Deciding on winter versus all-season tires

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Cars waiting at a stop light during a snowy winter.

Winter driving is tough, even with snow tires. (Photo Credit: CC BY-ND/Allan Askar/Flickr)

Winter driving conditions make having the right tires imperative. In climates where snow and ice are ever-present hazards of the winter roadway, loss of traction can prove deadly. Most vehicles come standard with all-season (aka all-weather) tires, but are they enough? Exploring the winter versus all-season tire debate can uncover the truth.

All-season tires and safety

Popular Mechanics suggests that the millions of drivers who trust all-season tires to keep them on their intended path are leaving proper traction to chance. Dedicated snow tires, such as studded tires, have been proven in multiple tests to provide the greatest possible traction under icy road conditions. Even with all-wheel drive, which helps with some aspects of winter driving but not turning and stopping, using all-weather tires doesn’t do enough under the worst winter conditions. In that sense, calling them “all-season” is a misnomer.

Try driving in Minnesota

To test its assertion, Popular Mechanics ran a study at the Automotive Enviro Testing facility in Baudette, Minn. The location is commonly referred to as “The Ice Box,” and it’s designed to fully evaluate frigid-weather driving conditions. The largest automakers in the U.S. trust the facility to test their vehicles.

Testers used two nearly identical four-cylinder 2011 Chevy Equinoxes. One has front-wheel drive, the other AWD. Acceleration, braking, hill climbing and turning were tested, first with Goodyear all-season tires on both cars, then Goodyear snow tires on both. After sufficient repetition by the same driver using traction and stability control, collected data suggested that snow tires were superior, particularly when braking and cornering. Snow tires improved performance by as much as 20 percent.

Know when you need snow tires

While it is possible to make it safely through winter in some regions without dedicated snow tires, having snow tires increases safety. Here are a few guidelines to help you decide whether you need snow tires and what to do with them:

  • If you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, buy four snow tires
  • For ease of use, if you buy snow tires, buy four inexpensive steel wheels just for the tires
  • Put winter tires on around Thanksgiving, and switch back around Easter
  • Store off-season tires in a cool, dry place out of the sun’s rays, and wrap them in black plastic bags

Regardless of the tires you use during winter, safe winter driving techniques like slowing down and allowing more time to brake remain important. This is because under the worst ice conditions, even the best snow tires will fail to maintain traction on occasion.

Tire Rack all-season versus winter tire test


Car and Driver

Discount Tire

Popular Mechanics

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