Old Man Winter is here again and if you live in the Snow Belt investing in snow tires will serve you better in the longrun than depending on your all-season radials — and save you money, too. 

“Changing to snow tires is a lot like changing your shoes,” says Matt Edmonds, vice president of Tire Rack, the nation’s largest independent tire dealer. “When the weather gets bad and we want the ultimate in terms of control and safety, we put on a good pair of winter boots. The same goes for tires.”

Worth having

Tire troubles begin long before the snow flies. On a standard tire, traction loss starts at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit and lower temperatures can further reduce flexibility and grip, says Edmonds. “At 32 degrees, the summer tires found on many performance vehicles are so stiff they offer no traction at all.”

Modern winter tires, in contrast, are designed to excel and provide maximum traction in the colder temperatures, slush, snow and ice. They possess deeper tread depths for maximum traction and incorporate advanced silicone-rubber compounds that keep them pliant and flexible in wintry weather. In independent testing conducted by Tire Rack winter tires were found to deliver 21 percent better traction than all-season tires.

Look for the logo

There are no longer separate temperature, traction or wear ratings to fret over when selecting winter/snow tires, and thanks to the adoption of a unified labeling standard, consumers need no longer fear buying a bad set, says Edmonds.

In 1999, The U.S. Rubber Manufacturers Association, or RMA, and the Rubber Association of Canada, or RAC, agreed on a standard to identify passenger and light truck tires that satisfied certain handling and traction criteria in snow testing. Since then, all winter/snow tires have an easily recognizable “Snowflake in the Mountain” logo embossed on their sidewalls.

“Winter tires fall into one of two categories: studless ice-and-snow tires and performance winter tires,” says Steve Jambor, manager of Richlonn’s Tire Service Center in Greenfield, Wis. “The former use a softer silicone rubber compound and they’ll give you much better traction in the ice and snow. The latter will be a little stiffer and, internally, have more backbone, and they’ll be much more responsive and offer more performance on dry pavement.”

Your local tire service center will help you determine which winter tire options will be the best fit based upon your area’s particular climate, driving, and your car’s specific tire needs because, in some applications, it’s actually recommended to downsize winter tires.

Narrow works better

“A narrower tire will more easily dig through snow, whereas something wider will have a tendency to ‘float’ over the snow,” Jambor says, adding that downsizing winter tires will require the additional purchase of four new wheels for you vehicle.

But forget any advice you might have once heard about mounting snow tires only on rear- or front-drive wheels. You should always mount snow tires in sets of four in order to maintain safe handling in the snow and on dry pavement, says Edmonds.

If high-traction snow tires are mounted only on the drive wheels, the other two wheels can lose traction during cornering or braking on snow or ice, leading to a spin out. Snow tires on all four wheels lessen the chances of that happening.

“It’s also a safety issue, because so many vehicles today utilize stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes — technologies that monitor and modulate wheel-speed and wheel-rotation at all four corners of the vehicle,” says Edmonds.

Downsides

That high upfront cost is the biggest negative when it comes to buying winter tires. They’ll cost you $50 to $200 per winter tire, depending on size. Budget for four extra wheels, too.

The extra wheels might seem an extravagance — especially if you don’t downsize — but it’s likely to be money well-spent. Not only will you then be able to easily swap out your tires when the seasons change, but you’ll greatly reduce the wear and tear on your existing wheels and summer tires. “Mounting and dismounting a tire places a lot of stress and wear upon the tire’s bead and shortens its life,” says Jambor, noting that tire removal and mounting-and-balancing at an automotive service center twice a year can also get expensive.

Inexpensive steel wheels, fortunately, work just fine with winter/snow tires. Because snow tires use softer rubber compounds than those found in regular tires, they wear more quickly in warmer temperatures. Consequently, a good rule of thumb to follow for their use is “T-day to T-day” — Thanksgiving Day to Tax Day.

In “normal use,” a set of winter/snow tires should last about three winter driving seasons. While this might sound like a big, triennial financial commitment, that’s significantly less cost than most insurance deductibles and potential rate increases should you have a winter-driving related collision, not to mention the cost of occasionally being towed out of a snowdrift.

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