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Winter tires vs. all-weather tires

Is your car ready for Old Man Winter? Start with your tires

  • Winter tires

It’s a familiar, helpless feeling. Your tires slip on ice around a curve and the car starts to slide wide. You don’t go where you’re pointing the wheel but out toward something hard and unforgiving. Like a ditch. Or another car. Or the boards of a hockey arena.

“Unwind the wheel … unwind the wheel,” says the driving instructor, as calmly as he can muster, as we slide closer to the arena’s edge. I let the steering wheel spin back in my hands and the tires straighten and find some grip. We avoid the boards, no damage done.

Of course, it’s not common to drive inside a hockey rink, but it was the most slippery surface that Canadian Tire could find this month in Toronto. It rented the ice to demonstrate the advantages of its new winter tires.

For people like you and me, spoiled for the past seven months by driving on above-freezing pavement, it was a reminder of just how dangerous winter can be — and what we can do to minimize that risk.

Winter tires are the most obvious investment, but they’re also the most expensive, so many GTA drivers shy away from spending $500 or more on specialized rubber. They might forget, though, that if the car is kept for several years, there’s really no extra cost — because the regular all-seasons or summers will last twice as long by spending half the year in storage.

Most tire shops and garages will offer storage for the tires you’re not using. There’s a cost, of course, as there is to swap the tires twice a year, but it’s minimal compared to the price of keeping your passengers and your car safe — and others on the road who may be part of a winter crash.

There’s no doubt that winter tires are considerably safer in cold weather. When the temperature drops below 7C, regular tires start to stiffen and lose their stickiness, even on bare asphalt, but winter tires stay soft and supple through any cold temperatures we’ll experience in southern Ontario.

Canadian Tire says the new Goodyear Nordic Winter Tires it’s selling this year will stop from 60 km/h about 15 metres shorter on ice and snow than its most popular all-season tire. That also means they will grip the road when the all-seasons start to slide on curves.

At the rink, it didn’t take much to slide the Hyundai Elantra GT that was fitted with Motomaster SE2 all-seasons. They were okay at 20 km/h if the steering input was smooth and gradual, but tap the brakes or twitch the wheel and the car would slide toward the boards, prompting murmurs from the driving instructor. On the straight, I jammed on the brakes and the ABS helped the car to stop in 10 metres.

When we tried the same thing in an identical car fitted with the new Nordics, the car was noticeably more reluctant to slide, and stopped from the same speed in less than 7 metres. At just 20 km/h, that’s the length of a car.

The smallest, 14-inch Nordics are on sale now for less than $100 each — your wheels are probably bigger, but how much is your insurance deductible again?

However, winter preparation doesn’t just include tires. This is the time of year when you should check your wiper fluid and probably replace your wiper blades. Like tires, winter wipers are stronger and more flexible at low temperatures, making them more effective and better able to clear your windshield instead of smearing it. But the blades don’t last much longer than a year.

While you’re improving your vision, you should also consider improving your headlights. Aftermarket halogen bulbs can create almost double the amount of light to illuminate the road on long winter nights, and if your car is a few years old, a headlight restoration kit can clean the yellow scum off the lens and let more of the bulb’s light through.

You should also get your battery checked. Last winter, Canadian Tire offered free checks at every store. This year, not every store has signed on to the free checks, so you should look around for a garage that will give your battery the once-over if it’s more than three years old.

On the coldest winter mornings, at minus-18C, the average battery puts out just 40 per cent of its usual power, yet your frigid car will need twice the cranking strength to get it started. It’s better to buy a new battery now than wait hours for a boost in January when you’re in a hurry.

Last, but certainly not least, put a basic emergency kit in your trunk. Many auto stores sell different varieties, but at the minimum, you should carry a shovel, booster cables, a blanket, a reflective warning triangle and a flashlight. I used to carry chocolate bars, but they never lasted more than a day before getting eaten.

If you buy an emergency kit from Canadian Tire ($30-$60), it’ll throw in a one-year membership of its roadside assistance program, which will rescue you from a flat battery, a flat tire or a breakdown or accident. Other organizations also provide competitive services for this, including the Canadian Automobile Association. Shop around for the best deal for you.

When you’ve done all that, your car will be ready for winter. But will you? It’s coming, so you’ll find out soon enough.

VIDEO: Mark tests the tires on ice below.

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