What is a snow tire and how is it different from all season?
Let’s start by clarifying a couple of terms that might be confusing to some readers. The average person at a tire shop seems terminology like “All Season”, “Performance”, or “Summer”. This particular range might indicate to some that “All Season” tires are snow tires. While All season tires have the potential to be driven safely in snow, they are designed for a decent experience in most kinds of weather from a dry summer day to the occasional rainstorm and even snow. This literally means that they are good at everything, but probably not “Great” at any one thing - and most drivers rely on them to provide comfortable performance year-round - and that’s fine.
Snow tires are different
All season tires aren’t snow tires. Snow tires have a different design to make them better equipped to drive through snow and on ice with fewer chances of slipping or sliding. So, you might be wondering why?
Different kinds of rubber
Tire manufacturers use rubber that attempts to provide the same driving experience across weather that ranges from the high temperatures of the Texas sun down to low Minnesota overnights of -40. Snow tires offer a rubber compound that stays soft and flexible at very low temperatures so that the tire grips pavement, asphalt - or even just snow when it’s cold enough that you want that heater on full blast. All weather tires can get stiff and not offer a comfortable or particularly confident ride in very cold, snowy weather. Check out a video from Tire Rack’s Facebook here about tire compounds.
Tread patterns & depth
When looking at any tire, you’ll notice lots of lines often symmetrical geometric shapes that make up a tread pattern. These patterns are designed to grip the road with biting edges. Snow tires add a more aggressive tread with many more biting edges that gather then push out snow as you are driving. For the best performance, you’ll want to efficiently move some snow instead of floating on it.
How do snow tires handle ice?
Now that we know a little more about what makes snow tires different from regular tires, we can explore the actual difference they make when driving on ice. Our friends at TireRack test tires on a regular basis, and are big advocates for snow tires. How do they test a snow tire on ice? By making vehicles drive through ice to get onto an ice rink. While there’s little traffic on an ice rink, they can quickly learn how well vehicles stop and corner in the worst of conditions.
Here is TireRack’s test.
TireRack compared summer, all season, and winter tires. They quickly concluded that all season and summer tires needed to use the vehicle’s Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS) much more frequently to regain control of the vehicle on ice.
Summer tire test results
Not good. The summer tires - which are not designed for ice, took over 7 seconds to travel 60 feet and stop. We’re glad they weren’t measuring the 0-60 speed here. The test might still be going!
All season tire results
All season tires took a little less time to complete the short trip and employed ABS a bit less. 6.5 seconds is still pretty slow for 60 feet.
Winter tire test results
The grip of the winter tires helped them move more efficiently without much ABS use, and they completed the 60 feet into a dead spot in 4.5 seconds.
Overall test results
The summer and all season tires took at least twice as much distance to stop as the winter tires. The winter tires stopped in just over 20 feet. At 40 feet, even the all season tires did better than summer at 47. The winter tires also cornered significantly better around traffic cones while the summer and all season tires drifted out of their lines a bit- running over a few of the test cones which represented the curb.
Snow tire long term benefits
If you live in an area that gets snow a few times per year, you might both be interested in snow tires but shy away from the additional expense. Are snow tires worth the money? The reality is that snow tires have the potential to save you money.
While big differences in tire size prevent us from giving you an accurate range of how much snow tires will cost on your vehicle, we suggest you head over to TireRack to explore options. We can say this though:
Snow tires offer a potential lower long run cost
Driving an all season tire all winter will wear out the all season tire faster. While all season tires are weather rated, they can also be kept in the garage while you wait for spring to arrive.
Fewer accidents with snow tires
More control over your vehicle on ice and snow means less risk of an accident. While you can’t control the drivers around you, having the ability to stop sooner makes a visit to the collision center more preventable - and your insurance rates better.
A realistic word on black ice and freezing rain
While snow tires offer many benefits on snow and ice, there are unique situations that only caution can help you, including black ice. Black ice is a thin, almost transparent form of ice that causes problems for people on foot and driving in cars. Black ice most commonly forms as the result of slightly melting snow and just below freezing temperatures and is explained in more detail by the Weather Channel. The worst part of black ice is that you often don’t see it coming - and many multiple car crashes have happened when cars slid on black ice because they couldn’t stop.
Freezing rain is a different story, especially in places less equipped to get ice-removing equipment on the road. Drivers often find freezing rain much easier to detect because it’s often quite visible on the road and windshield.
We offer these scenarios to say that even with snow tires, you should use caution when driving on snow and ice. Drive for the conditions, still leave plenty of braking distance ahead of you, and work with the flow of traffic. Be the safest driver your tires have enabled you to be.
About The Author
I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.Read More About Charles Redding