Summer, winter or all-season tyres: which is the best option?

July 5, 2023

When you’re looking to purchase tyres, you need to know they will meet your driving needs and enable you to be as safe on the road as possible. With so many tyres on the market to choose from, understanding which are the right ones for the road conditions you generally encounter can be difficult. One decision you’ll need to make is whether or not you should purchase tyres based on seasonal use. The main options available are summer tyres, winter tyres, or all-season tyres. 

For most people living in Australia, all-season tyres will suit their needs perfectly, but in some cases, summer or winter tyres may be required. 

Let’s look at the differences between these seasonal tyres, and investigate when you might need each. 

The different types of seasonal tyres

Summer tyres

Summer tyres are designed to function effectively in hot locations where you regularly experience temperatures upwards of 30℃.

Summer tyres are made from a hard rubber compound that is highly durable on hot roads, but can soften in mild temperatures, so they can be effective on both dry and wet roads. The firmness of summer tyres means they create less friction with the road surface, and as a result, are more fuel efficient when used on regular roads than a winter tyre would be.

In terms of design, summer tyres have a tread bar pattern that works to reduce the chance of aquaplaning/hydroplaning, which is when a tyre loses contact with the road surface in wet conditions, and you can no longer steer the vehicle. Obviously aquaplaning is hazardous, so having a good grip on both wet and dry roads is vital.

When you shouldn’t use a summer tyre

Summer tyres safely function at temperatures between 7℃ and 30℃, however if you are likely to be driving in temperatures below 7℃, then steer clear of summer tyres and switch over to winter or all-season tyres. This is because summer tyres can become hard and brittle in extreme cold, and their flexibility is reduced. To add to that, the tread on a summer tyre is not designed to handle snow and/or ice, so it’s likely your tyre won’t grip the snowy road surface and you’ll run into trouble. There are also fewer sipes in the tread of a summer tyre (sipes are fine channels like razor cuts that improve a tyre’s grip). This means that the tryre won’t grip so well on snowy and icy roads.

Winter tyres

Winter tyres are designed to function well in heavy snow conditions, or when roads are icy. The tread on a winter tyre (also called a snow tyre) is designed to increase traction on ice and snow. Winter tyres have unique designs that usually include shoulder blocks at the outer edge of the tyre tread, which improve friction when the tyre is in contact with snow. Winter tyres also work to minimise the ploughing effect of a tyre in deep snow, by having a more narrow aspect ratio between the tyre diameter and the tread width.

The tread gaps on winter tyres are deeper and wider than in summer or all-season tyres. In terms of how this impacts driving on snow, deep and wide tread gaps allow snow to enter the tread cavity. When snow is compacted within the cavity, it grips to the snow on the road which adds to improved traction. 

In terms of how this deep and wide tread impacts driving on wet wintry roads – on slush for example – the high void ratio of a winter tyre improves its ability to drain water. Void ratio refers to how much rubber connects with the road surface. A high void ratio means less rubber connects, and there’s more space or ‘void’ for draining out snow, slush and so on.

Another feature of winter tyres is the abundant tiny grooves in the tread blocks of the tyre,  known as sipes. Sipes create additional grip in wet, icy and snowy conditions, and act to prevent aquaplaning, as they allow for better dispersion of water from the tyre.

In terms of materials, winter tyres contain more natural rubber than summer tyres. This gives them greater give in temperatures 7℃ and below. The extra flexibility allows the tyre to grip hold of the road surface better, and vehicle handling is improved. The extra stretch also means that the tyre will hold up in the cold, and won’t become brittle like a summer tyre would.

A feature of some winter tyres found overseas is tyre studs, which are small metal studs inserted in the tyre tread that can improve grip on snow and ice. Tyre studs are not legal within Australia due to their ability to degrade road surfaces. (You may see ‘STUDLESS’ written on a tyre’s sidewall, which means that studs are not included.)

How to identify a winter tyre

If you look at the sidewall of a winter tyre, you should see a snow tyre icon, which indicates that the tyre can be used in severe snow conditions. This appears as a three-peak mountain with a snowflake inside it. You may also see 3PMSF (3 Peak Mountain SnowFlake) written next to the icon.

The second icon you might see on European tyres is the ice grip symbol, which is an ice stalagmite within a triangle. This icon indicates that the tyre offers a shorter braking distance on icy roads in winter, and satisfies minimum ice grip requirements.

The word ‘STUDLESS’ may also appear on the tyre’s sidewall. This just confirms that the winter tyre has no studs, which are illegal in Australia.

If you see ‘M+S’ marked on the sidewall it means that the tyre is designed for use in Mud and Snow. Some winter tyres may be marked with M+S, as well as featuring the 3PMSF and ice grip symbols.

