Do I Need To Buy Dedicated Winter Tires? Features That Set Them Apart Other Tires – Detailed Overview & Comparison
Driving in the winter can be a challenge when roads are covered in ice and snow. In these conditions, having the right type of tires on your vehicle is essential, not only for performance but most importantly, for safety. While all-season tires can suffice in mild winter climates, they’re no match for dedicated winter tires.
If you live in an area that frequently experiences several inches of snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain, and sub-freezing temperatures, you should seriously consider investing in a proper set of tires. But, what exactly is the difference between dedicated winter tires and other options? Is it worth the cost to have a set? Keep reading to find out.
Popular Winter Tires
- Bridgestone Blizzak: Check Price
- General Grabber Artic LT: Check Price
- Toyo Tires Observe G3 Ice: Check Price
- Hankook Winter i*Pike: Check Price
- Michelin Latitude X-Ice: Check Price
Unique Rubber Compound
Let’s start with the key difference between winter tires: their rubber compound. When deciding on a tire, it’s important to remember that not all rubber is the same. Unlike other tires, the compound used in winter tires is designed to perform optimally in sub-freezing temperatures.
When the rubber in normal tires gets cold, it loses its elastic properties. This makes the rubber stiffer and prone to cracks, tears, and in serious cases, even bursts. They essentially turn into hockey pucks on the road.
On the other hand, snow tires are designed to retain their elasticity at extremely low temperatures. This is achieved using a unique blend of components in the rubber compound, which includes synthetic rubber compounds such as butadiene, natural rubber additives such as latex, and silica, which improves the tire’s grip on wet surfaces.
Unique Tread Patterns
Every tire has a unique tread pattern that varies widely depending on the category of tire. On a winter tire, the tread pattern will be deeper and have small slits called sipes that improve grip on ice and snow.
The tread depth on these tires will usually be at least 10mm. The extra tread depth leaves space for snow, slush, and ice to be cleared out as the tire rotates. Shallower tread depth will become packed more easily, creating a smooth surface that offers minimal traction.
Another key feature of these is their abundant siping. These tiny slits open as the tire builds momentum, taking up water/snow and removing them from the tire’s contact patch. Additionally, the edge formed by these sipes increases the tire’s traction, especially when driving in wet or icy conditions.
For those who endure the most extreme winter conditions, some tires come with the option of metal studs. These studs work similarly to those on soccer cleats. They will dig into the compressed slush and ice, offering unmatched grip.
Studded tires made of high-quality materials are the pinnacle of dedicated winter tires, able to handle the toughest icy and snowy conditions. The studs are made of a very hard metal – typically tungsten carbide, the same material that’s used in armor-piercing artillery shells! These studs are placed along the edges of the tread in an arrangement that perfectly distributes the contact area of the tire.
However, it’s important to consider that studded tires are illegal in many parts of the world, because of the amount of damage they cause to the road. Other regulations only allow studs for a certain time of year. If you are planning to use studded tires, make sure to check your local laws and regulations.
Studs also wear out quite quickly if you frequently drive over rocks or dry pavement and they vibrate wildly, making a lot of unpleasant noise. They also cost noticeably more than normal snow tires that can’t have studs added. If dedicated snow tires are outside of your budget or you prefer to run on the ones you already have on your vehicle, you can achieve a similar function to studs using snow chains.
With so many options on the market, it’s difficult to compare the quality of a winter tire across several makes and models. To test their traction and performance, tires are graded using the following four metrics:
- Grip & Traction
- Braking Distance
- Resistance To Hydroplaning
To help potential buyers compare winter tires from different manufacturers, several third-party reviewers have created their own standards. When shopping for a dedicated winter tire, look for these ratings to ensure your tire will hold up to inclement conditions.
Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake Symbol (3PMSF)
The 3PMSF rating is the industry standard for measuring the quality and function of a tire in icy/snowy conditions. To earn the coveted 3PMSF symbol, tires must undergo snow and ice traction tests, as well as cold weather performance tests. The few that pass are so good that some parts of the world don’t require chains in lieu of the rating.
You can often find this symbol on the sidewall of the tire you are buying to double-check. This symbol was brought about by the United States Tire Manufacturers Association, the Rubber Manufacturers Association, the tire industry as a whole, and even the US government. So, be assured that if you see this symbol on your tires, you can have confidence in them.
