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Many of you who live in mountain towns full time and easily get 50-100 days of skiing are probably rolling your eyes at the headline on this story. “Duh,” you’re saying to yourselves. “Winter tires are old news. They make a difference. Invest and stop fretting about it.”
All the tests say you’re right. Tires made specifically for winter driving like the Blizzak make a significant difference, thanks to key design features. The unique rubber used in winter tires stays softer when temps drop. That soft tire can better conform to the road, and conformity creates grip.
Second, the tread on many winter tires is slightly porous. Tiny pores in the tread help temporarily absorb and shed the water that can gather on icy roads, thanks to the friction your tires create. By moving that water away, winter tires can make contact with the ice and create better traction. Wes Siler over at Outside put it best when comparing this technology to a wool baselayer moving moisture off your body so you can stay regulated.
Finally, most winter tires come with lots of siping or slits in the tread, and those slits can “bite” onto the ice and snow as your tire rolls through, adding even more traction.
A good set of winter tires cost between $500-$1,000, and mountain residents are willing to invest in return for the added traction. But once the temps warm up, most folks swap out their winter tires for a summer pair because the softer rubber on winter tires wears out quickly if you drive them when it’s not cold.
If you’re up in Aspen or Jackson Hole this winter, you’ll hear the familiar clicking sound of cars with studded tires rolling around town. Studded tires are an old-school favorite and provide a better grip on ice. But a Washington State study found that studded tires were inferior to regular winter tires when it came to traction and braking on packed snow, and they make your driving experience worse on pavement that doesn’t have ice or snow.
In case you’ve seen it, many tires also come with the three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) symbol, which means they’ve been tested to perform better in the snow. But not all tires that get the symbol are the same. The easiest way to think about it is to remember that winter tires will perform the best, and all-season or all-terrain tires with the 3PMSF symbol will do somewhat better than tires that don’t get the symbol, but not as well as genuine winter tires.
Okay, so what about the rest of us who don’t live in a mountain town? The weekend warriors? The Christmas-breakers? Those who get 25 days of skiing each year? If you drive to skill hill most weekends, winter tires are not a bad investment. You’ll have to make a tire swap in the fall and spring, but that’s a minor annoyance for excellent traction.
If you don’t want to make a tire swap, or you’re only going to the ski hill a couple of times each year, there are still options. Michelin makes a tire called the CrossClimate+ that’s rated for all four seasons and has good reviews on the pavement and in the snow and ice. I have a pair on my Toyota Siena that I’m excited to test this season. Siler over at Outside also likes the Cooper Discoverer A/TW because those tires have an all-terrain build but are fitted with winter rubber.