[This article was updated for 2019]
Full disclosure, I haven’t seen any single episode of Game of Thrones, so trust that when I say “Winter is coming,” I’m only concerned about your car and its on-road performance.
Cold weather and snowy conditions impact your ability to do anything on the road. Even if you have all-wheel drive, winter tires will improve your car’s performance and your confidence on the road.
But each tire is like a snowflake itself, with unique qualities that make them different from one another. Some perform better in deep snow, while others work best on ice. Some regions allow for studded tires, while others don’t. Some have rugged and aggressive tread patterns, while others have smart slits in the tire, called sipes, which help with grip as well.
It’s easy to get lost in the world of winter tires as some are best for different scenarios, others are capable of operating with a puncture, and a few even have tread warranties to help boost the value. Fortunately, we’re here to help.
1. Editor's Pick: Bridgestone Blizzak WS80
The Blizzak WS80 is one of the most popular and effective snow tires on the market. The brand expects them to be used on compact cars, coupes, sedans, and minivans, but other models of the Blizzak are available for different vehicles like SUVs.
What makes the Blizzak so good is the combination of its circumferential and lateral grooves, which are designed to direct water, slush, and snow away from the contact area. There are also the 3D Zig Zag sipes, which give the tire extra biting edges. Additionally, the tire uses a next-generation compound that features a water-loving hydrophilic coating and microscopic bite particles. These are some of the best winter tires you can get, but they come at a pretty significant price. For starters, they’re more expensive than most other winter tires, and they don’t feature any unique warranty coverage. I have purchased these tires in the past and highly recommend them to my friends and family.
Best of all, the Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 is currently discounted on Tire Rack since Bridgestone has now introduced the Blizzak WS90. We haven’t had a chance to get our hands on the new WS90 just yet, but we’ll be sure to update this post if it performs better than the WS80.
2. Michelin X-Ice Xi3
One of the most capable winter tires in Michelin’s lineup is the X-Ice Xi3. This is the third generation of the brand’s winter tires, and is a great fit for coupes, sedans, family vans, and small crossovers. One of the best aspects of the X-Ice Xi3 is that it features a low rolling resistance construction that should improve your car’s fuel economy.
The tread uses a silica-based compound and features independent shoulder and intermediate tread blocks that feature micro-pumps and variable angle Cross Z-sipes that help deliver improved traction and wet weather capability. Those worried about high-speed performance should be happy to know that the Xi3 features an internal structure that includes twin steel belts and a spirally wound nylon. Finally, there’s a special wear indicator on the tire that informs drivers when ice and snow traction will be reduced.
Like the Bridgestone Blizzaks, the X-Ice Xi3s are expensive but they feature a six-year treadlife warranty and a one-year uniformity warranty. There’s also a 30-day satisfaction warranty and a three-year flat changing assistance.
3. Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3
Another solid and popular winter tire comes from Italian tire maker Pirelli with the Winter Sottozero 3. The big deal about these tires is that they can come as a standard or run-flat style. Many who see cold weather but limited snow might appreciate the high-density sipes, which improve braking distances. Pirelli says that the special winter compound is arranged in a directional pattern with an enlarged contact patch. You can see the arrow-shaped center blocks and rounded shoulders which are designed to evacuate water and slush. The snow performance doesn’t seem as strong as some of the other tires but people appreciate the cold weather and ice capabilities. The major issue with the tires seem to be the lack of treadwear warranty and the low tread life, as well as the high price.
4. Firestone Winterforce 2
This tire from Firestone is the first on our list that is studdable for extra capability in regions that allow studded tires. Additionally, the Firestone Winterforce 2 comes with a five-year workmanship and materials warranty, adding some important value to your car’s rubber. It features deep grooves and wide lateral notches, as well as open shoulder slots to help channel slush and standing water, and reduce hydroplaning.
