Since 2005, I’ve been writing on cars and driving from Sudbury, Ontario.
As a year-round road tester, part of job involves about eight hours a week, every week, spent driving between Toronto and Sudbury. For the past fifteen years, this roughly 800-kilometer round trip has been a weekly part of my routine, with each trip completed in a different vehicle, equipped with different tires.
By the end of the coming winter, I’ll have logged roughly a million kilometres of testing, across some 800 different vehicles. About 40 per cent of those testing miles are logged in Northern Ontario winter driving conditions that can range from mild to extreme.
From this driver’s perspective, winter months require extra caution along stretch of that trip between roughly Barrie, Ontario, and the French River, a few hundred kilometres north. This stretch of highway can get ugly in quick order when winter conditions move in, often powered by the Great Lakes nearby.
Below, I’ll share with you some of the key thoughts I’ve formed after several hundred thousand kilometres of real-life winter tire testing, on hundreds of different vehicles.
There’s No ‘Best’ Winter Tire
Want to hear a really unpopular opinion? There’s no such thing as the ‘best’ winter tire.
That’s because winter tire options vary as widely as the vehicles they’re installed to, and the conditions they’ll tackle.
Some tires are better on ice. Others are better in slush. Others still may be more appropriate than others for off-road use, high-speed highway use in a performance car, or deep fluffy powder. The performance of a winter tire in real life conditions is subject to a multitude of variables that’s not always apparent when considering the results of a controlled-surface performance test.
Remember that winter tires have strengths, weaknesses, attributes and pricing that will all play into how well they match up to your specific needs, budget, locale, driving style, and vehicle. This means some tires may be better than others for the specific real-life conditions you’ll tackle most frequently.
So, reviews, talk to a tire expert at a local retailer, or visit online owner’s forums of Facebook groups for the specific vehicle you drive. Here, you can post a question to the owner’s community, and many owners will happily share their winter tire experiences and advice with you.
Don’t Sweat It
Switching from all-season to winter tires makes a more dramatic increase in grip that switching from one quality winter tire to another, or adding studs to those winter tires, or not. Put another way, the single biggest step towards increasing your wintertime traction and safety is to make the switch to winter tires. From there, some incremental improvements can be experienced by adding studs, or opting for a higher-dollar tire from a pricier brand.
Ultimately, most drivers will find the biggest improvement in winter driving ‘bite’ by just switching from all-season to winter tires, with improvements between winter tire types, or the use of studs being more incremental.
Your Modern Car Wants Winter Rubber
Even the simplest modern cars use a tremendous amount of hardware and electronics to help drivers in maintaining maximum grip, control, and stability in slippery conditions. Features like All-Wheel Drive, Stability Control, Traction Control, Torque Vectoring and more all work to enhance driver confidence by electronically maximizing the grip available to the vehicle, between the tire and the road.
These systems are subject to the laws of physics, however—meaning that they’re limited by the physical grip available between the tire and the road surface. By increasing the friction at that critical point with the installation of a quality winter tire, you instantly provide these systems with more grip. The systems capitalize on this, do their jobs better, and turn in a safer ride.
One instrumented winter tire testing exercise from my past locked the number ‘twenty-seven’ firmly into my memory banks.
Two identical vehicles were used: one with factory all-season rubber, the other, on dedicated winter tires. After averaging the stopping distances during multiple passes, a 27-foot margin separated the two units. With winter tires fitted, the test vehicle could come to rest nearly 30 feet earlier than the unit with all-seasons.
This could be the difference between stopping for a red light or not, or the difference between avoiding an accident, or causing one. As such, the cost of winter tires is easily offset the first time they keep you out of a fender bender.
My Thoughts on Studs
Studs can improve winter tire performance, especially on specific surfaces like ice or hard-packed snow.
Some drivers choose to run studded winter tires. Others do not.
For where and how I drive, I find studs to make a somewhat minimal difference to handling and stopping in the typically-snowy conditions I see most frequently, so I choose to run my winter tires without them.
During several instrumented tests comparing studded winter tires against their non-studded counterparts, I only measured a noteworthy performance improvement on specific surfaces that I rarely encounter: mainly, stopping on glare ice.
To your writer, the added noise on bare pavement didn’t prove worth the minor advantage I’d see in real life. Your results and preferences may vary.
Don’t Forget the Retorque
Every winter, I cover stories about mechanical failures and accidents caused by vehicles that loose a wheel after owners fail to retorque their lug-nuts after a seasonal tire and wheel swap.
After that swap, it’s ideal to drive about 100 kilometres, and then accurately re-tighten the 20 or so lug-nuts that attach your wheels to your car, in case they happen to have loosened off. If you don’t, you could have a very serious problem with no warning— causing an accident and sending a flying tire and wheel through the air on a busy roadway.
