What You Need to Know About Winter Tires

Snow tire, winter road conditions
ollo / Getty Images

Winter is coming, and with the changing of the seasons we turn to thoughts of winter tires; or at least I do. Most drivers don't think about winter tires, or don't know enough to think seriously about them, which I think is one major reason that only a small fraction of drivers ever use winter tires. The issues are many and rather complex: Do you need snow tires or will all-seasons do? Should you have an extra set of wheels? What size should they be? Do you want steel or alloy? Without a pretty serious knowledge base these questions can be daunting, sometimes with expensive consequences for getting a wrong answer.

Have no fear. I have attempted to gather here in one place all of the most essential information you need to have to make educated decisions about your winter tires. I have tried to keep the information on this page short and informative, while linking to articles with more in-depth discussions of the issues.

Snow Tires or All-Seasons?

Many tire people will tell you that all-season tires are useless. This is not entirely true; it's just that 95% of tires called “all-season” are really made for cold, rainy weather and are useless in ice or snow. All-season tires can be useful mainly in areas that see very light winters, but very few all-season tires are at all suitable for real winter weather. Those that do perform well in winter are now generally called “all-weather” in order to distinguish them from less capable tires. Even all-weather tires give up some snow and ice performance in order to run well year-round. For real winter driving, a set of snow tires are always best.

Mixing and Matching Tires:

One question I get asked a lot; “Can't I just put two snow tires on one axle and keep two summer or all-season tires on the other axle?”

There are three major considerations to keep in mind when contemplating whether to put only two snow tires on your car:

1) Don't do it.
2) No, really; don't do it.
3) For God's sake, don't do it.

Trust me, tire dealers do not insist on four snow tires just so they can sell you two more tires – the facts are very clear. Putting on only two snow tires is very probably worse than not putting on snow tires. Having each axle grip differently is a recipe for disaster on snow. If the snow tires are on the front axle the car will fishtail unpredictably and uncontrollably. If they are on the rear axle, steering grip will be dangerously limited and the car will understeer. While only two snow tires might save you a little money in the short term, it's very likely to cost much more than that in the long term.

Choosing Snow Tires:

So you've decided that you need the optimal grip and handling of dedicated snow tires. Obviously, it will be more expensive to keep two sets of tires, however you will get superior handling in both winter and summer, and since each set will be on for roughly half the year, both sets of tires will see less wear than if they were on year-round. To choose a snow tire that's right for you, see my Top 5 Studless Snow Tires, or if you need the absolute best snow and ice grip available, check out studded snow tires. You may also want to know more about the enormous importance of siping patterns for good winter performance.

Winter Wheels:

If you decide to put dedicated snows on your car, the next decision you'll need to make is whether to stay with one set of wheels and swap snow and summer tires on and off, or whether to buy a second set of wheels for the snow tires. There are of course advantages and disadvantages to either approach, but in essence an extra set of winter wheels will constitute a larger initial investment, but one that can save you substantial money and time on the cost of mounting and balancing tires twice a year. With the right equipment, you can even swap out your wheels yourself in your garage.

If you do decide to go with an extra set of winter wheels with snow tires, keep in mind that if your car is newer than 2007, you will almost certainly need an extra set of TPMS sensors for the winter tires, as the NHTSA has now made it clear that it is illegal for tire shops to install winter sets without TPMS.

Downsizing For Winter Wheels:

If you decide to have a winter set of wheels with snow tires, you will also want to look at whether to downsize the winter set. For example, if you are running 18” summer tires and wheels, you may want 16” or 17” winter tires and wheels. The advantages here tend to all be on the side of downsizing, including that smaller sized wheels and tires will be less expensive and at the same time much more effective in the snow.

Steel or Alloy?

Last but not least is deciding whether you want your winter set of wheels to be aluminum alloy or steel. Aluminum alloy wheels will be lighter, feel more agile and generally give better responsive handling. On the other hand, in snow or ice, lightness, agility and quick response are not what you want most. Steel wheels are substantially heavier and since the weight is not held up by the car's suspension, that “unsprung weight” makes a great deal more difference than identical weight added to the car above the springs. In terms of winter driving, extra unsprung weight can be a very good thing.

Based on all this information, you can see that the ideal setup for winter driving would generally be 15” or 16” steel wheels with studded snow tires. Only slightly less ideal would be studless snow tires, and less ideal but still workable would be 15” or 16” alloy wheels. 17” alloy wheels are less ideal still, and I do not recommend 18” wheels with snow tires at all, for reasons of both cost and performance.