Why Winter Tires Are the Best Choice for Cold-Weather Driving

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With the introduction of all-season tires in the 1970s, many car owners began to opt out of purchasing a separate set of winter tires. But are all-season models really up to the job, especially if you frequently have to navigate roads covered in ice, slush and snow? The bottom line is that, while many all-season versions perform admirably in colder weather, you’ll still yet the best performance on snow and ice with a dedicated set of snow tires.

What Is the Difference Between All-Weather and Winter Tires?

All-season tires are a good one-size-fits-all solution for driving in regions that rarely get snowfall, ice or below-freezing temperatures. Compared to summer tires (also known as performance tires), all-season models offer better traction at near-freezing temperatures and during travel through lightly snowy conditions thanks to deeper, asymmetrical tread grooves.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that all-season tires are essentially a hybrid between summer and winter models, built to perform moderately well in a variety of conditions. Dedicated winter tires are specifically built to handle deeper snow, slush and ice, and are the safest choice for driving in regions with harsh winter weather.

The rubber compound used to make winter tires stay flexible even at very cold temperatures, allowing for better gripping action. Additionally, they have an even larger, deeper grooves, a symmetrical tread pattern and sharp biting edges that cut into packed snow and scoop it away to allow the tire to stay in closer contact with the road.

Is it Fine to Mix All-Season and Winter Tires?

While it used to be a fairly common practice to combine two snow tires on the rear axle with all-season models at the front, these days many dealers only sell winter and all-season tires as sets of four—and for good reason. Mixing different treads leads to unpredictable handling and reduced overall performance, especially when taking corners or maneuvering in emergency situations.

Preparing for Winter Driving

If you live in a northern region that gets frequent snow, winter tires are a smart investment. Depending on your specific area’s climate, you will probably want to change over to snow tires sometime in November and then back to all-season or performance tires in March or April.

Keep in mind that the softer rubber compounds used in winter models wear down quickly on dry pavement and in warmer temperatures. To keep the tread in good shape for the next winter, avoid waiting too long to swap back. During the off-season, store tires in a cool, dry area and wrap in black plastic bags to protect from light and oxidation damage.

It’s often a good idea to purchase an inexpensive, dedicated set of steel wheels to be used exclusively for your winter tire set. In addition to preventing pricey damage to alloy wheels from harsh driving conditions and road salt, you won’t have to remount tires each fall and spring.

Don’t let the cost of purchasing two separate sets of tires for seasonal use discourage you. In addition to getting much safer and more reliable performance from winter tires, you’ll be cutting the wear in half on either set, so you won’t have to buy new ones as often.