Winter Tires: What Are They and our Top 8 Winter Tires for 2017

Winter Tires: What Are They and our Top 8 Winter Tires for 2017

Read this ultimate guide on everything winter tires

Is your vehicle winter ready? This is what you need to know about winter tires. Winter tires are designed to brave snow and ice. These tires feature a tread design with bigger gaps than normal tires, increasing traction on snow and ice. Typically, a winter tire is optimized to drive at temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Studded tires also fall into the winter tire category. Tire studs are metal or ceramic projections that improve grip on packed snow or ice.

Winter tires versus all season tires

It is important to remember that winter tires and snow tires are not the same things. In fact, manufacturers don't make snow tires anymore. The old snow tires had deep grooves for handling snow yet got hard when cold and couldn't handle ice. Thus, manufacturers moved to a new tire for all winter weather.

A winter tire is quite different from its relatives, the all-season and summer tires. If you have a standard vehicle from the factory, most likely you have all-season tires. These are versatile tires that offer a quiet ride, good tread life, and good fuel economy. These tires perform well in wet weather or light winter weather. While these all-season tires may work fine in many circumstances, they are not the best for winter driving. Even the best all-season tires are no match for more severe ice and snow. They lack the grip of a winter tire. Think of it like this, you can use a nine iron to hit a golf ball on every swing, but it’s not the right club for every shot; it will be either have too much power or not enough. The same is true with tires. Choosing the right tire for the job is critical.

All weather tires serve those who reside in moderate climates. However, if snow and ice are the norm for your driving conditions, it’s a good idea to consider winter tires. Should mobility be imperative to you in severe weather, winter tires are highly advised. Winter weather is unpredictable. Sleet can change to ice then to snow in a short period of time. Winter tires offer the traction and stability you need.

Winter tires have some specific attributes that allow them to perform better in inclement weather. How are winter tires different than all-season? They have three specific features: biting edges, tread rubber, and depth tread and patterns. 

  • Biting edges and high side densities describe the thousands of tiny slits in the tread, which provides additional traction on the ice. You could say it “bites” the ice.
  • Tread rubber can stiffen on a regular tire during extreme cold. This lessens the traction capability. The tread rubber of a winter tire remains flexible, maintaining grip integrity. The tires have a different rubber compound formula, allowing for it to be softer. This allows more flexibility than an all season or summer tire. The softer the tread of a winter tire, the faster it will wear out in warmer conditions.
  • Expect deep tread depth and unique tread patterns in a winter tire. These reduce the chance of snow building up and increases traction. The snow tire tread pattern channels snow and slush while expelling water.

Driving with winter tires in snow

Being safe is the most important thing when driving in winter weather. The best tips for winter driving revolve around understeering and oversteering.

Understeering occurs when the car won’t turn as much as needed. This happens often when driving in snow. Understeering is one of the most difficult parts of snow driving. You can reduce the chance of understeering by adjusting your speed. An understeer situation usually occurs when entering a corner too fast. Braking in a turn can also cause it. When driving a front wheel drive in the snow, understeer may be the result of excessive acceleration while cornering.

Remember to use only one control at a time in snow driving. When taking a corner, be off the brake and accelerator. Coast through the turn while using the grip for steering. Break on the straightaway before the curve rather than in the curve. After the turn, straighten the wheel and accelerate slowly.

These are best-laid plans, so what happens when they go wrong? If you begin to experience understeering, do not react by increasing the steering angle. Your tires have already lost grip. Doing this will only compound the situation. Hitting the brakes isn’t a good idea either. The front tires are already skidding; braking will only make it worse.

If your vehicle is skidding at this point, you’ll have to ride it out. Remain calm. Correcting an understeer is possible by lifting off the accelerator and remaining off the brake.

The car's weight will shift forward, loading the front tires. This works to improve grip. Then, you can decrease the steering angle. With better grip and a low speed, you should be able to correct and straighten up.

On the other side of the spectrum is oversteering, which is your car turning more than you’d like. It’s the rear tires that lose traction in a curve. The side force pulls the back of the car to the outside of the turn.