If you see the ‘M+S’ marking on a tyre, but no 3PMSF and ice grip symbols, it means the tyre is not a winter tyre, and is likely an all-season tyre, with no ability for heavy snow driving.

When you shouldn’t use a winter tyre

Winter tyres shouldn’t be used for driving across the year – especially during warm to hot seasons. Here are some reasons why.

  • Winter tyres are specifically designed to drive on and provide grip on snow and ice, and aren’t designed to offer that same level of grip on regular roads. The tyre tread on winter tyres will also not grip effectively in sudden turns on regular roads.
  • Winter tyres are made of a softer compound than summer and all-season tyres, and may become too soft in warm temperatures. This can reduce stopping distance, which could be hazardous.
  • Using winter tyres year round will rapidly wear down the more flexible tread, and the tyre’s lifespan is reduced. It won’t perform as well in snow and ice the next time you need it to.
  • Winter tyres aren’t fuel efficient on regular roads, as they have a higher rolling resistance, which increases fuel consumption.

All-season tyres

An all-season tyre is designed to be used across a range of seasons, in both high and low temperatures ranging between -10°C to +30°C, and on both wet and dry roads. Whilst not designed for severe snow conditions, an all-season tyre will usually be able to withstand light levels of snow and ice, and may indeed be marked with the 3PMSF label.

All-season tyres are your best hybrid option if you need to drive in a range of conditions. The rubber content in all-season tyres allows them to stay flexible in a various temperatures, and the extra sipes in the tread design allow for good performance on wet, icy and snowy roads.

Because a winter tyre all year round would not be fuel efficient, an all-season tyre is your better bet – unless you live in an extremely hot location, where a summer tyre would be more suitable.

Do I need winter tyres in Australia?

For the most part, probably not. Winter tyres are designed to be used in temperatures of 7℃ and below, and when there is heavy snow and/or ice on the road. There aren’t many places in Australia that experience temperatures like this on a regular basis. 

For those who do need to drive in heavy snow conditions, winter tyres are the most effective and safe tyre option. In fact certain alpine locations require that you have tyres suitable for wintry terrain, in order to enter their snow field areas. For example, in the Mt Buller Resort in the Victorian alps, management requires that all seasonal car-pass permit holders have vehicles fitted with tyres marked with at least one of the following labels: the Three Peak Mountain Snowflake (3PMSF), All-Terrain (A/T) or the Mud and Snow (M+S). Tyres labelled with Highway Terrain (H/T) and Mud Terrain (M/T) will not be accepted.

In addition to these sorts of requirements, it’s worth adding that you may need to carry wheel chains in your vehicle, and agree that you are capable of fitting them, if you want to drive in snowy alpine areas.

In general, however, most people won’t require winter tyres, and all-season tyres will likely serve your needs, as they are capable of handling light snow and ice.

If you are unsure, a consultation with Jim’s mobile tyre shop can be really useful. Our experts can let you know what tyres will best suit your driving needs. They can also fit a new tyre correctly, and check if your existing tyres are adequate for the conditions.

Key tips on using seasonal tyres

  • Don’t use summer tyres in extreme snow conditions, and don’t use winter tyres in regular driving conditions. Change your tyres over seasonally if you need to, or opt for all-season tyres.
  • Don’t mix tyre types, for example, winter tyres with summer tyres. The difference in tread between these different tyre styles will lead to vehicle imbalance. You may have trouble controlling your vehicle when hard braking or during an emergency manoeuvre.
  • Avoid buying second-hand winter tyres, as you can’t be sure how they have been treated and under what kind of conditions they were used in. As we said earlier, winter tyres degrade more rapidly when used for all year round driving than a conventional tyre would, so you don’t want to risk using an underperforming tyre.
  • Regardless of tyre type, don’t use a tyre that is too old. What is too old? Many tyre manufacturers recommend you replace a tyre after it’s 7 years old, but if you use it a lot, you may need to replace it sooner. Why? Old tyres lose their grip over time. Tyre tread wears down, and the tread compound may harden over time also. For more information on how long tyres last, see our post, How long should your car tyres last?

In summary…

In most parts of Australia, you likely won’t require winter tyres for general driving during the cold seasons. If you drive in a range of hot and cold environments across the seasons, then all-season tyres will best serve your needs, as they are capable of handling light snow and ice. If you drive in particularly hot temperatures, you should consider summer tyres for best performance and fuel efficiency.

If you do need to drive in severe snow conditions, winter tyres are worth considering, or at the very least, all-season tyres that feature the 3PMSF label.

If you aren’t sure which tyre to opt for, a mobile tyre shop can be really useful. They can let you know what tyres will best suit your driving needs. They can also fit a new tyre correctly, and check if your existing tyres are adequate. And if you need to enter alpine regions for your next winter holiday, Jim’s Mobile Tyre Store can confirm for you if your tyres are suitable for use in extreme alpine environments.

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