You should consider winter tires instead of all-wheel drive if you're driving in the snow

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You should consider winter tires instead of all-wheel drive if you're driving in the snow

  • CNBC walks you through the pros of using winter tires.
  • You might be surprised that tires can be more important than all-wheel drive.
  • We recommend a few brands that you should consider if you live in a snowy area.
Snow tires can be better than AWD
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Snow tires can be better than AWD

As a car reviewer stationed in the snowy badlands of the midwest, it shouldn't be surprising that I'm constantly asked to help find someone an all-wheel drive car.

For the nasty snow, conventional wisdom holds that you'll need a massive, all-wheel drive SUV to make it to work on time.

In reality, the right tires are far more important than all-wheel drive or a few inches of ground clearance.

AWD doesn't help you as much as you think it does

Notice the deep treads on my snow tires
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Notice the deep treads on my snow tires

How many people do you know that have crashed in bad weather because they couldn't get going fast enough? I'd wager close to zero. Getting moving quickly doesn't count for much in the snow.

The real problem comes when you have to stop or turn. With less grip holding you to the road, it's not uncommon to slide your way around town for a few months each year. The solution a lot of people recommend is all-wheel drive, but that doesn't actually solve the problem.

See, whether or not you have all-wheel drive, the same amount of wheels are active in steering and braking. Sure, all-wheel drive can help pull you around a tricky corner, but its main benefit is preventing you from getting stuck.

No one wants to be stuck, but getting the car moving is a lot less important than stopping or steering it.

Where winter tires come in

Snow tires provide extra grip
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Snow tires provide extra grip

That's why I was happy when a new Mazda 6 test car showed up with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires wrapping the wheels.

Winter tires, for the uninitiated, have deeper grooves to channel snow and keep more of the tire in contact with the road in bad weather. They're made of rubber compounds formulated to grip well in conditions where your all-season tires will call it a day.

The end result is that winter tires, like all-wheel drive, help you get moving in deep snow and freezing weather. But unlike all-wheel drive, they help your car steer and stop once you've gotten rolling. That's true not just in snow, but also in very cold weather.

Rather than using the grip of all four tires to accelerate, winter tires simply increase the amount of grip you have at your disposal. So regardless of what wheels your car sends power to, you'll keep trucking when the all-wheel drive crossovers have all been lodged in hedges and smashed through storefronts.

Which ones to buy and what you'll spend

Blizzak snow tires
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Blizzak snow tires

Every major tire brand sells winter tires, but not all are created equal.

Bridgestone Blizzaks have long been the go-to, a safe bet that has an excellent reputation for quality and performance. Prices vary by car, but as a reference point Blizzak LM001's that fit a Toyota Camry with 18-inch wheels cost $223.80 per tire on Tirerack.com.

That's a steep price point, but it's not the only option. I haven't personally tested them, but I've heard great things about the Michelin X-Ice series. On the same car, a set of X-Ice X13's retail for $177.40 per tire on Tirerack.com. Cheaper still, there are Yokohama Iceguard IG20's for $146.40 each, though I haven't seen much testing on them.

Mounting and balancing the tires will also cost between $11-20 per wheel, so figure $80 twice a year to swap tires out during the fall and spring.

In the long run, they don't cost as much as it seems

Blizzak snow tires on a Mazda
Mack Hogan | CNBC
Blizzak snow tires on a Mazda

Despite being happy to lay out thousands of dollars for all-wheel drive, I've found most people are hesitant to spend the money on winter tires. To be sure, it's another expense. But you'd be surprised how cheap they turn out to be in the long run.

Tires only last a certain amount of time, based on how many miles you put on them. So if you're only using a set of tires for eight months out of the year, they'll last longer. Put winter tires on for the winter, and you'll go much longer in between pricey tire replacements.

Plus, you can put more grippy summer tires on during the warm months. That means you can ditch the "all seasons" that come on most cars, which are compromised in warm and cold weather.

The Downsides

My keychain shows I have snow tires on my loaner Mazda
Mack Hogan | CNBC
My keychain shows I have snow tires on my loaner Mazda

You'll have to store whatever tires you aren't using, so if you can't fit them in your garage you'll have to see if your local tire retailer offers a storage option which will likely cost you. Plus, you'll be out around $160 per year on tire installations.

Winter tires also make more noise than a comparable set of summer rubber or all seasons and often let in more vibrations from the road into the car.

While they're perfectly suited for driving in non-snowy, cold conditions, they really shouldn't be used for extended periods of warm weather. That means if you're headed on a road trip south or there's a weird warm week sandwiched between two whiteouts — a shockingly common situation here in Ohio — you'll either have to swap tires or just accept that you'll have reduced performance and increased wear.

Simply put, that makes them one more thing to think and worry about. For me, though, I'd rather worry about swapping tires for a random road trip then worry about sliding off the highway on my commute.