How to Choose Snow Tires — And Why You Shouldn’t

For most drivers the best snow tire to buy is an all-season tire, not a snow tire, because the right all-season tire will give you better stopping and cornering on wet pavement and dry while also giving you good enough snow traction. If you’re dead set on getting true snow tires, this article is going to challenge your beliefs.

At the current state of tire-design science, it just is not possible to make a snow tire that will grip non-snow-covered wet or dry pavement as well as the best all-season tire.  Yet it is possible to design an all-season tire with very good snow traction as well as very good stopping and cornering ability on wet or dry pavement that is not covered with snow.   This has been proven in scientific testing at Consumer Reports test tracks.  Think about what is important to you:   Having the grip on the pavement that will allow you to stop more quickly could save your life and the lives of your passengers, pedestrians and other drivers.   The same is true for better cornering traction.    The traction that could enable you to maintain control during an emergency lane change, to avoid crashing into something, could prevent death or injury.  But snow tires all have inferior gripping ability on non-snowy pavement in comparison to the pavement grip of excellent all-weather tires.

“But I don’t want to get stuck in the snow,” you may be thinking, “I need excellent snow traction!”   Well, you can get very good snow traction with a few models of all-season tires, while still getting a tire that will give you very good traction on non-snowy wet or dry pavement.  You just need to find out which models of all-season tires have those qualities, and the next article will tell you how to find such tires.    You need this information, because many popular all-season tires do NOT perform well in snow.

There is just no substitute for scientific test results in choosing a tire. No recommendation from a friend or user review online is going to reliably tell you which tire stops the quickest on wet pavement, or on ice, or has the best snow traction. These things can be easily measured, but it takes side-by-side testing with accurate objective measuring of results. Anything else is just vague impressions, folk wisdom, hearsay or hype.

Consider getting all-season tires and then carrying a traction-aid like tire chains or the AutoSock in your trunk for short-term use in extreme bad conditions. Take a look on Amazon to learn about this option:

When I showed the first few paragraphs of this article to my sister who lives in Canada, she immediately opposed my point of view: “If you live up here you should choose snow tires!” she exclaimed and you may have thought the same thing. But, in Canada or anywhere else there is snow, you don’t need snow tires, you need tires that are good in snow and that’s not necessarily the same thing. Consumer Reports tests of snow tires (winter tires) and all season tires found some all season tires are as good in snow traction as most snow tires (Example: Hankook Optimo H727), and one winter tire was terrible in snow (Hankook Icebear W300). More important, CR found none of the winter tires were good at dry pavement braking, while some of the all season tires were very good at this, and many of the winter tire scored poorly on wet pavement. Think about it: What happens in the winter? It snows, and during at least that first day after a snow storm you need good snow traction, but pretty soon at least the major roads are clear of snow, but wet, and then you need good wet pavement traction, and then the roads dry and you need good dry pavement traction for emergency stops and avoidance maneuvers. So, your tires for the winter need to be good at all three and “winter tires” per se are not. Another important message from these tests is this: No category like “winter” or “all season” by itself predicts performance and neither does the brand. I just cited 2 examples of Hankook tire models, one that scored very well and another that scored poorly, so if you only went shopping for “Hankook” and not a specific model of tire, you would be getting potluck.
So how are you going to know which tires to buy. I strongly recommend consulting Consumer Reports tests and looking for a tire that scores very good in snow traction but also scores at least “good” in every other category of performance and “very good” in the crucial life-safety criteria like wet braking.

How can you get the Consumer Reports ratings? Nearly all public libraries have them. Or you can sign up online for a small fee and use the CR website. Some public libraries have even made arrangements so that their card holders can consult CR online for free (that’s true in my little town).

So, don’t assume you need snow tires for snow. Don’t assume any tire recommendation that isn’t based on scientific tests is valid. Don’t buy by brand name. And be very aware that good snow traction often comes at the price of poor non-snow traction and you have to have the benefit of scientific test information to know which tires combine a balanced set of strength under varying conditions. And that information is keyed to specific tire models and does not hold true for any entire brand of tire.

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