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Until the tire manufacturers conjure up a truly miraculous tread compound, all-season tires are still not the best choice for winter weather. Therefore, many drivers choose to put on a set of tires specifically designed for the coldest months.
Note that I use the term "winter" as opposed to simply snow. A winter tire will have a softer compound so it will work well even on dry, cold pavement. Beyond that, a lot of black magic goes into giving extra grip on ice, in slush, and on packed snow. Some of these tires don't even look that aggressive, not much different from all-season rubber. Don't be fooled, the key is construction.
It is essential to have the winter tires on all four wheels, for consistency of handling, brake function, and so on. I recommend buying a second set of wheels for the winter rubber. I buy steel wheels, since it seems a shame to expose nice alloys to winter slime, and generally stick with the manufacturer's product. Generic wheels may do the job, but even a tiny inconsistency in fit can cause handling problems.
The initial expense of new wheels is offset by the fact that you are not paying to have tires swapped twice a year, but are simply switching wheels. Plus, it keeps the summer wheels looking good, which is not only nice but can add to resale value.
I actually do the swap for all my family vehicles, and it doesn't take long. All you need is a decent floor jack and a torque wrench. The latter is very important Wheels that are torqued to factory spec are less likely to fail from internal stress. Not every garage does this properly.
Cheap tires may look the part but lack the sophisticated design that makes the best winter tires work so well. Check the tests done by companies like The Tire Rack for more information.
Make sure the tires are reasonably fresh. There is a date of manufacture on the sidewall, and rubber ages even if it hasn't been used.
Finally, don't get carried away by the extra traction. It is still winter, and crashes still hurt.
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