The biggest difference in all-season tires and snow tires is the rubber compound used in the manufacture of the tire; it largely determines the traction that the tire will provide on the road. The tread pattern on snow tires also has a distinct advantage for drivers and many models even have metal studs for extra traction.
Snow Tires Versus All-Season Tires
When winter conditions approach, many drivers naturally wonder if the should invest in some quality snow tires or continue to make do with all-season tires, or worse, summer tires.
If you live in an area of the country where snowy conditions, ice and general all-out muck reign supreme for many months each year, then proper snow tires are an investment you’ll be glad you made.
Winter tires allow your vehicle to grip the road more easily and provide better stopping (and starting) on slick or icy roads than all-weather tires.
To drive this point home, a braking test by Consumer Reports found that in winter driving conditions, snow tires allowed a vehicle to stop in less than half the distance than their all-weather or all-season counterparts.
Identifying Show Tires vs All-Season Tires
Snow tires can easily be identified by checking the sidewall for a mountain and snowflake symbol, typical of many winter tire manufacturers like Michelin or Bridgestone.
Mountain snowflake symbol shown above.
All-season tires typically have a M+S designation for ('Mud' and 'Snow') listed on the sidewall of the tire.
Differences in Snow Tires Vs. All-Season Tires
The new tires you choose for your vehicle should not just be suitable for the type of vehicle and your driving style. They should also be designed for the road condition and perhaps, most crucially, temperature.
The most significant difference in all-weather tires and snow tires is the rubber compound used in the manufacture of the tire; it largely determines the traction that the tire will provide on the road.
A typical all-weather tire is made from rubber that hardens when the temperature outside falls below 42 degrees Farenhight, causing it to lose traction. The rubber in tires must be somewhat flexible to grip the road. With winter tires or snow tires, that flexibility remains, even when the temperature plummets and there are icy conditions. The tread compound in snow tires is also engineered to allow the tires to stay pliable in cold temperatures but retain enough rigidity to hold studs, depending on the tire.
Tread Pattern Differences
The tread pattern on snow tires also has a distinct advantage for drivers.
All-season tires feature solid ribs with wide grooves—a design that’s optimized for improved fuel efficiency, less road noise and extended tread life. By comparison, treads on snow tires have biting edges, high-density tread, fine slits and sometimes even metal studs, all of which help to dig through the ice and snow and maintain a better grip and snow traction.
But I Have an All-Wheel-Drive...
When it comes to driving in winter weather, all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive may not be enough.
All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles split the power of your engine among all four wheels, helping you to maintain improved traction. But these vehicles can’t help you stop any faster. Even if you have four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) -- and especially your vehicle is rear-wheel drive (RWD) or front-wheel drive (FWD) -- it doesn't affect how quickly you are able to brake and slow or stop your vehicle properly.
Your tires alone are responsible for braking time and distance. Snow tires are designed to handle the harsh surfaces created by snow, ice, slush and mud.
Do Snow Tires Matter on a FWD Vehicle?
Although you won’t see as big an improvement in traction when adding snow tires to your FWD vehicle as you would if you were adding them to a 4WD or AWD vehicle, they can still help.
In a FWD vehicle the engine’s power goes exclusively to its front wheels. Because the engine and other components are positioned above the front wheels, the added weight plus a pair of snow tires, can have a significant impact on traction.
In tests, a FWD car equipped with snow tires on an icy road stopped more quickly and accelerated faster than 4WD or AWD vehicles without snow tires.
Any Help for my Rear-Wheel-Drive?
While RWD vehicles don't have the advantage of the engine's weight over them to improve traction, a good set of snow tires on a modern RWD vehicle will still provide a healthy amount of traction and control.
All modern vehicles sold after 2012 have traction control and stability control as standard features. These computer-controlled systems monitor wheel slippage and can apply the brakes or reduce power if necessary.
Combine these systems with a good set of snow or winter tires and smart driving habits (go easy on the gas pedal from a dead stop, start in a higher gear, try to brake in a straight line, don't brake or steer aggressively) and most drivers should be fine.
Changing From Snow Tires to All-Weather Tires
It's important to remember that snow tires are never intended for year-round use. The rubber in all-weather tires is hard and resists wear, but the rubber in snow or winter tires softens, so they wear out quickly.
Many states even ban the use of studded snow tires in warm months since the metal studs damage the dry pavement on roads and bridges.
Snow tires are also not designed to withstand the heat that’s seen in summer months. Using snow tires in warmer months can also lead to decreased performance on dry roads since they turn squishy and soft in the heat. This leads to one of the reasons that drivers are often hesitant to use snow tires—they don’t want the burden of having them mounted and unmounted with the changing of fall into winter.
One solution to reduce the hassle is to buy snow tires and a set of rims that you'll only use for the snow tires. That way, instead of having the tires changed out each season, your tire technician (or you, if you’re handy) can change out the wheels instead. This is a faster way to get the snow tires on your car, and you can store them, rims and all on a tire rack, between seasons.
The Bottom Line
While all-weather tires are also sometimes called all-season tires or all-terrain tires, those names can be misleading; the tires are only good for all-season driving in areas where the forecast rarely, if ever, calls for snow.
Unless you’re in a warm climate with minimal winter weather, an investment in snow tires is often a smart (and safe) decision so you have the right tires for cold weather.
And remember—even if you purchase the very best snow tires available, nothing can replace basic winter preparations including things like checking the tire pressure and a driver who pays attention to changing temperatures, road and weather conditions and knows how those changes affect their cars’ ability to grip the road.