Tires are not all created equally. Different categories of tires use carefully engineered rubber compounds to maximize performance in specific temperature ranges. Furthermore, tread patterns are finely-tuned to optimize handling characteristics in different weather conditions. Before you choose your next set of tires, consider which category best fits your driving needs.
All-Season Tires: The Jack of All Trades
All-season tires are designed to be used year-round in all weather conditions. They're constructed of a rubber compound that is soft enough to survive winter temperatures while still offering adequate handling performance in warm weather. Their tread patterns are designed mostly for dispersing rain water, yet they are still useable in snowy conditions. However, their versatility comes with several compromises.
If you live in a seasonal climate that doesn't experience much snowfall, all-season tires are a good choice as long as you're not concerned with getting the maximum level of handling performance out of your car. You can install them and be confident that they'll offer adequate grip in all conditions without the hassle of swapping tires when the seasons change.
Summer Tires: Performance Handling for Driving Enthusiasts
If you live in a warm climate or if you enjoy spirited drives on curvy roads, opt for a set of summer tires. In temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, their rubber compound is softer than all-season tires, and they can provide substantially improved grip. But if the temperature drops below 40 degrees, the rubber compound hardens up substantially and is prone to cracking.
Contrary to popular belief, summer tires don't necessarily sacrifice performance in rainy conditions for the sake of dry-weather performance. The tread pattern on ordinary summer tires is just as efficient at dispersing water as the tread on their all-season counterparts.
However, there are different categories of summer tires that do in fact sacrifice grip in wet conditions. High-performance summer tires offer increased grip on dry roads while still providing decent performance in wet weather. Ultra-high-performance summer tires are more prone to sliding in wet conditions, but they substantially increase your car's handling performance in dry conditions. If you're a true driving enthusiast, you can opt for max-performance summer tires. They're much more prone to sliding and hydroplaning in the rain, but they'll give you uncompromising performance on dry roads.
Winter Tires: Surviving the Snowy Seasons
If you live in an area that receives substantial snowfall, it's a good idea to install winter tires before the snowstorms start arriving. Winter tires feature a rubber compound tuned to offer maximum grip in temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Their tread pattern is designed to tear through the snow and give you maximum performance even when the roads are at their slickest. In fact, many front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive cars equipped with winter tires will perform better in the snow than all-wheel drive cars equipped with generic all-season tires.
The problem is that repeatedly installing and uninstalling the same set of tires can weaken the sidewall and make your tires unsafe. If you want the best of both worlds, you'll have to purchase an extra set of wheels with winter tires installed. That way, you can enjoy the great handling performance of summer tires for most of the year, then you can swap to your winter-tire wheels as soon as the temperature drops.
To the untrained eye, tires may seem quite simple and insignificant. However, they're actually one of the most important components on your car when it comes to safety and performance. Regardless of how many airbags and electronic stability features your car is equipped with, your tires are the only thing connecting you it the asphalt. A carefully chosen set of tires can make your car much safer, faster, and more efficient.