There are a whole host of situations in which all season tires can be not only inadequate but dangerous. Weather that is more severe than light snow and temperatures that dip below 40 degrees fahrenheit can seriously challenge all season tires’ ability to maintain traction.
Now that we know why “snow tires” or winter tires are important, let’s take a look at the best models available today, but first:
“Snow Tires” were basically helpful for one thing: Snow. “Winter Tires” are helpful for the four months of the year when temperatures have plunged below freezing..
Snow tires don’t exist anymore. They haven’t since the mid-1990s. Back in the olden days, when your dad was fighting his way home from his job at Montgomery Ward in his 1966 Polara, snow tires were all that were available. They were just a regular bias ply tire with a more aggressive tread pattern. They were constructed exactly the same way as an ordinary tire, except they may have had the ability to be studded.
Winter tires are completely different from all-season or summer tires. To start with, the rubber compound stays elastic in temperatures under the freezing point. Summer tires and all-season tires do not use the same rubber compound and a dedicated summer tire will turn almost plastic-like in the cold weather, losing a lot of its ability to help you stop and corner when the weather gets cold.
Winter tire rubber compounds are also much more porous than a summer tire, as a means of ejecting water and slush, and gripping surfaces like smooth ice.
Finally, a winter tire has thousands of small cuts called “micro-sipes” in the tire’s tread blocks that help the contact patch -- the palm-sized area where your tire grips the road -- expand and conform to the road surface, and grip the asphalt surface below the cover of snow.
Car Talk recently launched our Golden Wrench Awards for excellence in tires, so our readers can have the most in-depth look into the best tire for purchase. Below are our top picks for Best Winter Tires for 2021.
All of these tire picks were ranked using Car Talk's unique methodology based on over 30 different data points:
Consumer Satisfaction: Consumers provided data about what their experience was using tire models within each of these brands.
Industry Professionals: Car Talk researchers performed a nation-wide survey of over 800 mechanics and industry professionals for their opinions.
Government Reporting: Statistics reported for safety and durability.
Tire Quality and Engineering: A tire brand’s overall quality and engineering or innovation influenced a consumer’s decision to purchase.
Performance: Car Talk looked at how tires from these particular brands performed in a variety of weather conditions.
The Michelin X-Ice Xi3 is our Golden Wrench winner due to its superior handling, quality and traction. This tire is excellent in ice and snow, has stellar customer reviews and ratings.
The Viking Contact 7 is awarded the Golden Wrench due to its excellent handling in snow and ice, solid customer satisfaction and excellent grip and traction when it is needed most.
The Blizzak is one of the most popular and highly rated snow tires on the market. They use a combination of grooves and tread patterns that bite and grip in water, snow, slush, and even ice.
The Discoverer True North is awarded our Silver Wrench for its exceptional handling and grip in wintery conditions, as well as long its tread life.
The Ultra Grip Winter Ice WRT is a solid choice for winter conditions, and has been awarded a Bronze Wrench due to good ratings and reviews, and dependable performance.
The Ice Guard IG52c features advanced winter technology, which gives it great handling in intense wintery conditions. Grip, traction and performance are solid with this tire.
The best answer to when to buy winter tires is “as early as possible,” but that only tells part of the story. The bigger question here is to understand when you need winter tires and when all seasons aren’t going to do the job safely.
If you live in a part of the country that gets regular snowfall in the winter, it might be tempting to run out and buy the most hardcore snow or winter tires you can find, but you might not need to. If you are a person whose job is critical and does not allow you to work from home, winter tires are a good idea. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, you get the point, jobs that require people to be present at all hours of the night and day.
On the other hand, if you have a job that allows remote work, don’t have anywhere to be in a snowstorm, and can afford to sit on the couch when the weather’s cruddy outside, you can probably get by with all season tires. Just don’t expect to claw your way out of snow banks and up steep driveways.
People who are especially paranoid about getting stuck in snow and who worry about sliding around on ice can add studs to certain models of winter tires. Some winter tires have the ability to have studs added onto the tread. The studs are essentially small metal spikes that help the tire get traction on even the slickest surfaces.
Many places have laws against using studs past a certain point in the year, as the metal spikes can wreak havoc on pavement in warmer weather. It’s also important to remember that studs decrease the level of dry traction a tire can generate because there are several pieces of metal sticking out of the tread.
If you live in an area where the air hurts your face for part of the year, you might already be well versed in the language of winter tires, but for everyone else, they can be a real mystery. Before the late 1970s, drivers had to swap between “snow tires” -- basically tires constructed out of the same rubber, but with a more aggressive tread pattern -- and summer tires in order to have any shot at keeping their vehicles on the road when the weather turned. All season tires came along and made those old snow tires less of a necessity for many people, but not all.
All season tires have their limits. When temperatures drop below 40 degrees fahrenheit, the rubbers in all season tires can become stiff and may have a hard time gaining traction. They may also split or crack if the temperatures are low enough. Further, all season tires’ tread patterns are not designed to grip in snow or to channel slush away from the wheels, so they’re less capable of biting and getting traction.
Online tire prices are usually less than in store
The obvious difference is tread pattern, the less obvious difference is rubber compound.
Tread pattern on a winter tire is meant to help the tire grip ice better, with hundreds of little grooves in the tire that help the tread blocks to flatten out on the ice. Winter tires also have more space between the tread blocks so that the tire can eject packed snow.
Rubber compound is just as important, though. All season tires have a rubber compound that essentially turns to plastic at any temperature under 40 degrees. These tires will lose a significant amount of grip in dry weather if the temperature is colder than that. In snow, they’re all but useless. Winter tires have rubber compounds that stay flexible well below freezing, allowing the tire to maintain its grip on the road surface underneath at much colder temperatures than all-season tires.
This is no different than normal tires, but some winter tires (especially studded tires) may require a slightly different pressure depending on the model. Check inside your driver’s side door for a white and yellow label that will tell you the exact tire pressure recommendations for your vehicle model. That tire pressure can also change depending on the load of passengers you’re carrying, as well as the cargo load. Note that the pressure on the tire itself is never the correct setting, but rather a maximum.
Your vehicle should have come equipped with a compact spare tire and changing tools in the trunk. In this case, you already have everything you need to physically change the tire, but you may want to carry an extra roadside emergency kit with an upgraded lug wrench, jumper cables, and emergency markers just in case.
Several online retailers like Tire Rack offer regular discounts and free shipping for their tires. Their sites also have tire fit guides and pricing estimators to help you understand what you’re buying.
Most online tire retailers have free shipping or reduced shipping cost when you choose to have them installed at a partner shop. The retailer may have an arrangement with a local tire chain or installation center and can ship the tires there for free.
Retailers like Tire Rack offer fast shipping and can often have tires to your preferred installer in as little as two days. Many others, like Discount Tire Direct, offer the same fast and free shipping. It also depends on where you live. If you’re in a large metro area, close to a distribution center, it should be relatively quick. If you live 5 miles from East Moosejaw, it might take a little longer.
Some shops will offer free installation when you purchase tires from them, and online retailers often promote the same deal for people who choose to have installation done at one of their partners. If you do find yourself paying for tire installation, expect to pay between $15 and $50 per tire, depending on what is needed. That money pays for mounting and balancing the tire to ensure a safe and comfortable ride.
The tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) is independent of your tires, but should be checked at regular intervals to ensure no damage or malfunctions are occurring. Your local tire shop can perform this check as part of normal tire rotation or installation.
Yes! You can find the right fit, tread pattern, and speed rating on nearly any online retailer’s site. They sometimes offer specials and rebates around the time when people start looking for winter tires (late fall).
It’s certainly not a requirement to buy your tires and wheels from the same place, but you’re more likely to get a deal on the package if you buy from the same place. Check the retailer’s specials and make a determination from there. You may also find a better deal ordering either the tires or wheels online and buying the other component from your local shop.
Yes, and in some cases rebates are offered alongside discounts on the tires. It’s important to ask questions and understand what you’re getting, so be sure to chat or call the retailer before ordering if the rebates are unclear.
Ordering your tires online vs. the shop will save you money