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Are Snow and Winter Tires Worth It?

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 10/31/2019 Motor Trend Staff
a car parked on the side of a snow covered road: Tire Rack Winter Driving 9 © Motor Trend Staff Tire Rack Winter Driving 9

All-season tires aren't really for all seasons. Those tires work for most drives, but as soon as the temperature nears freezing, the advantages of having winter tires make the additional cost and effort worth it. At a recent winter tire test event sponsored by Tire Rack, it became evident to this tire novice just how big the gap is between all-season and winter tires when freezing temperatures come into play.

Testing Winter Tires vs. All-Season Tires on Ice

Having the chance to test-drive all-season tires and winter tires on slippery and icy surfaces back to back gave me a lot of perspective on the advantages of winter tires and why they're worth it. The test mules were a pair of new Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD models fitted with a set of name-brand all-season tires and a set of name-brand winter tires.

AWD is key here; many drivers believe that having a vehicle equipped with AWD is sufficient to deal with snow, slush, and ice. But I would soon find out that even an AWD vehicle equipped with all-season tires would quickly reach its limits when put in a dynamic situation in inclement winter weather. Testing consisted of driving on ice and performing three different, seemingly innocuous tasks: accelerating over a 60-foot span, braking to a halt from 12 mph, and navigating a corner at 11 mph.

Replay Video

Acceleration Test on Ice

The results of the 60-foot acceleration portion were similar, since the AWD system did much of the hard work, with times coming in at 3.7 seconds for the all-season tire versus 3.1 seconds for the winter tire. Driving impressions between the two small SUVs varied, though, with lots of wheelspin off the line on the all-season tires, whereas the winter tires seemed to pick up speed quicker.

Braking Test on Ice

a car parked in a parking lot © Motor Trend Staff

But it was the braking portion where the winter tires really outperformed the all-seasons. Braking from 12 mph down to a complete stop resulted in lots of ABS modulation for the vehicle equipped with all-season tires—with a stopping distance of 57 feet. The winter tire provided more grip, which allowed the ABS to do its job, stopping the RAV4 in just 34 feet. Given that it took an extra 1.5 car lengths to stop from just 12 mph, just think of the extrapolated stopping distances at boulevard or highway speeds. What's more, stopping the RAV4 shod with all-season tires felt violent as the ABS engaged more often, compared to the winter-tire car ,which was more composed under full brake.

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Cornering Test on Ice

The cornering test consisted of a 90-degree turn at a steady 11 mph. The winter-tire-equipped vehicle made the turn without losing traction. The car with the all-season tires lost traction and wanted to plow straight ahead—even after the stability control system kicked in and tried unsuccessfully to change the course. It was alarming to note the immediate loss of traction at such a slow cornering speed; the all-season tire simply gave up without much effort.

Winter Tire Technology

Winter tire technology has made huge strides over the past few decades. Some of the first snow tires had ridges that acted like paddles clawing through the snow. Fast-forward, and winter tire technology has advanced in in three key areas:

  1. Empty volume between treads allows snow to be compressed into the tire. Rather than ride on top of snow like a paddle tire, the empty space allows the winter tire to move snow, providing better contact with the road surface.
  2. If you look closely at a winter tire's tread pattern, you will see small slits in a unique configuration called sipes. These sipes open as the tire comes in contact with snow creating more of a biting edge.
  3. Then there's the actual rubber compound used in a winter tire. As the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, rubber compounds found in all-season and summer tires become stiff and brittle. These tires' flexibility is significantly reduced in the cold, which lessens their grip. Winter tires have compounds that can withstand freezing temperatures and keep the rubber flexible, which is necessary to grip the road. I experienced this when I felt pieces of all-season and winter tires that had been stored in an ice chest. Handling each specimen, it was evident that the winter compound retained its flexible properties in below-freezing temperatures.

Does Having Two Sets of Tires (Winter and All-Season) Cost More Money?

Sure, the upfront costs of another set of tires (even when mounted on steel wheels) will set you back a few hundred dollars. But let's look at some of the other factors at play that make winter tires worth consideration.

One factor is the cost of an insurance deductible compared to buying an additional set of winter tires. If your insurance deductible is $500 and you get into an accident that could have been avoided by upgrading to winter tires, then the extra cost of another set of tires has been nullified.

Owning a second set of tires also lengthens life of your all-season tires, as you'll be putting miles on the winter tires instead, as well as avoiding the added wear and tear of driving all-seasons under conditions that aren't optimal for their use case.

Then there's the matter of your own personal safety as the result of an accident that could have been avoided.

Are Two Winter Tires Enough?

One pair of winter tires and one pair of all-season tires used together on the same vehicle is a bad idea. Sure, it costs half as much, but you only get half the control. Consider that front-wheel-drive cars still rely on the rear wheels to keep the vehicle balanced when weight shifts during a turn. Two winter tires on the front and two all-season tires on the back can result in snap oversteer, better known as an uncontrolled spinout. On the other hand, if the car is rear-wheel drive, having a pair of all-seasons on just the front wheels will result in massive understeer.

Final Thoughts

a car covered in snow © Motor Trend Staff

Testing identical vehicles equipped with winter tires and all-season tires back to back showcases the vast differences between the two when temperatures drop. All-season tires can handle a variety of driving conditions, which is why cars are equipped with this type of tire from the factory. But once temperatures approach and go past freezing, accompanied by snow and ice, all-season tires lose their capabilities—regardless of whether you have all-wheel drive. Winter tires are not just for those who live in northern climates or at a high elevation; if you live somewhere that gets snow, a set of winter tires is worth the cost.

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