Every pro driver will tell you a car is only as good as its tires. You can go out of your way to get a car with the best handling and the most intelligent all-wheel-drive system on the market, but if you can’t put the power down with proper traction, all those millions of dollars spent in R&D are worth precisely nil.
Winter tires are impressive feats of engineering: water, slush, snow and salt are controlled and pumped out from underneath via intricate channels between treads while the soft rubber composition molds to and grips the road surface, despite low temperatures. That’s why winter tires look so much more extreme in design than summer or all-season tires. Where a summer tire’s near-slick surface would simply aquaplane, the tread on a winter tire shovels and pumps water out of the way while gripping firmly to keep you going in the right direction. They are the right tools for the job; for cars that tackle winter weather, they are the most necessary upgrade.
Note: Tire prices can vary depending on the size of the tire, and in some cases only select tire sizes are available for certain cars.
Buying Guide: The Best Winter Tires
The winter tire market is a vast one, and picking the right tires for your vehicle can seem to be the hardest part — but it can actually be quite simple. Woody Rogers, tire information specialist at Tire Rack, explains: “Think about the worst conditions you’ll encounter and how often that will happen. Prioritize your needs and wants, including snow and ice traction, clear road handling and driving fun.”
There’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars on super high-performance tires if all you’re doing is commuting in the family sedan or truck. Likewise, if you’re looking to do winter autocross or you have a high horsepower sports car, specially-designed performance rubber may be what you want.
Standard Winter Tires
These are the tires most buyers need: good for commuting, driving around town and sticking to paved and plowed roads.
Best All-Around Winter Tires: Bridgestone Blizzak WS90
When it comes to balancing price and performance, Blizzaks are legendary. The unique NanoPro-Tech Multicell hydrophilic compound wicks water off the road while microscopic bite particles, blended into the rubber dig into icy surfaces.
Most Environmentally Friendly Winter Tires: Yokohama BluEarth Winter V905
Not only does the Yokohama BluEarth Winter V905 fall closer to the performance end of the spectrum, but its high silica rubber and orange oil-infused compound make it environmentally responsible. The surface tread pattern works to help funnel water and slush away in wet conditions. But the tread you can’t see — the tread in between the blocks — works to grip snow and also maintain its block rigidity despite a softer rubber makeup.
Most Versatile Winter Tires: Continental VikingContact 7
The Continental VikingContact 7 comes in a massive variety of sizes, from ones made for 15-inch rims to rubber fit for 20-inch wheels. That means this tire is good for everything from compact cars to giant crossovers.
Longest-Lasting Winter Tires: Michelin X-Ice Snow
Michelin's X-Ice Snow is the successor to the X-Ice Xi2 and X-Ice Xi3 tire. It uses Michelin's "Flex-Ice 2.0" tread compound which has micro-roughness on the surface for better snow and ice grip. Its silica-based compound allows the tire the flexibility to still provide traction in low temperatures.
The New Winter Tire Option: Goodyear WinterCommand Ultra
Goodyear's newest winter tire is the WinterCommand Ultra. This tire features a V-tread pattern with hydro dynamic grooves designed to expel water, slush and snow from the tire's contact patch for better traction. Designed for cars, minivans, crossovers and SUVs, the WinterCommand Ultra qualifies for the Three Peak Mountain Snowflake symbol (see below).
Trucks are, generally, designed to optimize traction; they generally do well with more aggressive, specifically designed rubber.
Best All-Around Winter Truck Tire: Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2
Much like the standard Blizzak is a fantastic all-around tire for coupes and sedans, the DM-V2 carries that reputation over into the truck universe. The same hydrophilic, multi-cell compound and aggressive siping design pumps away slush and holds on to snow for more grip on ice, but with a size designed for pickups, crossovers and SUVs.
Best Performance Winter Truck Tire: Pirelli Scorpion Winter
The Pirelli Scorpion Winter is designed as a great cold-weather tire, first and foremost. Performance on snow and ice is its main objective, thanks to rubber packing a new polymer blend and more silica than its predecessors for improved grip in winter. It may not have studs, but it should have your back even if you find yourself in winter conditions that are really getting out of hand.
