Summer tires, winter tires, all-season tires; what’s the difference? We break down how to get maximum traction, and which are the best tires for the season.
When it comes to tires, the habit among most drivers is to just aim for the middle in the form of all-season tires and call it good. For all you in warmer climates, this might be a viable option. But if your annual driving conditions go from baking summer asphalt to snowdrifts blocking the roadway, know this, you’re not going to be best equipped to best handle those extreme conditions with all-season tires.
So then, how and why do tires differ?
Summer tires feature a softer compound that provides greater grip on the road surface. They will often have grooves to wick away water and prevent hydroplaning thereby maintaining traction on wet roads. Instead of thick treads, they favor a more even, smooth surface optimizing rubber to road contact. You’ll probably want to consider summer tires if you own a performance car where responsive handling is desired. Summer tires are formulated to perform best between 50° and 100°.
If you live in a dry region that doesn’t get very cold, it’s best to stick with summer tires. Their wet road handling in particular is a significant attribute in their favor over all-season tires.
What we used to call snow tires aren’t just for snowy days. Winter tires compound is specially designed to maintain softness and grip at typically 50° and below, and therefore perform better at low temperatures than summer or all-season varieties. Their thick, gnarly treads provide maximal traction on snowy surfaces.
They also typically have what are called sipes. Those are the small slits or zigzags that you’ll see in the tread. In addition to maximizing grip, these sipes accumulate bits of snow and this snowpack creates snow-on-snow friction and therefore better traction.
And in case you were wondering, studs in your winter tires are probably not necessary. Often, studded tires create an uncomfortable ride, and they may be illegal in your area anyway as they chew up road surfaces. So, unless you’re living in excessively hilly country that also sees a lot of snow, you can safely skip the studs.
Winter tires may double your upfront cost but will save you in the long run. First, by switching between sets of tires, you’ll only be wearing each set down half as much. Second, the improvement in traction and control gives you a better chance of avoiding an accident.
If you spend months at a time driving on snowy roads or in sub-freezing temps, you’re better off opting into some winter tires for the season. The benefits of increased traction (and therefore shorter stopping distances) can be a real difference maker. Plus, the cold temperature optimized compound means they are less brittle when the mercury dips and therefore less likely to blowout. And really, where is it worse to get a flat than on a cold and lonely winter road?
All-season tires are the compromise between summer and winter tires. They give up some of the wet and dry traction properties of summer tires and at the same time, they don’t have the same traction on snow that winter tires do. In fact, outside of truly wintery weather, summer tires beat out all-season tires on every metric. Your typical all-season tire is designed to perform at lower temperatures than summer tires but still not at the sub-freezing temps that winter tires can handle.
Unlike winter tires that must meet specific requirements to attain that title, all-season tires do not have a hard-and-fast definition. Some are better in snowy conditions than others. Some are better on dry pavement or wet pavement. It’s important to ask what the properties of an all-season tire are in order to know where potential trade-offs in performance lie.
So if you’re living somewhere that sees a good amount of time in between seasonal extremes, this is where an all-season may make sense. The compromises can be worth it when you’re unsure whether pavement will be dry or snow-packed come morning. With that said, once winter has truly settled in, it’s probably recommended to go with the winter tires.
Specially designed for performance vehicles, performance all-season tires provide better cornering and grip than summer tires in those weeks of semi-frozen, slushy roads found in the spring and fall.
All-terrain tires are designed for taking the road-less-traveled. With deep treads, these tires can tackle all sorts of rough roads and adverse conditions. Look for either the “M+S” for mud and snow or the “M+T” for mud and terrain.
* (Note: these are general assessments and tires within each category can differ widely depending on their intended focus and properties.)
These usually come equipped with summer tires to provide the best traction and handling in warm weather. If your area of the country gets snow over the winter, it’s highly recommended that you change your tires with the season.
The forward weight distribution coupled with traction from the rear of the vehicle really calls for dedicated winter tires. That is, unless you’re super into “snow drifting,” right into parked cars.
If you’re getting winter tires, you’re going to need to know how to best store that extra set.
One of the first things to decide on is whether you’re going to spring for the extra set of wheels in addition to the tires themselves. The extra wheels mean you can potentially take off and replace the wheels and tires yourself. This will save you the cost of having a mechanic do it.
Where to store your tires is another consideration. For those in apartments where space is at a premium, this could end up a deciding factor in the debate between all-season and winter tires. Even those with a house and storage or a garage may have trouble finding room. Some mechanics and dealers have started offering storage for tires.
But, if you do find the space, remember these tips, as improper storage can lead to degradation of tire compound.
When to break out your summer or winter tires should be determined by the average temperatures. Once it’s getting below or above 50° (depending on the season) on a consistent basis, it’s time to switch.
Also, in case you were hoping to get away with buying just two winter tires for your front-wheel drive vehicle. Don’t. The difference in traction between your front and back tires can make your handling worse than if you hadn’t changed tires at all.
Convinced you need season specific tires? Let us know what vehicle you’ll be buying new tires for in the comments section.