Snow Tires Are a Real Thing, and They’ll Beat the Pants off All-Wheel Drive Any Day

They might be expensive, but winter tires are worth it if you care about traction (which you should).

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If the modern automobile had a status on Facebook, it would undoubtedly be “It’s complicated.” With their computer-controlled fuel-injection systems, continuously variable transmissions and three-phase four-pole AC induction motors, the days when every Tom, Dick or Harry could wrench on their ride seem long gone. So let us help — especially with the seemingly mundane stuff that if not done properly, your dad and/or his favorite mechanic vowed would ruin your car forever. Because when it comes to cars — and this column — no question is too dumb.

I’ve been going through life believing that all I needed was an all-wheel drive car to traverse in snow safely, maybe with some tire chains thrown in when it’s really bad. But a friend mentioned that I might want to invest in some “snow tires” recently, and I thought he was kidding, like when he told me I needed “blinker fluid.” Was he kidding? Are snow tires even a thing?
Are snow tires a thing? ARE SNOW TIRES EVEN A THING?!?! Whoa, buddy, let me tell ya, snow tires are absolutely, definitely a thing. Not only do a set of snow tires, a.k.a. winter tires, beat the pants off of all-wheel drive performance in just about every type of condition you’re likely to see during winter, they’re markedly less of a pain in the butt than tire chains.

Snow tires, as you might guess, are tires specifically designed for use in winter weather. They’re typically formulated for operation in very cold temperatures and are armed with a tread pattern optimized to increase traction in the snow thanks to deeper, wider grooves and sipes. Often times, the rubber compound used to make snow tires is treated to be hydrophilic — as opposed to hydrophobic — which can increase traction in warm, wet snow. Sometimes, snow tires even come with metal studs built directly into the tread pattern, boosting their grip even further.

Unless you live in the extreme north, though, the tires that come with your car or SUV are probably not snow tires. Likely they’re what’s referred to as “summer tires,” or performance tires, and what they’re good at is operating on hot pavement, or in the rain. Even all-season tires which, theoretically, are supposed to be good for “all seasons,” don’t match up — they may be serviceable in mild winter/heavy rain conditions thanks to their deeper grooves, but they generally lack the heavy siping and cold-weather rubber that’s on their hardier brethren.

Then there’s the all-wheel drive factor. A lot of times, people driving in the snow will think they’re good-to-go with regular tires and just all-wheel drive, or four-wheel drive backing them up. But that’s a mistake, because it ignores one simple fact: Traction, i.e., the adhesive friction of a body on a surface on which it moves (thanks, Merriam-Webster), is what makes your car or truck go; on the opposite side of the spectrum, a lack of traction is what’ll get you in trouble in the snow. Tires, of course, are what determines traction. All-wheel drive (or four-wheel drive) merely determines how efficiently that traction is applied. Which is why, as you’ll see in this video, a two-wheel drive car in winter tires can outperform a four-wheel drive car in summer tires.

So the more important question than which is better, snow tires or all-wheel drive, is whether buying a set of snow tires is a smarter investment than, say, just getting some tire chains. A good set of snow tires might run you between $200 and $300 a tire, and while you can always remove them and go back to your summer tires once winter is over, maybe you live in warmer climates and don’t get up to the mountains enough to warrant the investment.

Then again, what’s a little money compared to being the guy on the side of the road, kneeling in dirty snow trying to get off his tire chains at the end of a long ski weekend, or worse, skidded off into a ditch.