At one time, you had two choices for tires depending on the season: either the loud, clunky, heavy “snow tires” or “mud grips” that you’d use all winter, or the tires you’d use for the rest of the year. You might remember those two choices from that woodgrain-side ‘73 Buick wagon that your uncle had.
Now that’s no longer the case. Tire designers have worked hard on rubber formulations and tread patterns to come up with tires that can deliver the best performance possible for their drivers’ needs.
Let’s start with winter tires:
Today’s winter tires have come a long, long way from the snow tires mentioned in the opening paragraph. Modern winter tires have ride quality, noise levels, road manners and handling comparable to all season or touring tires, but they differ from those tires in significant ways.
One of the biggest differences is in the rubber formulation itself; all season tires will harden and stiffen up in extreme cold, while winter tires are designed to stay flexible even when temperatures are close to zero degrees Fahrenheit. A flexible tire can gain a lot more traction in snow, slush or ice by conforming to the road surface, compared to a stiff, hard tire that’ll just sit there spinning or lock up while braking.
The downside of winter tires is that their soft rubber compound will wear very quickly when the temperatures warm up. That’s why they shouldn’t be used when sustained temperatures are above 40-45 degrees F.
Winter tires feature a tread pattern that’s aggressive and deep, with a high void ratio (referring to the amount of space vs the rubber surface area in the tread). They also feature a specially-designed shoulder segment for lateral traction and cornering, and a network of sipes to enhance traction.
Sipes were an innovation that came along in the ‘30s; their inventor, John Sipe, worked in a slaughterhouse (or as a deckhand, accounts vary) and discovered that his shoes’ traction on slippery surfaces improved when he used a razor to cut dozens of fine slits in the soles of the shoes. Sipes in tire tread have the same effect; hundreds of hair-thin slits means more biting edges to dig into soft snow or wet surfaces.
Studded vs non-studded
In really extreme winter weather, sometimes studded tires are the only way to go, particularly if there’s ice or hard-packed snow on the roads. At one time, you could go with a set of tires that already had studs mounted in the tread permanently, but newer designs are pre-drilled so that a tire tech can easily hammer or screw studs securely into the tire’s tread. Studs are usually made from tungsten carbide, other super-hard metal or ceramic, and are inserted so that only the head of the stud is visible, barely protruding from the tire’s tread face.
Finnish tiremaker Nokian developed an ingenious alternative to studded tires: the Hakkapeliitta winter tire has retractable-stud system where the studs can pop out literally at the push of a button, then retract back into the tire’s tread when they’re no longer needed. Interestingly, Nokian considers this technology to be a trade secret.
The problem with studs is that they are really, really destructive to paved surfaces. Many states ban them completely, while other states put serious restrictions on the dates when they can be used. Be sure to check your local state laws before considering studded tires, and think about whether your winters ever get harsh enough to require them.
Top winter tire choices
Now we come to all weather tires, which are a pretty good compromise of year-round traction, ride quality, low noise and good braking and handling performance. All-weather tires carry the 3-peak mountain/snowflake logo on their sidewall, meaning they’ve met a set of government standards for wet and dry traction.
The tread compound on all weather tires is designed to stay flexible below 40 degrees F and provide good year-round traction, but it’s not so soft that it will start to wear down prematurely at warmer temperatures like winter tires.
The tread pattern on all weather tires is typically a little more aggressive, with a sipe feature like winter tires and several circumferential grooves that are designed to direct rainwater or slush away from the tire’s contact patch to resist hydroplaning. The casing is also designed for a bigger, flatter footprint that helps maintain better contact with the road and promote even wear.
In addition, the grooves and other tread elements are computer-designed and tuned so that sound waves from the road can be trapped or can cancel each other out, reducing the resonance of the tire’s air cavity in the process and ensuring a quieter ride. Noise suppression in tires is an entire science to itself, with teams of engineers at every tire manufacturer devoted to keeping highway noise down.
Top all-weather tire choices
All-season tires debuted in the late ‘70s and are by far the biggest selling segment of tires, and for good reason. For most climates, all season tires are the best and most logical choice. In the tire industry (and others), there’s what’s known as a “target conflict,” meaning that, for instance, wet-weather traction and snow traction can’t exist with the same tire, but all season tires bridge that compromise. They can be thought of as jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none...and for an area that only sees a few inches of snow a couple times a year, that’s perfectly fine.
The rubber formulation in all season tires is generally a bit harder, and might include varying amounts of polymers, silica and carbon black to fine-tune wet and dry traction. Traction and ride quality considerations are then balanced out against the long wear that a harder tread compound means. The tradeoff here is that when things really get cold, that tread formulation will predictably stiffen and become less pliable.
Still, the tread compound for all season tires is the best choice in climates that don’t see a really harsh winter. All season tires do a lot better in hot, dry weather and can do a much better job of dissipating the excessive heat that shortens tire life. In addition, a harder tread compound usually means lower rolling resistance and a bit of a savings in fuel costs.
Like with all-weather tires, the tread pattern on all-season tires is designed for reliable traction in wet or dry weather. They’re designed for low noise, a forgiving ride and predictable, safe handling and braking response. Their tread pattern is usually fairly similar to an all-weather tire, but a little shallower with a less-dense pattern of sipes. Unfortunately that shallower tread can also fill up with snow and slush more quickly, compromising winter traction.
Top all-season tire choices
The right tires for you
In the end, the right tires for you and your vehicle are going to depend on your driving style, the terrain, road quality and weather/climate where you live, your vehicle itself, your expectations and (of course) your budget. The good news is that there are plenty of options at every price point and every amount of warranty coverage, and plenty of ways to find a great deal on the tires you really want (either at a brick-and-mortar store or an online source).
Just approach it like you would any other major purchase; do some research on the brands and models of tires you’re considering, look at their features and benefits, compare prices and make an informed decision.
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