Choosing the Right Winter Tires for Snow and Ice: A Quick Guide
For many people, wintry drives are a fact of life. Here’s how to make them less of a pain.
Most people don't enjoy driving on snowy and icy conditions. While this statement isn't remotely surprising, there is something folks can do to help ease the anxiety associated with winter driving—which, to me, means more energy and time that can be devoted to actual enjoying the season—in the form of winter tires. Allow me to provide quick guidance on the right winter tires for your situation, broken down into three scenarios that should capture the vast majority of snow and ice-driving needs.
You Want Ultimate Winter Grip
If you live in the far north where winter is properly nasty and the roads are regularly covered in hard-packed snow and ice, a studded tire is your best bet. Just keep in mind they'll add road noise, as well as can possibly damage bare pavement (which is why many U.S. states bar their use). But if this is you, my favorite studded tire is the Nokia Hakkapeliita 9. It is fitted with two different types of studs, improving winter traction. It's also relatively quiet for a studded tire and has low rolling resistance, helping fuel economy. And the name of this Finnish tire is cool.
If you can't legally run studs or your usual winter conditions don't warrant them, studless winter tires are the best option. The most well-known example in this category is likely the Bridgestone Blizzak. But many other companies offer direct competitors. Michelin's X-Ice Xi3 has been out for many years but remains an excellent option due to it being quiet and solid in tamer conditions while still offering good extreme-weather traction. But my favorite option for those looking for the ultimate non-studded winter grip is the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R3. Launched in 2018, it replaced the already impressive Hakkapeliitta R2. I currently run a set of Hakkapeliitta R3 tires on my family's 2018 BMW 330i xDrive wagon. It offers even better winter grip than the Hakkapeliitta R2 but is quieter and much more at home on dry and wet roads compared to its predecessor. There's also a new Blizzak called the WS90. I have yet to test this studless tire but on paper it looks to offer welcome improvements over the Blizzak WS80. And there's the new Continental VikingContact 7 to consider; it's receiving good reviews in Europe.
You Want to Run Your Sporty Car in the Winter
First, you're smart. The lower center of gravity along with the handling precision of a performance automobile equals huge fun in the snow. Plus, a performance winter tire means you don't give up as much wet grip and steering precision compared to the extreme-condition winter tires noted above. But this more European-oriented winter-tire segment does generally lack a certain level of deep snow and ice grip, and limited appeal in the U.S. means available sizes can be limited and the latest versions can sometimes be delayed. I currently run the excellent Dunlop SP Winter Sport 4D on my 2017 Toyota 86. It's a tire that's been on the market for nearly 10 years. Dunlop launched the successor—the Winter Sport 5—in 2016 but Americans only get an SUV version of that tire, and only in one size. Continental also has some amazing tires in this segment, but the sizing and product offerings are extremely limited in the U.S. For instance, their latest WinterContact TS 850 P is one of the best performance winter tires around, but it's not offered in the States. In addition, I'm a big fan of the Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4, which—luckily—is readily available in North America. There are also a load of original equipment (OE) versions of performance winter tires from various companies. This is particularly the case with Porsche. Getting winter tires straight from the manufacturer is generally a good option if you own a model that few other drivers might use in the snow and ice.
You Want Improved Winter Grip but Hate Swapping Tires
I don't blame you. Going to your dealer or tire shop twice a year can be a pain. Fortunately, there are some good tire options out there for year-round use. Just keep in mind that entries in the relatively new category of "all-weather tires" generally do not offer the snow and ice grip of proper winter rubber of any variety. They will, however, generally offer better cold and slippery performance than a conventional all-season tire and are a good option for those who live where winter isn't as severe. My favorite is the Nokian WR G4. You can read all about my experience with that all-weather here, but the key points are that the WR G4 is a European performance winter tire adapted for year-round use, and that it offers near-winter-tire levels of snow traction. Most all-weather tires in the U.S. take a different approach—they're all-season tires adapted for increased winter grip. Another all-weather tire that I have some experience with is the Vredestein Quatrac 5. My father installed a set on his Ford Escape and the additional winter grip over the OE Continental all-season tires is impressive. There's also the Michelin CrossClimate+ to think about, although it's quite a European-focused tire and sizing is somewhat limited in America. Goodyear also offers the Assurance WeatherReady but I have yet to test that winter-rated all-season touring tire.
Overall, it's important to take the time to think about the type of vehicle you drive, how you'll be driving that vehicle, and what winter conditions you'll be experiencing when it comes time to pick the best tire for your needs. No matter what, though, running a typical all-season tire all year won't provide the peace of mind swapping to a set of winter-oriented tires will.