It's obvious that when temperatures drop and winter weather arrives you'll need to put away your shorts and T-shirt and go for pants and a thick coat. But the decision to swap out your vehicle's all-season tires for winter tires isn't so clear-cut. Some drivers put too much faith in a single tire type to handle every temperature and surface condition, while others want to avoid the time and added expense of switching to a dedicated winter tire.
What is for certain is that a good winter tire will always outperform an all-season tire in snowy, icy conditions and be the safer alternative. Edmunds' experts explain the importance of winter tires and offer advice on when to use them and how much you should pay.
ALL-SEASON VERSUS WINTER TIRES
All-season tires, which come standard on most vehicles, are designed to function in a wide range of temperatures on a variety of surfaces. Think of the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" and you've got the idea for all-season tires. Winter tires, in contrast, are designed to offer optimal performance in cold, icy and snowy conditions.
According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, winter tires provide improved traction, braking, and handling in all cold-weather driving conditions compared to all-season tires. With 30% shorter stopping distances and less chance of sliding, winter tires reduce accident and injury potential compared to all-season rubber.
Winter tires are made from a softer rubber compound that stays more flexible as temperatures drop. This results in more grip because they conform to the road better than summer or all-season tires. Additionally, winter tires use deep open-tread patterns designed to push away slush and small grooves called biting edges or sipes to dig into slick surfaces.
WHEN TO SWITCH TIRES
If you live somewhere with mild winters, meaning little to no snowfall, your all-season tires should be suitable year-round. However, if winter historically brings heavy snow and freezing temperatures, you should plan to change tires with the first forecasted snow. Making the switch early enough means you won't be caught off-guard if a storm arrives suddenly and road conditions deteriorate.
To avoid the hassle of getting the winter tires mounted and balanced every year, experts recommend buying an affordable set of wheels - nothing too fancy, since they'll be getting snow, salt, mud and ice on them - with the same diameter and bolt pattern as your current wheels. Next, have the winter tires mounted on the alternate wheels and then swap wheels once the warmer season arrives.
At the other end of the equation, leaving winter tires on too long, or even year-round, will lead them to wear out quickly as temperatures rise. The same soft compounds that remain grippy and flexible in cold weather eat away rapidly on hot roads. Keep in mind that winter tires will need to be stored when not in use, so set aside an area in your attic, garage or shed to stack them.
Tire Rack, a well-known tire retailer, recommends inflating winter tires 3-5 pounds per square inch above the recommended pressures for your vehicle. This is partly to offset the fact that each 10-degree Fahrenheit drop in outside temperature can equate to a 1- to 2-pound loss in air pressure inside the tire.
HOW MUCH DO WINTER TIRES COST?
If you have yet to invest in a set of winter tires, the upfront cost may have been a factor. Fortunately, a set of winter tires is, on average, no more expensive than a set of all-seasons. Prices will vary based on brand and tire size. Furthermore, you will pause the wear - and thereby extend the life - of your all-season tires when using winter tires, and vice versa.
Winter tires from reputable brands are often more expensive than others, but their performance and durability are largely worth the premium. According to tire experts, a set of winter rubber should last roughly five seasons or more, especially if they're rotated every 5,000 miles to wear evenly.
It may be easier to keep the same set of tires on your vehicle year-round, but the added safety and confidence that come from using winter tires in colder climates is well worth the effort and expense.
This story was provided to The Associated Press by the automotive website Edmunds.
Miles Branman is a contributor at Edmunds. Twitter