Not all tires are made equal. Some offer incredible grip in dry conditions while others excel in the wet. With winter on the horizon, you might be thinking about how well your current all-season tires might perform in cold weather. You've heard about winter tires, but aren't sure what they offer and whether they really earn their keep in the snow.

Below, you'll find out the differences between all-season tires and winter tires.

All Season Tires

Think of all seasons as the Everyman of tires. True to their name, these tires are designed with year-round performance in mind. They offer good performance in the wet and dry, along with excellent tread life, minimal road noise, and impressive ride quality. It's no wonder that the overwhelming majority of vehicles sold today come from the factory equipped with all-season tires.

All-season tires may be Jacks of All Trades, but they rarely master any one task. Here's where they tend to fall short:

  • All-season rubber lacks the tenacious grip offered by a softer, stickier summer compound. That means summer tires will always out-handle all seasons in the twisties while offering better steering precision. Cars with all-season tires will also have longer stopping distances on dry roads than cars shod with summer rubber.
  • All-season tires also flounder when things turn chilly. The underlying tread compound lacks the pliability and resistance to cold weather found in winter tread. Combine that with tread patterns optimized for wet and dry roads, and you have a tire that struggles when faced with below-freezing temperatures as well as deep snow and ice.

In short, all-season tires work well in all but the most severe of driving conditions. They even offer decent traction in light snow and sleet. However, all seasons struggle with deep snow, ice, and cold weather.

Winter Tires

As their name implies, winter tires are designed specifically for prolonged winter conditions. Winter tires are a mainstay in areas that regularly see snow, ice, and slush. Some even feature small metal studs embedded within the tire to create more grip on icy roads.

Here's what makes winter tires so special:

  • Every tire has sipes or cuts in the tread that basically squeeze the water off the road surface below for more traction. Winter tires have more of these sipes, plus they're cut in a sawtooth pattern to better squeeze snow and slush off the road surface.
  • Winter tires also have deeper tread that lets it channel more snow and slush out of the tire. This gives winter tires more grip on snow-covered surfaces than the shallower tread found on all-season tires.
  • Finally, winter tires feature a softer, more pliable rubber compound than what you'd find on all-season tires. This compound is also designed to withstand freezing temperatures, giving these tires more grip and control under harsh winter conditions than all-season tires.

Unlike all seasons, winter tires usually aren't covered by mileage-specific tread life warranties. Most manufacturers instead opt for warranties that cover manufacturing defects and other workmanship and material issues. The few that do have mileage-specific warranties cover significantly less mileage than all-season tires.

Which Tire Works Best?

It doesn't hurt to have a set of winter tires, especially if you do a lot of driving in areas where snowfall happens regularly. However, you wouldn't want to drive on them all year long, since doing so only makes them wear out faster. Driving on winter tires in dry conditions can also take a small, but noticeable bite out of your car's fuel economy.

Even with winter tires, you'll want to keep a good set of tire chains on hand. It sounds like overkill, but tire chains can bite through deep snow that would make even the best winter tires struggle to gain traction. Some places also ban drivers from using studded winter tires, so tire chains are a good alternative if allowed.

For every other driving scenario, all-season tires reign supreme. They offer excellent year-round comfort and control, plus they're optimized for longer tread life.

In the end, the answer to the age-old question of "all-season tires vs. snow tires" depends on the road and weather conditions you normally deal with. It's up to you to decide if you want to switch between the two every winter or stick with all seasons year-round. Just make sure the choice you make is a safe one for you, your family, and others sharing the road with you.


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