Editor’s Note: 3PMSF-rated tires are still not as good in winter conditions as dedicated winter tires.
The M+S symbol stands for mud and snow. This certification was introduced in the 1970s and the level of performance required to get this is not as high as more modern certifications such as 3PMSF. However, if you’re on a tight budget, and you see M+S stamped on the sidewall of your tires, it’s better than nothing.
Again, if you live in an area with harsh winters, I would advise you to opt for a tire with at least the 3PMSF rating, if not dedicated snow tires. You really should not be using M+S tires on thick ice as you just won’t have a safe amount of traction.
Can You Run Winter Tires Year Round?
As a general rule, you can’t use these all year round. As we mentioned earlier, they are made of a more flexible rubber and become more elastic when warm. Therefore, if you use them in hot temperatures, the rubber is going to be too flexible, compromising your traction, tread wear, and stability. They will also be more prone to punctures.
Another problem is the tread pattern of snow tires. I mentioned earlier that they tend to have a “tighter” tread pattern than regular tires. In hot climates, the rubber will expand and the sipes will meld together to form a smooth tire surface with little to no grip.
Finally, using studded tires if there is no snow is strongly discouraged. Not only will the studs make a lot of noise and vibrate, but they will damage the roads in dry conditions. The studs will also wear out really fast.
While switching out your wheels twice a year is certainly a chore, there’s really no way to safely avoid it in extreme climates. You won’t get adequate performance out of winter tires in hot weather, and you won’t get adequate performance out of all-seasons in cold weather.
In many northern climates, you’ll often see folks who have a dedicated set of winter tires on a cheap set of steel wheels that they’ll throw on for the snowy months. This is an affordable solution that also allows you to get several years out of a single set of tires. Just remember, before swapping out your summer tires, it’s important to check that your tires are still in good condition.
Which Tires Are Right for You?
If you live in a climate where you frequently experience snowy or icy conditions, switching to snow tires has the potential to greatly increase the safety of your vehicle, and even save the lives of you and your passengers. Snow driving on sub-standard tires can put both your vehicle and your life in jeopardy, especially if you’re new to driving in such conditions.
The best winter tires for your vehicle, in my opinion, are the Bridgestone Blizzak tires. There are a handful of factors that set them apart…
- Multicell Compound: Contains microscopic “bite particles” that offer even more traction and grip in addition to the tread and sipes.
- Nano Pro-Tech Rubber Compound: Keeps the tire flexible even in sub-zero temperatures. I’d say these tires perform best in temperatures below 40°F (4°C).
- Hydro evacuation surface: Most tires have some kind of hydroplaning prevention (stopping slush, snow, and ice from getting stuck in the tread pattern). The Bridgestone’s just do it better than other tires at this price point.
- Value: These cost significantly less than other popular winter tires, but don’t compromise on winter handling.
- Sizing Guide: The Bridgestone website has a really helpful tool where you can select your vehicle, year, and trim to help take the guesswork out of selecting your tires.
These tires start at about $150 each and offer more than sufficient performance for most people. If money is no object, you could look into the Pirelli Winter Sottozero or the Toyo Observe G3-Ice, which start at about $230 per tire.
It’s no surprise that winter tires vary quite a bit from others. They are specifically designed to overcome all of the shortcomings of standard versions in icy conditions. If you find yourself driving in icy/snow conditions frequently, it might be time to start thinking about investing in a set.
To start, look for the 3PMSF symbol and avoid anything less than that. If the conditions are especially icy, it might be worth it to pay the extra for studded tires. Once you’ve got your tires, throw them on a cheap set of steel wheels, switch them out with your summer tires twice a year, and you’ll be set for winter driving.
It’s important to remember that dedicated snow tires are not a substitute for safe winter driving techniques. When the snow starts to fall, drop into 4-Lo, increase your following distance, break earlier than you think you need to, and above all, reduce your speed. This is all the more crucial if you’re running on tires that aren’t optimized for snow. If you combine these driving techniques with a good set of winter tires, the only reason you’ll be breaking out the recovery boards is to help someone else who slid off the road.