The primary difference between all-terrain and all-season tires is the purpose for which they are built and the audience to which they cater.
Those who do regular off-roading, those who require additional security in very severe weather conditions, those who regularly tow or haul large loads, or those who want the ability to better tackle these types of conditions will benefit from all-terrain tires.
Most other vehicles will benefit more from all-season tires as they are designed to handle most conditions encountered by the general public when driving under normal circumstances.
Visually, all-terrain tires are usually easy to distinguish from all-season tires by their tread pattern. All-terrain tires have a much more aggressive tread pattern that many describe as “beefy” or “blocky.”
All-season tires usually look more like tires that most people would consider to have a “normal” tread pattern. It is the tread pattern that gives all-terrain tires greater off-road capability than all-season tires but also generally negatively impacts their road-friendly use.
All-Terrain vs All-Season Tires
Even though the primary differences between all-terrain and all-season tires involves their appearance and purpose, many other factors distinguish the two types of tires, including a better understanding of both their purpose and appearance.
All-season tires are made to be most things to most people. They are specifically designed to handle most average driving situations so they do not need to be switched out every time an unusual weather situation or even a light off-roading situation is encountered.
They can usually handle rain, light winter weather, and even a small amount of loose dirt or gravel as well as provide a good amount of road manners for those who drive the vehicle on a daily basis.
All-terrain tires are built with the more specific purpose of tackling conditions not usually encountered on a daily commute or family trip. Even though they can be used for everyday driving, they fall short in several aspects of driving because they are designed to go places most people would not normally go.
The tread pattern is the first thing many think of when they think about tires. As already mentioned, all-terrain tires have a “blockier” tread pattern that usually looks much more aggressive than the average all-season tire, but their tread depth and the sidewall is also much deeper and larger than the typical all-season tire.
Tread depth affects the gripping ability of the all-terrain tire in loose gravel or even in deep snow. The sidewall of the tire – or the tire profile – is the amount of rubber between the tread of the tire and wheel. Vehicles like pickup trucks usually require tires with a higher profile, or thicker sidewall, so as not to damage the edge of the wheel to which the tire is fitted.
All-season tires do not require an aggressive or deep tread pattern. This increases their on-road ability, and their tire profile can be much lower to enhance the overall appearance of the vehicle. Their shallower and straighter tread channels can carry water and light snow away from the center of traction, and their flatter contact patches provide increased road traction and comfort in normal conditions.
One of the lesser-known differences that all-terrain tires provide from all-season tires is in fuel economy.
All-terrain tires have greater rolling resistance than all-season tires. In short, rolling resistance is the energy needed to spin a tire. Things like tread pattern, tread depth, tire composition, and tire width all contribute to the amount of rolling resistance a tire has. It usually takes more energy – in the form of burned fuel – to keep four all-terrain tires spinning than it does all-season tires.
As a result, vehicles equipped with all-terrain tires will usually require more fuel than those with all-season tires. This is another factor that makes all-season tires much more popular on most average vehicles.
Ride comfort is not actually the largest separating factor when comparing all-terrain and all-season tires.
All-terrain tires can provide just as much comfort as all-season tires since higher-profile tires usually provide a more comfortable ride than low profile tires, all other things being equal.
The biggest issue in comfort comes in the form of road noise. Because all-terrain tires have a more aggressive tread pattern than all-season tires, their footprint on the road can cause a loud humming noise that can be heard from very long distances depending on the type of tread.
This causes increased cabin noise that can become very annoying and uncomfortable.
Because of their specific purpose, all-terrain tires are not meant to be driven extensively on the road. All-season tires are meant to be driven exclusively on the road and only occasionally encounter light adverse conditions.
The result is a difference in the amount and speed of tread wear in each tire. All-terrain tires have the potential to wear out much quicker than all-seasons as they are not built for extensive road use. This could result in more frequent tire changes.
Vehicles equipped with all-season tires will generally require fewer tire changes over the length of ownership, given that the tires are aligned correctly and are kept properly inflated.
All-terrain tires usually cost more than all-season tires. All-season tires are much more commonly used than all-terrain tires and they account for more basic driving conditions.
As a result, some of the least expensive all-season tires can be up to thirty or forty dollars cheaper than the least expensive all-terrain tires depending on location and dealer networks.
Additionally, all-terrain tires tend to be larger as many are equipped as upgrades on larger vehicles.
Type of Vehicle
Because all-terrain tires are specifically designed to handle off-road conditions and extreme weather in some circumstances, they are usually readily available and more easily fitted to pickup trucks and SUVs.
Cars and vans usually come equipped with all-season tires from the factory. Some all-terrain tires may be able to fit on some cars and vans, but may also cause fitment issues because of their size compared to the average all-terrain tire.
Most average vehicles, including most trucks and SUVs, which are readily available from the dealership are already equipped with all-season tires. Most vehicles sold with all-terrain tires equipped from the factory are usually equipped with a specific off-road package that also includes suspension upgrades and other off-road-focused accessories.
Questions to Help Decide Which is Best for You
Given all the aforementioned information so far, there are several questions you can ask yourself to determine whether all-terrain tires or all-season tires are best for your particular vehicle.
What Does the Manufacturer Recommend/Allow?
The reason manufacturers equip most vehicles with all-season tires from the factory is that they assume most buyers will use their vehicles primarily for road use.
This is most likely a safe assumption as even those serious about off-roading sometimes have an additional vehicle specifically used for those types of activities. Unless you need a vehicle that pulls double duty because you do not have that additional specific vehicle, you can find off-road-ready vehicles for sale with all-terrain tires and off-road packages from the dealership.
Many all-terrain tires are available as aftermarket upgrades, the most common place all-terrain tires will be available for purchase. Many of the smallest cars may not be able to be fitted with all-terrain tires because of their size in proportion to the generally larger tires.
If you are sure that fitment issues will not be an issue per your vehicle’s owner’s manual, you may be able to find smaller all-terrain tires for a small car. This may be harder to do since they are primarily made for larger trucks and SUVs that would normally have some additional off-road capability without the addition of special tires anyway.
What are My Specific Driving Needs?
If you know that there are both all-terrain tires and all-season tires available for your vehicle, your driving needs will dictate which one you choose.
Chances are good that if intend to off-road your vehicle, you will need to switch out your current tires to all-terrains. Most all-terrain tires are intended for those who are on and off the road in equal proportion, but it may be beneficial to fit all-terrain tires even if you are only occasionally going to encounter extreme off-road conditions.
Doing this would ensure your preparation for such a situation if your vehicle is still used mostly for on-road driving.
What is My Budget?
Generally-speaking all-terrain tires are not budget-friendly. Not only are they more expensive to buy, but their tread wears out faster than most all-season tires. If money is tight, all-season tires are the way to go.
Do I Need One Type Over the Other?
A very personalized question and one that should be answered after all other information is considered is whether or not all-terrain tires or all-season tires are necessary. Considering the pros and cons of each type and answering the pertinent questions will likely lead you to your answer.
All-terrain tires and all-season tires differ in many ways including price point, tire composition, tread pattern, tread wear, and fuel economy results, but the biggest difference between the two is in their purpose.
All-season tires are designed to cover a variety of normal driving conditions while all-terrain tires are designed more specifically to tackle heavy off-roading and extreme weather conditions.
Most vehicles are equipped with all-season tires from the factory, but the choice of which to use for your own vehicle will depend on your own needs and intentions.