The tire uses twin steel belts and a polyester casing, which Firestone says combines strength with ride quality. These are fairly affordable, versatile for their studded option, and have a wide set of sizes as well as a decent warranty.
5. Goodyear Ultra Grip Ice WRT
Goodyear’s Ultra Grip lineup of tires is very popular because they’re available in such a wide variety of sizes and vehicles. The reason they work so well in snow and ice is due to the two types of different sipes used on the tire, which provide additional biting edges that provide traction. One type of sipe is a 3D-styled sipe that locks together to improve stability and grip, while the other is a 2D, surface-style sipe which is designed to improve braking distances. It features one year of uniformity warranty and six years of workmanship and materials warranty. Some buyers say the tires lose their performance quickly, while others say they’re not as impressive when cornering, but still prevent them from getting stuck.
6. Yokohama iceGUARD iG52c
The Yokohama iceGUARD iG52c is the brand’s most ecologically friendly winter tire, and also features a triple-action, high-density tread compound with lots of unique materials that let the tire handle different cold weather situations with ease. Like other tires on this list, the Yokohamas feature locking sipes that improve cornering stability. In fact, the iceGUARD iG52c seems to be perfectly suited for ice and snow covered roads, but not deeper stuff. They’re available in some pretty interesting sizes, even down to 175/70R13, but there’s nothing bigger than 19 inches, meaning SUV buyers will have to look elsewhere.
7. Dunlop Winter Maxx WM01
This is Dunlop’s first set of winter tires, and they’re a great choice for those looking for an affordable and high-performance set of winter tires. As the aggressive tread pattern shows, the Winter Maxx WM01 is perfectly suited for slush, snow, and ice. It features an asymmetric block design that will help in cold, yet dry conditions. The unique Miura-Ori shaped sipes will help give snow and ice traction and will apparently improve treadwear. There’s a narrow spectrum of wheel sizes, ranging from 14 to 18 inches, so SUV owners may be out of luck. Through the many reviews online, it’s clear that this tire has superb snow performance, but average in dry conditions.
8. Continental Wintercontact SI
The SI in this tire’s name refers to Snow and Ice, which hopefully points to the conditions that it’s best suited for. Like other tires on this list, the WinterContact SI features a special compound that’s designed to stay flexible in cold weather, which is excellent for maintaining traction and grip in such conditions. There are many multi-angled zigzag sipes, which help in the wet, slushy and snowy conditions, and there are also special groove ridges that help improve braking in the snow. The tire also features a special tread depth indicator, so that drivers know what kind of traction is available in the snow. Continental Tires are a bit more expensive, but they come with a lot of benefits, like a one-year uniformity warranty, one-year road hazard warranty, a 60-day trial, and six years of workmanship and materials warranty.
When Should I Switch to Winter Tires?
A big concern about winter tires is when to put them on. All-season tires lose effectiveness at around 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about the same temperature you can see your breath. As soon as you start noticing your breath in the wind, it’s time to switch tires.
More importantly, winter tires should be installed well in advance of the first snowfall.
Are Off-Road Tires Considered Winter Tires?
Some truck buyers may consider leaving all-terrain or off-road tires equipped all year long, even in snow and winter weather. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, because all-terrain tires have deep tread blocks that can help tires get some traction in snow. Furthermore, they’re tough and can withstand the potholes and cracked pavement that can occur in winter weather.
However, all-terrain rubber isn’t as flexible or grippy as winter tires in the cold weather. The large tread blocks and stiff rubber can actually degrade handling performance on ice and in cold, dry conditions. As a result, dedicated winter tires are better suited for snow and ice.
One last thing to consider is winter-rated all-terrain tires, which are pretty much all-terrain tire with winter compounds. These are ultimate winter warriors, capable of tackling heavy snow covered routes, and even the slush and mud that follows in the warmer weather.
Why Do You Need Winter Tires?
