’s with an AWD vehicle). Plus, the test tires stopped 30 ft. shorter than the all-seasons (Figure A). That’s a huge difference—enough to avoid a serious accident or a fender bender.

Better performance on ice

All-season rubber compounds literally skate on ice. But winter tires are made with softer rubber compounds and added silica to give them more flexibility and grip on ice. And the special tread removes more water from the ice. The test results show that winter tires outperform all-season tires on ice, too.

Tirerack.com used an indoor ice rink and timed the acceleration from a dead stop and measured stopping distances from 10 mph (Figure B). Winter tires accelerated faster. When taking a 90-degree turn at 10 mph, the car with winter tires stayed within the marked driving lane, while the car with all-season tires skidded out. That kind of cornering performance can mean the difference between avoiding an accident and causing one.

Cost vs. benefits

A set of four winter tires costs $600 or more, depending on your wheel size. If you have the tires mounted on your existing wheels, you’ll have to pay a shop to swap them each spring and fall. Most shops charge about $18 apiece to demount your all-season tires, mount the winter tires, balance and install them. However, if you buy an extra set of wheels and tire pressure sensors ($480 per set), you’ll save at least $50 on each changeover. Don’t think you can skip the tire pressure sensors—the shop can’t legally install wheels without tire pressure sensors if your vehicle was already equipped with them.

Sure, winter tires cost a lot. But consider that you’re getting a lot for your money. When you factor in the better stopping distance and handling in turns, it’s easy to see how winter tires could prevent an “at-fault” accident. If your collision deductible is in the $500 to $1,000 range, winter tires could actually pay for themselves in a single season if they keep you out of an accident.

Here’s another way to analyze the costs. Winter tires last about five years or 35,000 miles. Those are miles you won’t be putting on your all-season tires. So if you go the full monty and buy new wheels, the true cost of winter tires comes out to about $150 per year for the first five years. Then if you buy a second set for those same wheels, the cost drops to just $65 per year. We think it’s worth the relatively small annual cost to get the extra stopping power and better handling in turns that can help you avoid an accident.

Tire manufacturers make multiple winter tire models for specific winter conditions. So get expert advice from your local tire dealer to match the tire to your vehicle, your climate and your driving habits.

Save money on the changeovers

Mounting winter tires on a second set of wheels saves money over swapping tires on a single set of wheels. But you can save even more if you negotiate a package deal with the tire shop. Get a price for the tires, wheels, sensors and free seasonal mounting. If your shop offers a “Tire Hotel” service to store your off-season tires, ask them to throw that into the package as well. That way you won’t have to haul the off-season tires back and forth or store them in your garage.

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Comments from DIY Community Members

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December 16, 10:08 AM [GMT -5]

There's no comparison between "all season," and "mud and snow" tires and real snow or winter tires. All-season tires are, at best, marginal in snow, even when new, and downright dangerous when just half worn.

Because of the expense of buying four additional tire pressure monitoring rims and snow tires, I drive on premium snows all year round. They wear a bit faster, but they're quiet and work well in rain. Even if I just bought 4 snows and 4 summer tires I would save on the expense of switching tires and rims and balancing them twice a year.

The best year-round winter tires I've used over the years are Hakkapelliti Nokian WR-2 tires.

February 13, 11:13 PM [GMT -5]

Don't forget to add the cost of 4 Tire Pressure Monitor Sensors on late model cars!

January 31, 6:57 PM [GMT -5]

I heard that new vehicles require the wheels to be recalibrated ($200. plus dollars), every time the tires are changed from winter to all-season & vise-versa.

January 30, 10:19 PM [GMT -5]

There are some tires that are considered ALL WEATHER PLUS tires that can be used all year, hot or cold, wet or dry, ice or snow with excellent traction and handling. They do not cost $90 each but $150 and above, but are worth the convenience and safety when driving in mixed weather conditions. The tires I have on my car are Nokian WRg2 ALL WEATHER PLUS tires and are EXCELLENT. http://www.nokiantires.com/tyre?id=11899&group=1.01&name=Nokian+WRG2
They outwear the "bubble" tread technology tires. Nokian is the only tire company in the world that has a year round ice test track. They are made in Finland. Look them up at http://www.nokiantyres.com/products. This comment is NOT an advertisement only a testimonial from a multi-decade user of the Nokian tires.
Chuck Johnson - chjohnson4642@gmail.com

January 30, 6:29 PM [GMT -5]

Modern winter tires are a "no brainer" for most people that live in cold climates. I've used them on several vehicles and I'm convinced. Hands down these tires are the best investment you can make to improve the winter capability or ANY car or truck.

I find it funny how many people will invest in a vehicle with all wheel drive, but still rely on all-season tires. All wheel drive costs upwards of $2000 and may help you GO in adverse conditions, but does NOTHING to help you stop! Instead spend the $400-$1000 on the winter tires and enjoy results and savings. If you live in an area that has hills, and bad weather, you may want both AWD and winter tires.

I recommend searching for used factory wheels that fit you car. Craigslist type sites are a great resource for this. To thesse add a new set of dedicated winter tires and you're in great shape. Your local tire shop will happliy swap them out for you at the beginning and end of the bad weather season. Enjoy the Snow!

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