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DRIVE

What you should know about winter tires

How they work, why you need them and where to find them

A young girl helps push a van as it slides on Avenue Road in Toronto on Dec. 11, 2014.

According to tests, it's a cold hard fact that winter tires give better grip than most all-seasons on cold roads. So, putting them on your car should be a simple decision, right? Not quite. Here are a few winter-tire questions and answers that we hope will help with your decision.

All Weather Tire Nokian Tyres WRG3. Jason Stang

We don't always get a lot of snow. Why do I need winter tires?

The biggest difference between winter and all-season tires is the rubber. All-seasons start to get harder at 7 C and lose their grip on the road, while winter tires are made of a compound with more silica that stays supple to minus-40 C. They stick better to cold, hard pavement – even when there isn't lots of snow or ice. Winter tires also have biting edges that help provide traction on snow and ice.

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Continental WinterContact SI Angle. Tire Intelligence LLC

My tires say mud and snow – are they winter tires?

Nope, most all-seasons say M+S. Only tires with the mountain snowflake symbol are winter tires.

To make it confusing, there's another category: all-weather tires. They also have the winter snowflake symbol. They're made of a softer rubber than all-seasons but not as soft as winter tires. Unlike winter tires, they're designed to stay on all year. In Consumer Reports tests, they don't stop as short on ice as the best winter tires, but they're generally better than winter tires at wet and dry stopping (but not as good as the best all-seasons).

Okay, I get that all-season rubber gets harder in the cold, but do I really need to put on winter tires the second it hits 7 C?

You won't slide through intersections if you're on all-seasons when it's above freezing. But at 7 C, you don't need to be Jon Snow to know that winter is coming. Getting winter tires on early means you're not sliding to the tire store – along with everybody else – when freezing rain or the first big snowstorm hits. Also, there's a limited supply of winter tires every year – tire companies make them in the summer. if you wait too long, there might not be much left to choose from.

BFGoodrich Winter T/A KSI.

Every company's winter tire has a different tread pattern – how do I know which pattern is best?

Tires are a little like sports shoes – basketball shoes, soccer cleats and running shoes all have different grips, depending on which brand and what they're for. Unless you actually wear them, you probably can't tell which one is best by looking.

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Same with tires. Some winter tires have aggressive, deeper treads that are designed for deep snow – and others are designed to be better on ice and cold bare roads. And some are a compromise of both. But while tire companies and stores tout the benefits of specific patterns within those categories, there's no magic pattern for consumers to look for. "You can't tell by looks," said Gene Petersen, head of tire testing for Consumer Reports.

People help a driver entering a snow-clogged Mount Royal Road in Winnipeg on Jan. 25, 2010.

So how do I find the best winter tires, then?

Instead, ask questions at the tire store and look up ratings online to get the best tire for how and where you'll be driving. While Consumer Reports recommends the Michelin X-Ice Xi3, Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2, Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 and Continental WinterContact SI – all the tires they tested enhanced a car's grip on both ice and snow better than most all-seasons.

"They all do what they're supposed to do," Petersen said.

Nokian Tyres Hakkapeliitta 9 (studded). Jason Stang

What about studded tires?

Studded tires have metal studs embedded in the tread. They're designed to provide even better grip on ice – like the metal crampons used by hikers. Some provinces don't allow them on roads in the summer. In Ontario, they're only allowed on vehicles registered in Northern Ontario. "They're relatively noisy and they can scratch driveways and pavement," Petersen said. "And some of the studless models provide performance that rivals studded winter tires."

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Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 Tread.

Do I need to put winter tires on all four wheels?

If all the tires don't have the same grip on the road, the wheels with the least grip could slip and you could lose control. Back to the shoe example: Think of trying to run with two completely different shoes on your feet. Transport Canada recommends four identical tires on all vehicles. That means all four tires – whether snow tires, all-weather or all-seasons – should be the same size and make, have the same tread and be worn equally.

And once they're on, check tire pressure at least once a month when tires are cold, ideally after the car's been out all night, Transport Canada says. That's because air pressure decreases when it's cold outside. Fill with air – even if your tires are filled with nitrogen – to the pressure listed on the sticker on the driver's side door frame.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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