Before the late 1970s, drivers who lived in areas of the country that get significant snow in the winter had just two tire choices: struggling through winter with the regular tires that were supplied with the vehicle, or buying a pair of winter or “snow” tires.
Most of those drivers chose to install two snow tires on the rear every winter, then remove and store them in the spring.
The snow tires had the same rubber compound as regular tires, but were formed with aggressive lugs or cleats which acted as biting edges that would cut into the snow to keep you moving. The larger the lugs, the better the ability to dig through snow.
In the late 1970s, Goodyear engineers developed the world’s first “all-season” tire, the Goodyear Tiempo. The driving public was swept away by this unheard-of concept. The tire was not as aggressive as a snow tire, but due to special rubber compounding and a lot of biting edges would grip almost as well and could be used year-round, saving the cost of snow tires and the cost and hassle of seasonal change-overs!
Seeing how this concept engaged the public, every tire manufacturer developed versions of the all-season tire. Second-and third-generation all-season tires featured improved traction and longer wear, with some now rated for 80,000 miles.
As all-season tires sales soared, tire engineers sought to improve on the traditional snow tire.
Learning from the all-season compounds, they increased flexibility under low temperature conditions and added more siping (cuts or slits in the tread that create the biting edges to enhance traction). The traditional snow tire was not effective on ice; it required the addition of metal studs that were pushed in tires specially “pinned”-had small open holes molded into the tread to accept the tungsten/carbide-tipped studs.
Soon Bridgestone developed a “studless” ice and snow tire, one that would be almost as effective on ice as the old studded tires without the damaging effect on driveways and roadways that metal studs have. This “Blizzak” tire was a revolutionary concept. It utilized a low-temperature rubber compound and an engineering marvel that Bridgestone named “tube multicell compound.” This consisted of thousands of microscopic tubes and cells that increased the number of biting edges of the tire and, as the tire wore, new tubes were constantly exposed. Like the Tiempo all-season, this studless ice and snow tire concept was soon copied by every major tire manufacturer.
Today’s snow tires deliver the best possible winter braking and steering, as well as mobility, to a degree that cannot be approached by any all-season tire.
The drawback is that the softer rubber compounds required to achieve this performance cannot tolerate warmer temperatures and, while not unsafe, will wear rapidly if used during warmer months.
Even today the best all-season tire cannot outperform a dedicated snow tire for grip in light or deep snow, and for traction on ice.
Driving enthusiasts know that “summer” tires outperform all-season tires, so the best of all worlds is running summer tires during warm months and snow tires in the winter.
Because of a variety of reasons, including front wheel drive and the radically different traction characteristics of snow tires, these types of tires must be installed in sets of four.
Look for a future tire comparison article: Why Do I need Four Snow Tires Instead of Two?