What's the difference between all-season and winter tires?

01 September 2019

What are winter tires, anyway? Why are tires named after seasons? Where are the fall and spring tires? Do I need winter tires if I live in Ecuador? Here’s your complete rundown on the difference between winter tires and all-season tires. 

Have you ever noticed that during that first, beautiful snowfall of the year, when the kids get the day off school, and the Christmas lights are twinkling through the wintry scrim, and you’re stuck in that impossible traffic-jam that some people just can’t seem to drive in the cold? Well, it may not be their fault, so you can stop blaming them. They may just have the wrong tires. Which... yeah, is still their fault. Blame them all you want. 

But here’s how you can make sure you have the right tires all winter long, and not just when it’s snowing. Because, you don't want to be that schmoe creating a traffic jam in less-than desirable winter weather.


It’s all about the compound

First we need to talk a bit about rubber. Not all rubber is created equal. That pink eraser you used to chew on in math class is made of a different compound than the old tractor tire you flip at your Crossfit Class; It’s softer. 

Softer rubber compounds offer more grip. That’s why, if you ever get the chance to touch a warm drag-racing tire, your hand might get stuck to it. Here at Zohr, we in no way shape or form condone such reckless behavior. You WILL hurt yourself. Good grip is better for safety and performance... so, they should just make tires out of pre-chewed erasers, right? Wrong. Because like those erasers, they’d quickly rub themselves away on the road. Racing tires generally only last one race, and that’s not ideal for daily driving.

Tire manufacturers must find the right balance between grip and durability. But now we come to the other major factor in tire engineering: temperature. Like butter, or the hearts of most humans, rubber hardens when it gets cold, and softens when it gets warm. 

Thankfully, the very smart chemists who make tires have come up with chemical compounds to add to tires to keep them from hardening in the winter— and softening too much in the summer.


Winter Tires

As tires get harder, they begin to lose their adhesion to the road. When I was growing up, my cousins had a Power Wheels Jeep. I loved my cheese fries, so I was always too heavy for it and juiced that battery before I could have any fun, but my lighter cousins could make that Jeep, on its hard plastic wheels, slide all over my uncle’s concrete shop-floor.

Except that’s probably not what you want when you’re just trying to get to work in November. That’s why you should never leave summer tires on your car in the winter. You’ll have a real Power Wheels Jeep situation. The rubber will harden and you’ll lose grip.

Instead, get winter tires. They’re formulated to stay soft and grippy through the cold, dark winter months. That’s essential for winter driving, when roads are usually wet, icy or just covered in that nasty slush. Snow, ice, standing water, and even ground salt can all reduce your traction on the pavement, so you’ll need all the help you can get when commuting through winter conditions.


Snow Tires

And if you need even more help, you can get some snow tires. These generally use a winter compound, so they stay soft in the cold, but have a more rugged, chunky tread pattern. They almost look like off-road tires. In fact, in the sport of rallycross, which involves racing cars around an off-road circuit, many drivers use snow tires to take advantage of that big, blocky tread on the loose surfaces.

Those tread blocks punch down into the snow as you go along, grabbing extra traction and gripping the snow. I recommend snow tires for any area where it snows more than a few times per year. If you’re moving to the Rockies, for example, it’s time to invest in a set.

There are downsides, however. Snow tires tend to generate more noise, and they can have a negative effect on gas mileage. Plus, frankly, on the days when there isn’t any snow, but it’s still cold, winter tires work just as well.

For the ultimate in traction, you can even get a set of studded snow tires. These use tiny metal studs embedded in the tread blocks to cut into snow and ice. These are only recommended if you’re going to spend most of your time off-road. Running studded tires over pavement will wear them out quickly. But they’re very effective. Head over to Youtube and check out some videos of European snow rallies and you’ll see what I mean. 


All-Season Tires

In many areas of the country, all-season tires will work fine for most drivers. With this formula, tire manufacturers find a good balance between summer and winter compounds, designing a tire that stays relatively soft in the winter, but won’t wear too quickly in the summer. A jack of all trades. Chemical engineering has come a long way since the pneumatic tire was invented, and the whitecoats are always improving the compounds. 

Keep in mind, however, that if you want to do any performance driving in the summer, whether at sanctioned track days and autocross events, or just spirited driving on some twisty backroads, summer tires will perform better than all season tires. 

It’s also important not to run winter tires in the summer. Remember, the warmer the compounds on your tires get, the more quickly your tires will wear away. So winter tires, which are formulated to stay soft even in cold weather, will be too soft in the summer. You’ll run through them before Wimbledon.


The Double-Tire Dilemma

Some of you are already sensing a problem. Should you have your tires mounted and dismounted from your wheels twice a year? While Zohr is happy to do that, it’s not what we recommend. Most drivers who choose to have a set of winter driving tires, and a set of summer tires simply have two sets of wheels.

I find it helpful to have a set of not-so-pretty wheels on my car in the winter anyway. Salt can damage wheel finish, and you never know when you’re going to slide a little too close to the curb and scrape up the alloy. Save your nice wheels for the summer, when everything is shiny. 

Having two sets of tires might seem too expensive, but remember that you’ll only have to buy tires half as often. 

In the summer, store your winter tires in your garage or basement. Then, after Halloween, put them on your car, or call Zohr, and one of our mobile tire technicians can come out and do it for you. When not in use, tires should be stacked on their sides in a dry, preferably climate-controlled area. 

I hope you found this quick intro to seasonal tire compounds helpful. At Zohr, we stock a full selection of summer, winter, snow, and all-season tires, ready to install. So if you’re worried about causing traffic jams this winter, give us a call, we can help.

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