My brother lives in the mountains of Colorado, and with winter bearing down, he asked me if he should get an all-wheel-drive vehicle or just buy snow tires for his current car.
Good question. When I was a kid growing up in New England, snow tires had deep tread and sometimes steel studs that made a racket on dry pavement. But I suspected that tires had changed enormously, like so many things in the automotive world. So I called a few tire experts to find out.
Not your father’s snow tires
For starters, I learned that snow tires are now “winter tires,” so-named because they are designed to handle not just snow, but also ice and extremely low temperatures. The old waffle-like grooves have been replaced with sophisticated tread patterns that include small slits, called “sipes,” to better provide traction.
“Winter tires have just gotten a whole lot better,” says Woody Rogers, product information officer from Tire Rack, which tests and sells tires online. He adds that in winter driving, drivers need tires to grip on slush, black ice and snow-packed intersections. “That’s where winter tires can make a big difference.”
Winter tires are made of a compound that remains soft and pliable even in extremely low temperatures, says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for car site Edmunds.com (no relation). So even on dry pavement that’s very cold, winter tires will grip better than all-season or summer tires.
Gene Petersen, tire program manager for Consumer Reports, says his testing has shown that winter tires can cut braking distances in half when stopping from 60 mph, compared with all-season tires. “If you’re looking for the best advantage and peace of mind, if you must be out driving, then get winter tires for your vehicle,” Petersen says.
False sense of security
All-wheel-drive vehicles — which provide power to all four wheels, not just two — are a knee-jerk choice for many car owners in the frozen north, even though the option typically adds $1,500 to $3,000 to the vehicle’s cost, according to Autotrader. The main advantage of all-wheel drive is that if one wheel begins to slip — perhaps because it’s on ice — the other wheels provide power.
But Petersen thinks all-wheel drive might give drivers a false sense of security and encourage them to drive beyond the safe limits of the vehicle. And, once the car is in motion, all-wheel drive doesn’t improve handling or braking.
In fact, Edmunds believes that if the driver feels the wheels spinning, it reminds them how slippery the conditions are and they will, hopefully, drive slower.
Tire choice is essential
Whether you decide to buy winter tires or drive on all-seasons year-round, it’s still important to get the right tires for your car. Edmunds.com and Consumer Reports have performed extensive tire testing to help you decide what’s right for your car.
Some experts recommend getting a narrower size for winter tires so they can slice through the snow. But Petersen says most car owners will want to keep it simple and go for the size recommended by the sticker in the car’s door jamb.
Rogers points out that at Tire Rack, you can still get advice from a human being at its call center to help with winter tire selection. Or you can use its decision guide to find the tires that fit your driving profile. Experts recommend installing winter tires on all four wheels.
Seasonal change hassles
Buying winter tires and having a tire store mount and balance them on your wheels each year is a time-consuming, expensive hassle.
Edmunds recommends buying an extra set of wheels just for your winter tires. Then, you can jack up the car and change them yourself before the snow flies. Basic steel wheels for a compact sedan are about $95 each.
If you buy wheels with the tires already mounted and balanced, you will also avoid the $80 typically charged by a tire store. This cost savings will pay for buying the extra wheels after about three years, Rogers estimates.
So, AWD or snow tires?
There are still trade-offs to consider in trying to answer my brother’s question. Here are a few more advantages offered by all-wheel-drive vehicles:
- You’ll get waved through checkpoints in mountain passes where authorities are requiring other cars to put on chains.
- Deep snow and steep inclines are less likely to stop you.
- This feature adds to the vehicle’s resale value in some areas.
But all-wheel drive has some limitations and disadvantages:
- The increased complexity makes repairs more expensive.
- It adds weight to the vehicle and can decrease fuel economy.
- Braking distances and cornering are the same as with two-wheel-drive cars.
So it almost seems as if the tire choice is as important as deciding whether to get an all-wheel-drive vehicle. Edmunds suggests making the much smaller investment of a new set of wheels and tires — rather than a whole new vehicle — and driving on this setup for a winter season.
In fact, that’s exactly what my brother decided to do.
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Philip Reed is a writer at NerdWallet.