How Are Snow Tires Different Than Regular Tires?

Audi's A6 quattro plays in the snow.

If you grew up in a snowy climate when rear-wheel drive cars were king, you remember the big-lugged snow tires that went on back of the family cruiser every winter.  The bias-ply beasts had all the visual appeal of farm tractor tires and handled about as well.  In-car conversations went up a notch just to be heard over the extra road noise they produced.  However, the payoff was noticeably better traction when the weather outside got frightful.

Today’s snow tires look better but still deliver superior traction where winter is more than just a season on the calendar.  Recent years have also expanded foul weather bouts to areas normally immune from the nastiness.  So whether you’re a snowbelt veteran or winter wonderland newcomer, it’s helpful to understand how snow tires are different than regular tires.

Construction.  Snow tires are engineered with special rubber compounds to perform their best at temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, at about the point non-winter tires lose pliability and traction.  Tread depths are greater and patterns different to enable the tires to “bite” the snow rather than nibble—or worse, skim across.

Appearance.  Unlike their unsightly predecessors, modern snow tires don’t shout ugliness from a block away.  At first glance, they appear no different than their fair-weather counterparts.  A closer look shows the aforementioned tread patterns unique to snow tires.

Another subtle visual difference can also be due to size.  It’s also recommended to run snow tires one size down from original equipment, using a dedicated set of smaller wheels.  Narrower tires require less effort to go through snow.  Taller sidewalls might not win aesthetic awards but absorb packed ice chunks and potholes nicely, reducing the chance of damage.  Numerous rim and wheel cover options allow you to maintain a near-OEM look.

Handling.  Whether your car is front-, rear- or all-wheel drive, a set of four (not two) snow tires deliver ideal handling in winter driving conditions.  On dry pavement in the cold, snow tires won’t feel stiff and give a false sense of slipperiness.  That said, you will notice that same flex in hard cornering.  In normal driving overall, anticipate a slightly more compliant feel, but nothing dramatic.

With snow and ice, snow tires really come into their own.  Control and traction are greatly improved over all-season tires.  Starts come with less spinning, stops with less skidding and turns find less understeer or oversteer. 

Prudence still rules, though.  It’s not meant to channel your inner rally-car driver, but you will be able to navigate with greater safety and stability.


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