The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration says that 70% of Americans live in an area that receives more than five inches average snowfall annually. With the majority of Americans driving in wintery weather, many wish to use the best tires available for their needs. A new category of tire called all-weather tires may be the right choice for many of these drivers.
Except for dedicated sports cars and similar high-performance vehicles, almost all vehicles sold in wintery areas come with all-season tires. These tires do an admirable job of providing most drivers with what they need. However, some drivers want the best possible tires for winter. These drivers keep a second set of dedicated winter snow tires to use during winter months. Tire manufacturers are aware that for a good portion of these drivers if their all-season tires were more capable in snow and on ice, the second set would not be necessary. Automakers who make vehicles they know are likely to be used in wintery weather, like crossovers and all-wheel drive minivans, like the idea of offering a more capable package.
The trouble is that tire design has limited the number of benefits any single tire can have. Typical design parameters include;
- Dry / warm performance
- Wet / warm performance
- Dry but very cold performance
- Fuel economy (rolling resistance)
- Light snow traction
- Heavy snow traction
- Ice traction
The difficulty with creating a tire that has an “excellent” rating in all of these categories is physics. A harder tire compound is better for treadlife, fuel economy, and dry / warm performance. But it is worse for ice and snow. Deeper treadblocks are better for snow, but they are worse for handling in other weather and rolling resistance. As a tire manufacturer strives to maximize the tire’s abilities in one set of circumstances, the tire’s abilities in another are diminished.
Time marches on, and technology and know-how gradually grow over time. With new materials, technologies, and more experience, tire makes can continue to push the performance needle a bit in all directions. Into this evolution arrives the all-weather tire.
All-weather tires use a combination tread, a bit like all-seasons, but with an increased ability to accelerate on snow. The tire makers’ goal is to earn what is called the “three-peak mountain snowflake” (3PMSF) symbol. This is a tire standard that certifies that a tire has met the minimum qualifications for acceleration on snow. Turning and stopping on snow and ice surface capabilities are not part of that certification. The new all-weather tires earn the 3PMSF symbol. They also have good treadwear ratings, relatively low noise (though that is a very subjective metric) and they also do well in dry and wet warm-weather performance testing.
Tire Rack and Consumer Reports are two groups with the best testing and data of tires. Both groups conduct testing and Tire Rack also collects a huge library of reviews from tire buyers that it then sorts by make and model. This is very helpful because the reviews can be updated over time. Many tires that are quiet on day one are louder than expected as they wear. Many tires that are a bit “squirrelly” on day one, settle down and become more predictable and stable in performance situations.
So what does Tire Rack say about all-weather tires? This online retailer applies this warning to all-weather tires: “Note: While non-winter tires featuring the three-peak mountain snowflake symbol (3PMSF) provide additional longitudinal snow traction beyond what all-season (M+S) tires not bearing the symbol can deliver, they do not match the capability of a true winter tire in all adverse weather conditions.”
Consumer Reports created a great video highlighting early all-weather tire models back in 2015. The video does not provide details on tire testing results, but the narrator states, "Based on the overall score, they (all-weather tires) outperformed many winter tires we have tested." This would lead one to believe that the all-weather tires were the best in all conditions. However, when we phoned Consumer Reports and spoke to senior tire tester, Gene Petersen, he emphasized what that conclusion really means. Gene explained that the all-weather tires were best “overall.” That means that when their noise, dry weather handling, and treadlife were factored in, they outscored the winter tires used for comparison. However, Gene also clarified that the all-weather tires did not outperform the best winter tires on snow and ice in Consumer Reports testing.
Gene also let us in on an industry secret. Some parts of Canada mandate that drivers mount tires with the 3PMSF symbol in winter months. However, as many Canadian drivers know, most municipalities do an outstanding job of clearing and sanding roads. They don’t want to bother with owning and swapping out two sets of tires. For these drivers, the new all-weather tires may be a perfect answer.
We looked closely at the ratings of many all-weather tire models and found that they vary greatly in their winter weather performance. None that we could find earned Tire Rack scores as high as one of the most affordable and popular winter tire models, the Bridgestone Blizzak. As our chart above shows, the winter tire outscores the Michelin CrossClimate2 and the Vredestein Quatrac Pro all-weather tires. We selected the Michelin as our example because it is the highest-rated all-weather tire in Consumer Reports testing. We selected the Vredestein because it is one of the most affordable all-weather tires offered on Tire Rack. Neither beats the winter tire in any winter testing category. Note also that the noise rating of the Bridgestone Blizzak winter tire is actually better rated than the all-weather tire. Just as all-weather tires have been advancing to be better in winter driving, winter tires have also been making up ground by minimizing their own disadvantages.
For those drivers who want an all-season tire with a bit more winter capability, the new all-weather tire offerings are a wise option to consider. Those drivers who want the best possible winter driving safety and capabilities will find it in a winter-rated tire like the Bridgestone Blizzak.
John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. John has completed the Team O'Neil Rally School's Winter Safe Driving Program. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin