Update: This blog post was originally published in November 2011. It was updated in October 2019 to include information most relevant to the 2019-2020 snow season.
The snow is starting to fall in parts of North America and full-on winter is right around the corner, so it is time to start thinking about all things icy: Do I need a new jacket? Where did I stash those goggles? Is it gonna be Utah, Colorado, Montana or B.C. this February? And of course, what kind of snow tires should I get?
How do you know if you need snow tires?
Snow tires or “winter tires” have special rubber compounds, tread designs, and biting edges that allow them to maintain grip under weather conditions in which standard tires don’t perform well. Snow tires are engineered to dig into snow and push water away from the contact surface. They’re meant to offer a range of conditions in which the tires retain grip, giving traction when regular tires would be sliding.
So if you live in an area with consistent snow, ice, or temperatures in the low 40s, snow tires are a good investment. If snowfall is few and far between, you’re probably better off with all-season tires. Popular Mechanics recommends winter tires if you live anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. And certainly, if you’re planning on several trips out to the mountains, it makes sense to find a reliable set of winter tires.
What are some guidelines for buying snow tires?
Buy a set of four. If you decide to buy snow tires, it’s important to get a full set of four instead of just two tires. Because tires are expensive, you might be tempted to install snow tires only on the axle of your vehicle that receives power. But the danger here is that the traction among your total four tires will mismatch and can negatively affect your car’s grip and steering. As a result, auto and consumer products experts such as Carfax, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, and Consumer Reports all unequivocally recommend that you buy the complete set to ensure safety, and to have the best grip and balanced handling.
Factor in the cost of installation. Carfax points out that it’s possible to find a great deal on snow tires online, but unless you’re a car expert, you’ll need to find a tire shop to install them for you. It might make more sense to buy a bundle of both the tires and installation at a local shop that you trust.
Learn about studded vs. non-studded. Studded tires have metal studs in the treads that are designed to bite into ice, which offer better grip than non-studded tires on icy roads. However, they’re very noisy on the pavement and even damage the roads. As a result, they’re banned or restricted in certain states. Studless tires have deeper treads that allow the tire to disperse snow and slush from under the tire, which means they may offer better traction on deep snow.
Look up laws by state. Be sure to look up the most recent requirements on winter tires where you live, and where you plan to drive to most. For instance, the state of Colorado has a new traction law that requires tires have a minimum of three-sixteenths inch tread. Previously, it was required for traction to be an eighth of an inch.
Buy the right size for your car. Winter tires come in various shapes and sizes to fit all vehicles – a range of makes, models and years, whether you have a sedan or SUV, and whether you have two-wheel, four-wheel or all-wheel drive. Consider using an online selection tool, such as this tool from Tire Rack, to get a sense of what you should be looking for.
What are the top 5 snow tires right now?
We scoured buyer’s guides published in 2019 across a number of known and trusted sources, including: Car and Drive, Autoguide, Gear Patrol, Tire Reviews and More, Car Bibles, The Drive, and Wheels.ca.
We read through the reviews and came up with the below list – based on multiple recommendations and various price points.
- Price: WS90 starting at $88.99
- Bridgestone Blizzak tires were the most recommended tires across all the buyer’s guides we looked at. Both great tires that have extra biting edges, the WS90 are the newest (2019) version of the WS80 tires. Wheels.ca notes that the new WS90 tires’ tread blocks are more integrated with each other than the previous WS80 generation, and the shoulder blocks have extra traction. Made of a unique NanoPro-Tech Multicell hydrophilic compound, Bridgestone Blizzak tires have improved traction on wet and snowy roads, and the grooves expel water away from the tire footprint.
- Price: Starting at $99
- These are Michelin’s third-generation studless ice and snow tires and are Gear Patrol’s pick for best high-mileage winter tire. Depending on how aggressively you drive, they’ll last multiple seasons and produce minimal noise even on dry roads.
- Price: Starting at $104.99 (via TireRack.com, assuming this is for a midsize sedan)
- These are among the most versatile, as Continental VikingContact tires are available in various sizes from 15-inch to 20-inch, good for compact cars, SUVs, and larger crossovers. They’re also made with a specialized rubber compound containing canola oil which helps the tires stay more flexible in extreme cold.
- Price: Starting at $101.39 (via TireRack.com, assuming this is for a midsize sedan)
- As the newest generation of Yokohama’s iceGUARD line, these are the successor to the IceGUARD iG52c. They have improved water-evacuating abilities with additional circumferential grooves and siping, and the highly absorptive tread prevents micro-hydroplaning by removing the water layer from the tire surface area. They also offer a quieter ride.
- Price: Starting at $74
- For those who are especially value or budget conscious, the Dunlop Winter Maxx tires are a solid pick. Now in their second generation, these tires’ asymmetric tread pattern make them effective on slush, snow and ice.
Be safe out there, and let us know your favorite winter tires in the comments below!