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.
Winter tires have more sipes (cuts in the tread) than all-season tires to squeegee more water off the road. Saw-tooth sipes provide more surface area and cut into snow and slush better than straight sipes. The “micro pump” holes in the tread act like plungers to suck water off the road and then spit it out as the tire rolls.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.