In colder temperatures, tires, even all-season ones, get hard and stiff, which impact their ability to maintain traction. They’re less grippy, which is a big problem if you want to maintain control on the road.
It might be hard to understand how much grip is lost when a tire gets cold and freezes, but imagine walking around on a skating rink using winter boots and then imagine it again in a pair of tap shoes. Since frozen tires are limited in terms of sidewall flex, they’re far more unpredictable on rough or snow-rutted roads. As well, when a tire freezes up, it’s more prone to faster tread wear.
Winter tires use a different compound, which allows them to stay soft and flexible in cold weather. The winter tire compound is stickier in these temperatures too, meaning they’ll give you much better control in snow and ice than normal tires that aren’t designed for those conditions. Winter tires also feature specially designed tread patterns that provide more surface area to contact the road and provide superior grip.
In many cases, winter tires not only improve your performance in the snow, but add confidence and safety. Insurance companies reward drivers who switch to seasonal rubber with discounts.
The subject has been studied a lot to help dispel myths that winter tires are just a big conspiracy. A recent study conducted in Canada showed that winter tires greatly decreased the braking distances when compared to all-season tires, no matter the type of vehicle. Another study showed when a car is traveling just 30 mph in winter conditions, that winter tires can reduce your stopping distance by up to 25 percent, or between two to three car lengths.
Tires are how a car connects with the road. The most advanced all-wheel drive or stability control won’t do much if your car has no grip. When there’s ice on the road, or if it’s covered with slippery snow, the right tire will help deal with those situations.
Some drivers think that they can get away with just using two winter tires specially placed on a car’s driving wheels. This isn’t a very effective tactic and can cause problems when cornering. When two different sets of tires are used, one end of the vehicle will likely lose traction during cornering situations. Your car throws a check engine light when the gas cap isn’t closed tightly, do you really trust its traction control and stability system to figure out what to do with two different sets of grip?
How to Store Winter Tires?
One of the biggest issues when it comes to seasonal tires is storing them. How do you store your extra tires? There are a few key steps to take to store your tires:
- First, clean the tires before putting them away. Dirt and other things that sit on tires for a long time can damage and degrade the rubber, so cleaning them first is important.
- After washing them, wrap them up. Putting the tires in a bag will help the oils in the tires from evaporating. There are also tire totes to help make this easier.
- Find a dry cool place to store them, preferably not outside. If your tires are on rims, you can stack them without too much worry, just be sure to be careful so they don’t fall over or anything.
- If they’re not on rims, you can store them upright. Some recommend hanging tires, which is ideal for tires on rims, but those that aren’t can get misshapen if they’re placed on hooks for too long.
- If that’s too much work, many tire shops, dealerships or mechanics offer storage of your tires. They ensure the tires are in a dry, cool place and are kept in good condition.
Do You Need Winter Tires Even if You Have AWD?
All-wheel drive doesn’t give your car super powers to overcome physics. Even cars with all-wheel drive should have winter tires. Sure, all-wheel drive systems might help provide some stability and control in slippery conditions, but there’s no way all-wheel drive will help when you need to stop or brake. Winter tires provide the friction to do that.
Going up or down a snowy hill, even with an all-wheel-drive system, can still prove to be dangerous. A set of winter tires provides the grip necessary to drive safely in any situation involving snow and ice.
How do Winter Tires Work?
Winter tires are a completely different breed of rubber compared to all-season and performance tires. Winter tires use materials like silica, that are more pliable at frigid temperatures, which is critical. The tread of a tire needs to hug the road surface in order to provide maximum grip.
Beyond the unique compound, winter tires feature aggressive tread patterns and siping. Sipes are small slits and grooves that are cut or molded into the tread of the tire. Winter tires have much more of these than all-season tires because they increase the surface area, which improves the grip and biting edges of the rubber.
Winter tires also have knobbier and more aggressive tread, which helps with traction too. Snow grips to snow, and having a way to grip the snow while dispelling water improves grip.
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