There are many ways to enjoy the snow: beneath your skis, in the form of a snowman, or watching it fall from inside your warm house. But, having to drive in the snow is an entirely different experience that many of us dread each winter.
Winter tires are one of the best ways for drivers to cope with unpredictable weather and help ease tension in nasty driving conditions. If you feel like making it safely home or to work is a treacherous expedition you have to endure each day, then outfitting your vehicle with winter tires is the best thing you can do for yourself.
What Exactly are Winter Tires?
The prospect of discussing winter tires might not seem like the most thrilling topic, but when they’re the only thing keeping you out of a roadside ditch, they become a lot more interesting.
In short, snow tires (also called winter tires) are made specifically to handle cold temperatures, snow, and ice, but their design is much more involved than you may have guessed. Here are some of the main differences:
Tread Pattern and Depth
As expected, snow tires have deeper tread grooves and more complex patterns. Deeper tread depths reduce snow buildup and provide better traction on the snow. Winter tire tread patterns are designed to channel snow and slush and expel water.
- Biting Edges
Winter tires also feature an increased number of “biting edges,” which are, thousands of tiny slits in the tread that provide traction on ice.
For optimum control on ice and snow, some winter tires are studded.
- Pliable Design
Snow tires are designed with a rubber compound that stays pliable when temperatures drop below freezing. A flexible snow tire will hug the road much better than a stiff, frozen tire.
But I have four-wheel drive, doesn’t that count for something?
This seems to be a common question among drivers with four-wheel drive vehicles. There’s a misconception that a 4WD vehicle is all you need, regardless of what kind of tread you have. Well, UK’s AutoExpress sought to put this debate to rest forever by conducting some tests of two vehicles going up a snowy slope.
What they found when comparing two Kuga vehicles, was that the front-drive car didn’t make it very far up with summer tires, but interestingly, the all-wheel drive version didn’t do any better while using the same tires.
Once the front-drive vehicle was equipped with winter tires, it by far out performed the all-wheel drive Kuga that was still in summer tires. The test was an excellent demonstration that the tires do make a huge difference.
How do They Compare to All-Season Tires?
Many people wonder how snow tires compare to “all-season” tires, and if the price justifies “a little extra tread.” It’s important to know that there are some significant differences between the two.
The first difference is the general makeup of the tires. The tread compound of all-season tires can harden in low temperatures, causing a decrease in traction. Winter tires, on the other hand, stay pliable in the cold. This gives them better grip of the road and improved braking, even in extreme conditions.
So unfortunately, rather than combining the best capabilities of summer and winter, all-season tires end up compromising on the extremes of both seasons.
What Types of Winter Tires are there?
When referring to “snow tires” or “winter tires” there are a few different options depending on the intensity of driving conditions. Here are your most common options:
- Mild Winter Performance: If you live in an area that experiences mostly mild winters, then a good winter performance tire might be all you need. These tires are best suited for long-term use in areas that can experience big temperature swings but see little precipitation.
- Studless: This is the best option for those who live in areas with snow. These tires feature deeper tread that reduces snow buildup and provide better traction. Studless tires have tiny slits in the tread pattern, called sipes. These act as thousands of biting edges on ice that help with acceleration, deceleration, and stopping.
- Studded Snow Tires: These are your more heavy-duty option for optimum traction, but with some caveats. Studded tires literally contain metal studs that dig into ice and packed snow, but they’ve been banned in some areas due to the damage they can cause asphalt roads. Fortunately, studded tires have come a long way, and many are now designed with shock absorption. This new feature not only makes them grip better, but reduces damage to pavement. Perhaps now we’ll be seeing some of these bans removed soon.
Now that you know everything about snow tires, you can determine whether they’ll be a good value based on how often you drive, and what your winter conditions are like. If winter driving stresses you out, then snow tires could be exactly what you need to stay relaxed behind the wheel.
Don’t forget that in certain jurisdictions, like Quebec, having four snow tires is mandatory. BC requires them on some highways and Ontario is considering the requirement.