All tires, by their very nature, have to find a balance between a few contradictory extremes. Tires with lots of grip generally wear much faster, and tires that perform well in warm dry weather do not generally do so in cold or snow. With few exceptions, this is simply a natural law of tires.
So to decide whether snow tires or all-seasons are right for your winter driving needs, you have to ask: Will you accept some performance tradeoffs in order to run the same tires year-round? The answer to that question will be different for different people. It's a simple fact that all-seasons are a convenient concept. Being able to keep the same tires on year-round is cheaper and easier than any other solution. But all-season tires have to make tradeoffs like any other tire; they must give up snow performance to keep summer performance, and they must give up some grip to get the high wear essential for year-round tires.
Frankly, most all-season tires have one thing in common – they are composed overwhelmingly of what should be called “rain tires.” In general, what the industry calls all-season tires are summer tire designs with the addition of some minor siping patterns to deal with water on pavement. 90-95% of tires called all-season should never be driven in anything more than the lightest of occasional snow.
The major reason for this is the unfortunate fact that there simply is no criterion for deciding what is or is not “all-season.” There is no test or rule to determine this. Michelin could make some minor changes to their Pilot Supersport tread design and introduce a Pilot Supersport A/S tomorrow, but trusting it in a New England winter would be ludicrous.
Partially because of this loose classification, the various types and brands of all-season tires have vaguely sifted themselves into categories that mirror those of their summer counterparts, including Ultra High Performance (UHP), Grand Touring, and Passenger.
Ultra High Performance All-Season:
UHP All-Seasons are designed for high-performance vehicles, and will generally perform moderately better in bad weather conditions up to light snow than a UHP summer tire. They are not designed for deep snow or sustained winter conditions and do not tend to perform at all well on ice.
- Goodyear Eagle F1 All-Season
- Michelin Pilot Sport A/S Plus
- Bridgestone Potenza RE960 AS Pole Position
- Pirelli P Zero Nero M+S
Grand Touring All-Season:
Grand Touring tires are designed less for high performance than for smooth ride and high fuel economy. Like UHP all-seasons, these are essentially rain tires with minor siping.
- Goodyear Assurance ComforTred Touring
- Michelin Primacy MXV4
- Bridgestone Turanza Serenity
- General Altimax HP
Passenger all-seasons are essentially daily-driver tires; plain vanilla workhorses without most of the technological bells and whistles of UHP or Grand Touring tires. In some cases this leaves the makers able to add in some more snow and slush capability in place of high summer performance, making them more winter-biased than most.
So you can perhaps see why many tire people will tell you that all-seasons are not worth the rubber when compared to snow tires. They're not, but they do have their uses. If you live in the South and see very light winters, for example, a set of all-seasons might be perfect for you. In the North or Northeast however, many all-season tires can be downright dangerous, not least for giving the driver a bad case of unwarranted confidence.
To find tires that can be driven year-round and can actually function in sustained winter conditions like ice and snow, one must look to an entirely new category called “all-weather” tires. The all-weather concept was invented by Nokian, which still leads the class with their WRG2; however a few others have begun making tires in this niche.
All-weathers are year-round tires which carry the “Mountain/Snowflake” symbol, indicating that the tires meet winter performance standards set for dedicated snow tires by the Rubber Manufacturers Association and the Canadian Rubber Association. There are really only a few choices in this category. Several other makers claim to have all-weather tires, however these tires do not carry the mountain/snowflake symbol, and so their usefulness in winter conditions is questionable.
Dedicated Snow Tires:
All-season tires being a balance between extremes, dedicated snows represent the wholehearted embrace of one extreme in particular – winter conditions. Unlike summer rubber compounds which become stiff in cold temperatures, they use special rubber compounds that are at their peak of flexibility and grip under colder conditions. Consequently these tires must be taken off in the spring, as they will perform badly and wear fast in warm weather. However in winter conditions they will outperform any all-season tire, with the possible exception of the all-weather niche.
- Nokian Hakkapeliitta R
- Michelin X-Ice Xi2
- Continental ExtremeWinterContact
- Bridgestone Blizzak WS-70
- Dunlop Graspic DS-3
Studded Snow Tires:
When you embed metal studs into your snow tires, they're going to get better grip. I think we can all agree on that. Studded snows are designed for the absolute best grip in the absolute worst conditions, but they're very loud on dry roads and they tear up the pavement. Studded tires are best for winter conditions that are virtually constant – if you live on the side of a mountain, or if the snow comes in the fall and doesn't really melt until spring where you live, these may be a good option for you.
- Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7
- General Altimax Arctic Studded
- Firestone Winterforce
- Pirelli Winter Carving Edge
So there it is, an overview of your winter driving options. Go forth into the tire wilderness armed with knowledge. Keep in mind that if you choose snow tires, you may want to get an extra set of wheels to cut down on mounting and balancing expenses. If you do, you may also want to downsize and/or use steel wheels for the winter performance benefits.