Specialized winter and snow tires are proven to increase performance in acceleration, handling and (most importantly) braking in the coldest of conditions. A good set of snow tires can make the difference between easing to a safe stop and sliding sideways through an intersection, so buying the right set for your needs is a safety issue.
Basic Winter Tires
Before going with any of the more extreme options, you should seriously consider trying a set of versatile winter/snow tires. Snow tires are similar in design to off-road tires in that they use small tread blocks to increase contact pressure per square inch, but vary in that their purpose is to squeeze ice and snow into melting rather than to dig through. Even the cheapest of winter tires (like the General Altimax Arctic) will do a vastly better job in winter conditions than an all-season tire. If you live in areas that only receive periodic bouts of snow and ice but are often dry during the winter, you might want to look at some of the more road-oriented winter tires like the $145 Bridgestone Blizzak LM-60 or Michelin X-Ice that have advanced tread designs for ice and snow handling, and a tire compound that better withstands on-road wear.
If you’ve tried standard winter tires and found them lacking, then you may want to step up to a “studdable” winter tire like the Cooper Discoverer or Firestone Winterforce. These types of tire are designed to have metal spikes driven into them, and give you the option of dis-mounting the tire and adding spikes to optimize your level of grip and handling balance.
Of course, if you have the money and want the best studdable tires money can buy, then it would be a good idea to purchase a set made by people who are very familiar with snow. It’s generally acknowledged that Swedish studdable tires are at the top of the line, exemplified by the excellent Nokian Hakkapellitta 5. These tires have tenacious grip in icy conditions, but studding them is illegal in some states. Check your local laws for compliance.
One word of warning: if you mix all-season and winter tires on your vehicle, its handling balance will change depending upon road conditions. All season tires on the back will tend to make the vehicle push (understeer) on dry pavement, and putting all-seasons on the front will make it prone to fish-tailing or power-sliding (understeer) on dry roads.
That said, you can experiment with different winter tire tread designs front and rear to acquire optimal grip and consistent handling balance. As a rule of thumb, highly aggressive winter tires are most important on the front end of front-wheel-drive cars, as this axle carries all of the responsibility for braking, handling and acceleration in ice and snow. Trucks do best with aggressive winter tires on the rear, and modern all-wheel-drive cars with stability control would do best with an aggressive set of tires on the front.