So, your tires are worn out and it's time to replace them. What kind should you get? While it's generally a safe bet to to go with original equipment tires -- the brand, model and size fitted to your vehicle by the manufacturer when it was new -- maybe you want to switch things up a bit.
You've got plenty of options, but unless you've got an off-road rig, your decision will likely boil down to three basic choices: summer, winter or all-season tires. Each type have their own specific pros and cons, so be sure to know what each can and can not do, and compare that to what conditions you'll likely be driving in.
Usually marketed as performance tires, summer tires work best in warmer weather (read: over 45-degree temperatures). Summer tires are made from a softer rubber compound and are typically fitted with large tread blocks to give maximum contact with the road in warmer weather. As a result, summer tires generally have more grip in both wet and dry conditions and provide optimal cornering and braking capabilities.
However, once temperatures drop, their soft rubber compound hardens, and traction suffers greatly. Not only that, colder temperatures may cause chipping of the tread block edge or the tread compound rubber to crack. Since these failures are generally treated by tire companies as the result of improper tire use, they're rarely covered under warranty, meaning the replacement cost will be on you.
More importantly, however, summer tires just don't grip in cold weather, whether there's snow or ice present on roads or not. Cornering performance is greatly impaired, and stopping distances can be lengthened dramatically. Simply put, summer tires aren't just unsuitable for temperatures below 45 degrees, they're genuinely unsafe.
Don't believe me? Tire Rack has done extensive testing on summer tires performance on ice. In one test, a car wearing summer rubber took 47 feet to stop from only 10 mph, while the car wearing winter tires managed the same task in just 21 feet -- well under half the distance.
When the thermometer dips below 45 degrees, you really should consider throwing a set of winter tires on your car. Winter tires are made with a deep tread pattern and a series of very thin cuts called sipes across the tread. The deep tread can help flush out excess slush buildup, while the sipes and other ridges help to pack the white stuff between the tread blocks, allowing for superior snow-on-snow traction. Meanwhile, sipes help provide a biting edge to keep things copacetic on icy surfaces. Winter tires also use rubber that's specially formulated to provide more grip on cold, dry pavement. Even if you don't regularly experience snow, winter tires are still your best bet when temps are low.
Just be sure to put a full set of winter tires on your car. Mixing and matching snow tires with all-season or summer tires results in different levels of traction between your ride's wheels, which can be a recipe for erratic handling.
Studded snow tires, with metal studs embedded (or installed) right into the tire tread, are an option. However, be forewarned that they are much noisier than regular winter tires (which often already quite loud), plus they can do damage to local pavement. Some cities have outlawed them for exactly this reason, so check your local ordinances before buying a set.
If swapping out your tires twice a year sounds like a drag, consider investing in a second set of less-expensive steel or alloy wheels for winter, preferably in a size or two smaller than your summer tires. Even if they don't look quite as impressive, a smaller-size tire will provide better performance at a lower cost, plus they'll typically have taller sidewalls, which aid ride quality. Just make sure that the downsized secondary set of wheels you buy fit cleanly over your brake calipers.
And be warned, fellow procrastinators: Winter tires can be sold out by the time the snow flies. Buy them early to guarantee you won't be stranded waiting for your local tire shop to get a fresh shipment.
The vast majority of new cars are arrive at dealers equipped with all-season tires, since they can perform adequately on dry or wet roads, or roads that have a light snow. However, you should think of all-season tires as a "jack of all trades, master of none" solution. All-season tires may perform adequately on dry, warmer pavement, but they won't give you the handling and grip levels of a summer tire. They may have a longer life than summer or winter tires, and they can get you up to the ski slopes, as long as that mountain road is only lightly covered with snow. Even then, however, they won't stop and corner as well as winter tires can when the weather turns cold.
The best choice really comes down to your budget, convenience and the worst-case scenario. Figure out how much money you can spend, the worst weather you'll be driving in and whether you want the hassle of swapping out tires twice a year. Purchase tires to accommodate those factors.
For example, when I first bought my Mazdaspeed Miata, I lived in Washington, DC, an area that doesn't receive an overwhelming amount of snow. But its winter temperatures often dip below 45 degrees. As much I wanted summer tires for maximum fair-weather performance, I knew I'd have to spring for a set of winters, as well. I didn't have the cash for two sets of tires, so instead, I opted for Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 3 all-season tires. In warmer months, they provided enough grip to participate in a few autocross events and be fun on the street. In the winter, they performed well when roads got about an inch of snow -- but anything over that saw me leaving my rear-wheel-drive sports car at home and taking the train.
Similarly, when I moved to California to join Roadshow, I immediately swapped those tires out for Michelin Pilot Super Sport summer tires, since I knew snow and cold weather wouldn't be a factor. Sure, I can't drive up to Tahoe in a blizzard, but I'm OK with that.
You may see all-season tires with "M+S" marked on the sidewall. This stands for "mud and snow" and means that the tire has performed well in packed snow and mud. It does not mean the tire has the same traction in the cold or on ice as a proper winter tire. These tires are more "all-season plus" than full-fledged winter tires, and if you don't want to pony up for the two-set solution, it might be worth seeking out a set of M+S-rated tires.
One last thing: Just because you have all-wheel drive doesn't mean you have all-wheel stop. Getting power to all four wheels certainly helps all-season tires accelerate in heavy snow, but it does nothing to help you stop or corner. If it snows more than a few inches regularly where you live, do you, your family and everyone else on the road a favor: Invest in some good winter tires.