Should you buy winter tires?

snow tires winter all seasons

It’s that time of the year again: the local meteorologists are predicting the next ‘snowpocalypse.’ The weather outside may be frightful, but if you have winter tires it could be delightful (and a lot of fun😉).

It’s the age old question: Should you buy winter tires?

The answer boils down to where you live and the conditions you expect to drive in during the winter season. The average warm climate dweller most likely won’t require winter tires. Those in cold climates and outdoorsy types probably need them, regardless of whether their vehicle is all-wheel-drive or not. Remember, when the weather turns wintery, all-wheel-drive helps you go, but it doesn’t help you stop.

CTA driving programs learn control in a slide

Most cars sold today are fitted with all-season tires because they offer cheap versatile performance that meets most consumer needs. Think of all-season tires like a good pair of Chuck Taylors. They can be acceptable in almost any situation, from a date night to a trek through the woods. But when that trek through the woods becomes soggy, muddy, and freezing, you’ll wish you had a pair of Salomon hiking boots; aka winter tires.

The benefits of winter tires aren’t exclusively the ability to romp around in the snow like Travis Pastrana at Sno*Drift. The biggest benefit of winter tires is their cold temperature and ice performance. It’s the uniquely designed features of a winter tire that give them the edge over an all-season tire.

  • Winter tires feature a softer rubber compound, typically infused with more silica for added flexibility. This allows the tires to not harden the way an all-season would in cold temperatures. Staying flexible allows the winter tire to maintain grip on ice, snow and cold dry roads. Where as, an all-season tire would essentially turn into a hard piece of plastic.
  • Winter tires feature more aggressive and deeper tread patterns than the typical all-season.  With more saw-tooth sipes, these designs allow for the tire to cut deeper into the snow and reduce snow buildup providing better grip. The tread patterns are designed to channel and expel snow, slush and water. The extra siping creates hundreds of extra biting edges designed to grab onto ice. Some sipe patterns are designed to grab sand and gravel to provide a “natural stud” for even more grip on ice.

snow tires tread pattern sipes

  • Higher-end winter tires may also feature a multi-cell compound that is designed to soak up the thin layer of water that sits on top of the ice, thus reducing slippage.
  • Winter tires tend to have a narrower contact patch than all-season tires. This allows the tire to cut down into snow searching for grip below the surface. For example, compare the tire width of a Formula 1 race car to a WRC rally car in winter-spec. The F1 car will have a wide tire with no siping designed to maximize surface area to grip all the tarmac it can. The winter-spec WRC car will have an extremely narrow tire, cutting deep into the snow and focusing the weight of the car into a smaller area providing the best traction possible.

Winter rally tires vs. Formula 1 tires

All of this means that your winter tires will allow you to turn better and stop quicker in slippery and frozen conditions. Remember, all-wheel-drive won’t help you stop; it likely means you’ll be going faster when you do need to stop. These performance results are backed up by hundreds of tests comparing winter tires to all-seasons. Watch the Tire Rack video below to see a demonstration:

What are the downsides of winter tires? Cost and longevity. The average set of winter tires costs between $400 and $600 to well over $1,000 depending on size. If you choose to put the tires on a dedicated wheel, that is an additional $400 to $500 in new wheels. It is recommended that winter tires be bought in sets of 4. Only putting winter tires on the drive wheels can result in unpredictable and dangerous handling of the vehicle. The cost adds up quick considering winter tires typically only last about 35,000 miles. All-seasons have better longevity. But 35,000 miles is several winter seasons, and that is thousands of miles not being put on your all-season tires. It is thousands of miles of safely making it to your destination when the weather turns bad. Just keep in mind that winter tires are designed for cold temperatures, and anything above about 50º will cause them to wear out extremely fast. They need to be removed when the weather warms up in the spring/summertime. It is like own different pairs of shoes for different situations in our everyday lives.

So at the end of the day, should you buy winter tires? Probably.  You need to weigh the likelihood that you will drive in freezing conditions versus the costs. However, the costs of tires is surely less than the cost of an accident should you be caught off guard in inclement winter weather. Regardless, winter tires are not magic. Always practice safe winter driving techniques: slowing down, expanding follow distances, giving yourself extra time, look ahead, and smooth inputs.

CTA learning to control a slide DirtFish snow

Article by Eric Schofhauser

Photos: DirtFish and Red Bull Content Pool