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What’s the Difference Between Summer, Winter and All-Season Tires?

subaru wrx sti series white 2020 14 exterior  front wheel jpg 2020 Subaru WRX STI Series White | Cars.com photo by Joe Bruzek

Drivers rarely think about tires until one goes flat or it’s time to buy new ones, and they may not know what type of tire their vehicle is driving on or if it’s the right fit, be it all-season tires or hardier winter tires or summer tires, which are designed for aggressive driving. Which is right for you?

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All-season tires are by far the most popular tire type as original equipment on new vehicles and as replacement tires because they’re the most versatile and best suited to the needs of most drivers. Many performance cars, though, come with summer tires as standard equipment, and some drivers might be tempted to switch to summer tires when they buy new ones. Whether your vehicle is riding on all-seasons or summer tires, if you live in an area that sees cold temperatures and snow, you could hear a sales pitch to buy winter tires that perform better during those frigid months.

Each type has strong points and weak ones, and none is ideal for every situation or time of year, so it pays to know their strengths and weaknesses. Here’s what to know about each type:

All-Season Tires

These tires are jacks of all trades but masters of none. They perform well enough in most situations that they can be used year-round whether the pavement is dry, wet or covered by snow, and they generally fall short only in severe driving conditions, such as deep snow or on a racetrack.

All-season tires usually have many grooves and sipes (small slits in the tread) that help them deal with a variety of conditions, such as rain, snow or hot pavement. They tend to last longer than other types, and better ones can come with tread-life guarantees of more than 50,000 miles. All-season tires tend to be quieter than performance tires because many drivers are looking for a tranquil ride; they also have low rolling resistance, which means they will yield higher fuel economy than the other types.

Compared to summer tires, though, all-season rubber won’t have as much grip in turns or steering precision and will have longer stopping distances. Summer performance tires grip like leeches, but all-season tires sacrifice some traction for a smoother, quieter ride and longer tread life. And when the snow gets deep or temperatures plunge below freezing, all-season tires won’t perform as well as winter tires.

Summer Tires

These are commonly installed on performance vehicles as original equipment because they prioritize traction above ride comfort and noise. These performance tires tend to have wider treads to put more rubber on the road and lower profiles (the height of the sidewall) to reduce sidewall flex in aggressive cornering and keep the tires firmly planted.

Summer tires enable the vehicle to carve through turns faster and with more control and provide shorter stops than all-season tires. They generally come with speed ratings of up to 186 mph, whereas all-season tires are usually rated for sustained speeds of 149 mph or less. Summer tires have shallower treads and fewer grooves than all-season tires, and they tend to wear faster because their tenacious grip leaves more rubber on the road. Somewhat surprisingly, tire manufacturers say summer tires perform better in wet conditions than all-season tires because they can disperse water more easily. Some summer tires also are unidirectional, meaning they can be mounted only on one side of a vehicle.

Winter weather poses serious challenges for summer tires. The wider, shallower tread traps snow instead of dispersing it to the sides, making it harder to get traction even in light snow. Cold temperatures make the rubber less flexible and unable to grab the road like it can in warm weather, so there can be a noticeable loss of traction even in dry conditions. Tire companies recommend switching to winter or all-season tires in areas where cold temperatures or snow are likely.

All-season tires tend to be available in a range of sizes that fit a variety of vehicles, such as sedans and SUVs, but summer tires are usually limited to sizes that fit sports cars and performance models. A summer tire designed for a Chevrolet Corvette, for example, is not going to be offered in a size that fits a Toyota Corolla.

Winter Tires

Winter tires (also called snow tires) provide better traction in snow, on ice and in cold temperatures than either all-season or summer tires. They have deeper treads and more grooves that manage snow and slush better, with more sipes on the edges to improve traction on ice. Winter tires also use rubber compounds that are more pliable in cold weather, enabling them to maintain traction and braking performance.

Decades ago, snow tires had knobby tread designs (similar to off-road tires) and were designed to be mounted only on the drive wheels of rear-drive vehicles. Now, winter tires should be mounted on all four wheels, whether a vehicle has rear -, front- or all-wheel drive. They aren’t designed to be driven in summer weather because they lose grip and wear faster on hot pavement, so they should only be used when temperatures are consistently below about 40 degrees.

One important difference that summer and winter tires have from all-season tires is that most don’t have mileage-specific tread-life warranties, such as 50,000 miles. They are covered by workmanship and materials warranties for manufacturing defects. Michelin is one exception, but the mileage warranties are shorter for summer and winter tires: The brand gives its Primacy all-season tire a 55,000-mile warranty; for the Pilot Sport 4S summer tire and the Pilot Alpin winter tire, however, it’s only 30,000 miles.

In addition, winter tires are not rated under the Uniform Tire Quality Grading standard, a federal regulation in which the tire manufacturers assign a number rating for treadwear and letters for temperature resistance and traction.

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