Best Budget Truck Tire: Firestone Winterforce 2 UV
Firestone’s Winterstone UV is made to help everything from minivans and crossovers to burly body-on-frame SUVs and trucks handle the slop and snow. So do the other tires on here, of course — but this Firestone does so at a price that’s easy on your wallet.
Winter Performance Tires
Sports cars can definitely tackle winter conditions, so long as your skills are sharp and you take care to clean the salt off your ride as often as possible.
Best Winter Performance Tire: Michelin Pilot Alpin 5
Just because the skies aren’t blue and road conditions aren’t ideal for high-horsepower performance cars, it doesn’t mean your sports car has to stay hidden all winter. The Pilot Alpin 5 is the winter equivalent of Michelin’s remarkable Sport Cup 2 summer tires. They’re designed to give high-end sports cars the grip they need even when the temperatures dip and the roads are miserable.
The Premium High-Performance Winter Tire Option: Pirelli P Zero Winter
Pirelli manufactures the tires for Formula 1. The P Zero Winter is their snow tire alternative to their high-performance P Zero summer tires — if you still want to daily drive your sports car in the less clement months. The P Zero Winter tires use a brickwork pattern siping that creates more biting edges for better stability.
Best Budget Winter Performance Tire: Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3
If you’re looking for pure performance but don’t see the need to spend too much money, the Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 is your tire. The third generation of this Italian winter tire offers great grip for your fast ride in cold weather, allowing you to have fun all year long — without spending too much on your tires.
Best Performance SUV Tire: Michelin Pilot Alpin 5 SUV
Now that manufacturers are building more and more street performance-oriented SUVs and crossovers — and the public is buying them up — there’s more demand for a specialized winter tire that can keep up with those fast high-riders. The Michelin Pilot Alpin 5 SUV brings together the best aspects of performance winter tires and also meets the demands an SUV or truck asks of its tires.
Winter Tire Buying Advice
Understanding Winter Tire Design
All tires are not created equal, and the same goes for the winter tires subset. The most basic categories winter tires fall into are Studless Ice and Snow, Studdable and Performance. From there, things get more specific depending on vehicle type: passenger cars, trucks and SUVs.
Studless tires have incredibly complex tread design, specifically meant to pump standing water away from the tread. In addition, those designs also grip and hold onto packable snow and ice with super soft rubber and intricate, multi-layered tread-block patterns in order to — counterintuitively, perhaps — provide more traction.
Studdable tires are, compared to their studless cousins, less extreme in design with regards to the tread but are outfitted to accept metal studs. Studdable tires greatly improve traction on ice, but as Rogers points out, “they come with a trade-off in the form of noisy clear-road driving, damage to bare road surfaces and are of no benefit when driving on snow. Many states restrict or ban the use of studded tires.” So quite often, studdable tires never see their full potential.
Performance winter tires focus more on clear road handling than on actual snow and ice. Even though you may never see snow or ice, winter tires are still recommended for cold weather and low temperatures because of their softer rubber compound which grips the road surface despite the much lower temperatures. This focus lets the driver get more use out of their sports car’s performance.
Winter Tire Terms to Know:
Tread blocks – Tread blocks refer to the larger sections of rubber that give the tire’s pattern its overall design. Depending on how they are arranged and angled can affect a tires efficiency to pump away water and grip road surfaces.
Siping – Invented by John F. Sipe in 1923, siping is the process of cutting thin grooves across a tires tread blocks to increase grip in wet and wintery conditions. The tactic makes the rubber tread blocks more pliable and flexible and better at gripping snow, cold asphalt and pumping away water mitigating hydroplaning. (You’ve also seen siping on the bottom of Sperry boat shoes.)
Compound – The compound of the tire refers to the mixture of ingredients in the rubber of the tire itself. Modern winter tires have a higher silica content than say an all-season or summer tire because it allows the winter tire to stay softer at lower temperatures, stay malleable and grip the road better.
Pro Tip: Look for the Three Peak Mountain Snowflake (3PMSF) symbol. The 3PMSF symbol confirms the tire meets a minimum requirement for acceleration and traction on snow in conditions considered severe by the weather service. All dedicated winter tires will have the symbol. But be aware that a small but growing number of all-season tires also have this mark.