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Winter Tire Basics

Winter tires differ from all-season tires in several critical respects. Good all-season tires perform well in a variety of weather conditions, including light snow.

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Winter (a.k.a. snow) tires, with their deeper and more aggressive tread design, are made for plowing through snow and ice while their rubber compound retains flexibility in very cold temperatures. These virtues come at a price, though: shorter treadwear longevity and less responsiveness (including longer stopping distances) on wet and dry roads. That said, the best cheap winter tires are a worthwhile investment, and arguably indispensible, in regions where snowfall is heavy and prolonged and temperatures sit in frigid territory for days on end. Just remember to swap them out for all-season tires once the weather turns.

Again, a General Altimax tire holds the No. 1 spot on our list of best cheap winter tires. The Altimax Arctic (starting at $65) routinely garners top scores in winter tire reviews for its smooth handling and excellent traction regardless of the challenges posed by winter. Michelin X-Ice Xi3 (starting at $99) is our runner-up choice for winter tires, although we read some reports indicating these tires strain to stop in loose snow. The Hankook Icebear W300 (starting at $116) fails to make the grade owing to user reports of poor traction and limited tread life.

Some winter tires, including the General Altimax Artic, can be installed with studs for extra traction. Recent improvements in tire design, however, have prompted some experts to argue that studs are obsolete. But if studs hold some appeal, be sure to consult local laws -- many states regulate their use.

What We Looked For in Winter Tire Reviews

For obvious reasons, the most critical factor in choosing a winter tire is traction on snow and ice. Although riding comfort is important, a tire's ability to chomp down on the white stuff while securely grabbing onto the surface deserves heavier weight in the decision-making process.

Review continues below

Winter Weather Traction.

Snow, ice, wintry mix, or whatever combination of cold and wet land on the ground, dependable traction is the measure of performance for a winter tire. Reviews at sites such as Tire Buyer are larded with kudos for the General Altimax Arctic's traction on snow and ice, with some drivers asserting it's the best winter tire they have ever purchased. Reviewers also report that the tires have a sturdy feel and the tread is long-lasting.

Drivers likewise commend the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 Tire in online reviews, saying they hold up well in various settings -- that would include city and mountain -- and provide the predictability that drivers crave on wintry roads. Still, a handful of winter tire reviews note minor slips when gripping ice and loose performance when pushing through slush. Tire Rack's expert review hits on similar themes, praising traction on snow and ice and performance on clear roads, but adding that cornering on ice could be improved.

The Hankook Icebear W300, on the other hand, leaves drivers cold. We read positive winter tire reviews at 1010 Tires about handling on dry and wet roads but this performance doesn't compensate for weaknesses in other dimensions, notably its grip on snow-covered roads and its mediocre durability (i.e., tread longevity).

Noise and Comfort.

There's no need to sacrifice a quiet and comfortable ride with the best cheap winter tires. Reviews for the General Altimax Arctic tire say driver and passengers can expect a smooth ride without being bothered by obnoxious or loud noises. And while some reviews grouse that Michelin X-Ice Xi3 tires are a bit loud on the highway and treadwear is only adequate, they are upbeat about the smooth ride. The Hankook Icebear W300 scores surprisingly well in winter tire reviews for noise and riding comfort, with drivers reporting the ride is incredibly smooth once the car is in motion.

by Jeremy Bender (Google+ Profile)

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