A funny thing happens at this time of year: warm temperatures are replaced with frosty mornings and everyone’s cup is filled with Pumpkin Spice Latte instead of lemonade. Suddenly, all the leaves are gone and the landscape is looking bleaker than a George Orwell novel. Fall is here, and winter is not too far behind. This means hardy Canadians across the nation will soon be breaking out their toques, warm gloves, and winter tires.
You do have winter tires, right? They are important safety components of any vehicle planning to drive snow-covered Canadian roads. Rubber compounds found in all-season tires tend to stiffen up once temperatures dip below 7 C. In order to efficiently grip the road, a tire’s compound needs to be flexible. Like the sticky feet on a gecko, winter tires are pliable and conform to road imperfections in order to deliver maximum grip. Ice might look smooth but it rarely is; take a gander at the surface of a curling rink the next time you’re throwing stones.
When shopping for winter rubber, look for an Alpine pictograph (a snowflake inside a mountain) on the tire’s sidewall. This is the mark denoting that particular tire has passed a ‘medium-packed snow test’ designed by Transport Canada to simulate typical Canadian winter driving conditions. Just like mugs of cold beer, winter tires are best served in groups of four. When they are installed at each corner of a vehicle, drivers will experience safer and more predictable handling.
Winter tires do produce somewhat more tread noise than a typical all-season tire but slightly elevated road volume is a small price to pay for sure-footed winter traction. Here are five of the best winter tires designed to get you through the harshest of Canadian winter driving conditions, presented in alphabetical order.
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The Blizzak line of tires arrived in Canada back in the ’90s as an option for drivers who sought winter grip without the noise and harshness of metal studs. It was arguably the first tire to feature a special rubber compound which dramatically improved all measures of performance on ice-covered surfaces. Built with thousands of microscopic tubes and cells (which actually resemble the consistency of Swiss cheese when examined through a microscope), the Blizzak tread wicks away water that often forms between the tire’s contact patch and the surface of snow-packed and icy roads. This creates a sticky bond with the road surface—ensuring excellent traction. Growing from a single style into a family of tires, Blizzaks are now available in passenger car, light truck, and performance versions.
Continental WinterContact SI
Recently introduced in the Canadian market, and replacing Continental’s long-time and very popular winter offering, the WinterContact SI is a brand-new studless winter tire design intended to be fitted on passenger cars and crossover vehicles. Multi-angled, zigzag sipes are densely packed into the tire’s tread surface, increasing the number of snow biting grooves. This enhances traction on wet and snowy roads. At the base of these grooves are specially designed edges which provide additional snow-biting surface to improve braking traction, especially in deep snow. Large channels in the tread pump water and slush from the tire’s contact patch, helping keep your tires in contact with the pavement, and your vehicle out of the roadside ditch. The WinterContact SI is available in a wider range of sizes than its predecessor, so it should be easy to find a set which fits your vehicle.
Michelin X-Ice Xi3
Like the previous two tires, the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 is a studless ice & snow tire designed to deliver superior snow and ice traction without employing noisy and road-damaging metal studs. Michelin puts a lot of emphasis on the longevity of this tire, a common complaint levelled at winter tires given their softer rubber compound which lends itself to wearing out more quickly when compared to a traditional all-season tire. To accomplish this, Michelin has designed a uniquely-shaped contact patch to evenly distribute the forces of acceleration, braking and cornering. Its directional tread design helps evacuate water and slush, improving hydroplaning resistance by keeping the contact patch kissing terra firma. Vertical sipes, intended to control shear stress, also have the effect of reinforcing each tread block—further reducing wear. The X-Ice Xi3 is offered in a wide range of sizes and is available from many popular retailers.
This Finnish company knows its way around a winter tire, tracing its roots back to 1932 and currently operating the only permanent winter tire testing facility in the world. Constant research of winter tire technology has led to many iterations of this tire, culminating with the newly-released Hakkapeliitta 8. Together with the innovative stud distribution, this tire provides excellent grip while braking and accelerating, improved wear resistance, and sipes designed to aid cornering and handling. The Hakkapeliitta R2 is Nokian’s non-studdable option for drivers who prioritize driving comfort over Herculean grip on ice. By not incorporating the ability to accept metal studs, the R2 has low rolling resistance, providing a quiet ride and increased fuel economy when compared to a traditional studded winter tire. Plus, it’s fun to say ‘Hakkapeliitta’ aloud. Different versions of both styles are available for SUVs and passenger cars alike.
Pirelli Winter Sottozero
This tire is designed as a performance-oriented option for folks who don’t want to give up all semblance of driving fun just because there is half a metre of snow on the ground. Drawing on their experience in F1 racing, Pirelli has built the Winter Sottozero 3 with an innovative rubber compound. Specialized polymers improve the tread’s mechanical, thermal, and dynamic properties. A directional tread pattern gives an enlarged contact patch comprised of arrow-shaped centre blocks and more rounded shoulders. This helps expel water and slush out of the tire’s tread pattern so the rubber always meets the road. Despite their sporting pretensions, the Winter Sottozero 3 tires meet the industry severe snow service requirements and are branded with the mountain/snowflake symbol. Echoing their summertime options, Pirelli offers a run-flat version of the Winter Sottozero.
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