Oversteering occurs when your speed is too high in a corner. Sudden deceleration causes weight to transfer to the front impacting the grip of the rear tires. This can lead to a full spinout. Avoiding oversteering is best achieved by adjusting speed before a turn. You must anticipate anything can go wrong when driving I the snow.

If your vehicle is skidding or losing grip you can correct with a slight acceleration. This should shift the weight back to the rear wheels. Steer in the same direction as the rear end is sliding. Wait for the vehicle to respond to correcting. If you’re not careful, you can encounter a counter-skid.

With a rear-wheel drive vehicle, be sure that oversteering isn’t a reaction of wheel spin. If so, adjust the pressure of acceleration and mitigate the wheel spin. Of course, like many things, catching the oversteer early is easier. Keep in mind that balance and consistency are critical to snow driving.

Caring for winter tires

The key to winter tire maintenance is understanding that the tread designs are more vulnerable to irregular wear caused by a suspension misalignment. So pay attention to alignment adjustment settings. Aligning for winter tires is different than a standard tire. Use the vehicle’s preferred settings for winter tire alignment. If you keep winter tires on your vehicle, alignment should be checked twice a year and corrected as needed.

Winter tire air pressure is also an important maintenance factor. It’s essential to maintain proper air pressure in your winter tires. By keeping air pressure consistent, you’ll enjoy better handling, traction, and long-term durability. Check the vehicle manual for “cold” pressure settings.

Also, consider that every 10 degrees Fahrenheit change in the temperature your tire’s inflation pressure will change by 1 psi. That can certainly occur in many climates. Keep in mind that if you park in a garage and emerge into the cold, you’ll lose pressure. If this is your situation, add 1 psi pressure to compensate for every 10-degree difference. Finally, valve caps should stay on as moisture can freeze in the valve and allow air to escape.

When is the right time to change to winter tires?

You probably have a good idea as to what to expect in your climate. There is no magical time to switch to winter tires. The first snow of the year might not stick, but it’s a good indicator of when to change to winter tires. You’ll want to think about several factors. That first snow is the first one. Another is your travel plans. Will you be driving locally, or do you have trips planned? Before any long travel, it’s best to get your winter tires on for the season.

One general rule for changing from winter back to summer is when average daily temperatures reach 44.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Tires are made with different rubber compounds, so once the temperature is sustained, it’s best to make the switch.

AWD and 4WD systems

An all-wheel drive (AWD) gives power to all wheels. This is possible thanks to differentials in the axles that split the power between the front and back. Because all wheels get power, it’s easier to compensate if one slips. All-wheel is helpful with incline traction. 

Four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles are built to perform in severe off-roading. Most 4WD systems have both high and a low gear. 4WD typically has capabilities beyond the norm but are very popular in a variety of climates.

So, what's better for winter driving AWD or 4WD? Actually, the answer to this question is whichever has the winter tire. AWD and 4WD define how power is given to the wheels; not the tires. Adding winter tires to an all-wheel-drive increase the traction capabilities. There have been tests with the same vehicle and different tires, and winter tires prevailed. So don't become too comfortable in winter driving based on your wheels; enhance control and safety with proper winter tires.

Winter tire costs

The cost of winter tires can vary, depending on the brand and features. Winter tires are an investment. When considering buying winter tires, understand that the upfront costs are much easier to digest than what you may spend on an insurance deductible or car repair. Are winter tires worth it? The answer is most often yes. 

Finding the best winter tires

When you decide to buy snow tires, there four major considerations. The best snow tires have a strong grip, ride comfortably, are durable and have a good treadwear warranty. Before purchasing winter tires, determine if you need winter tires for long or short periods. Also, think about if you need studded snow tires. Most importantly, always buy four matching winter tires.

Buying early in the season can offer savings. Make sure to budget for installation. With Gridiron, we guarantee free shipping and competitive pricing. Some areas can even receive same day delivery.

Best Winter Tires: Our Recommendations

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Learn more about Gridiron Tire winter tire options to find the best winter tires for your vehicle.