Sean Cooney-Mann is the Store Manager of OK Tire in Etobicoke, Ontario.
“All lug nuts must be torqued to the manufacturer’s recommended values once a wheel has been removed,” Cooney-Mann says. “At OK Tire Etobicoke we recommend re-torqueing all wheels after driving approximately 75-150 km after initial torqueing. This service can take roughly 5-15 minutes for us to complete.”
A retorque is quick and easy. But why do we need them?
Cooney-Mann explains, “after a season of salt, water, ice and constant temperature changes in Canada, corrosion can occur between the mating surfaces of the hub/wheel and within lug nut threads and studs, which can contribute to lug nuts not maintaining proper tension. A thorough hub/mating surface cleaning is often needed to ensure proper torque values are met.”
Stick to Brands you Know
I choose to run both pricier Michelin winter tires, and more affordable Cooper winter tires, on my personal vehicles. The performance difference I experience at the wheel in real-life conditions is negligible between the two — though I’m a loyal Michelin X-Ice user primarily for what I deem to be an excellent braking ‘bite’ in the sort of deep snow and slush I encounter regularly.
Sticking with a brand you’re familiar and comfortable with is a great starting point as you search for new winter tires.
Cooney-Mann explains, “brand familiarity is always comfortable but building trust with your automotive service provider in my opinion goes a long way towards getting the product that suits your driving requirements and budget. There are many good quality, lesser-known winter tires available on the market these days that can provide great value with good winter ride benefits. However, with some the inexpensive lines of winter tires in the market you may sacrifice the quality of the rubber compound which in turn means poor ice drive-ability and a shorter life span.”
Translation? You don’t necessarily have to shell out top dollar for some quality winter tires—though it may pay to talk to an expert before you decide, and it may pay to be apprehensive about extremely low-cost options, too.
Know Your Load Rating
If you’ll order a set of winter tires for your vehicle without consulting an expert, be triple-sure to check the load rating of the tires against the vehicle you’ll put them on.
I recall a story about a Honda Pilot owner who went online to purchase winter tires designed for a lighter, smaller car. Once installed to his SUV, two of the tires were destroyed by pothole strikes in a matter of days.
Remember: just because a tire fits your rim, doesn’t mean it’s designed to support the weight of your vehicle. Knowing this could save your life.
“With respect to winter tires, typically it is common to step down the performance ratings as winter tires do not always carry the same high performance ratings of summer or all season tires– but never drop down from the load rating value specified for your vehicle,” explains Cooney-Mann. “Vehicle speeds will and should change with winter driving but the weight of the vehicle and /or load capacity will not.”
Use Shipping to Your Advantage When Buying Online
Sometimes, shoppers buy their winter tires and wheels on the internet, and then take them to a shop to be installed.
Note that having your newly-purchased winter tires and wheels shipped to the dealership or shop that will install them can save you time, as well as some of the hassle of moving tires and wheels in and out of your vehicle.
Many dealers and tire shops offer off-season storage of your wheels and tires too, meaning you never have to lug the out-of-season units around, or use up space in your home or garage. Be sure to check with the dealer or tire shop you choose first, before having your new wheels and tires shipped there.
All Weather Tires?
Options are far reaching on all-season tires, winter tires, and lately, all-weather tires.
All-weather tires are designed in part for pickup and SUV owners that prefer to run a single tire all year round. They offer an improvement in winter traction while remaining suitable for use all year round. This way, you get a performance advantage in winter, without having to make a seasonal tire swap.
Still, some drivers prefer to run a dedicated winter tire on their truck or SUV, and an all-season or all-terrain tire for the balance of the year.
Cooney-Mann says, “a typical local driver averaging low annual mileage with city driving and occasional highway driving can run a good all-season / all-terrain tire year round problem free with all-wheel drive or 4X4, but traction will suffer during cold and icy road conditions.”
“The cottage goer or skier for example will run winter tires on these vehicles as there is a dramatic improvement in handling/braking and stability during the winter months, as a winter tire has the temperature specific rubber compound to handle icy situations.”
On all-weather tires, Cooney-Mann adds, “this represents an improvement to all-seasons during those icy road conditions and yet can be driven all year round. However, often the life span will be compromised as the tire compound needs to be softer to absorb the road during colder temperatures so it will wear out quicker.”
“Also, an all-terrain / all-weather tire will have more road noise when driving during the warmer months because of a more aggressive open lug tread pattern, which is a trade-off for having only one set of tires all year round. At the end of it all, a dedicated winter tire will out-perform any all-weather or all-terrain tire on the market during the cold months and icy road conditions”.
Justin Pritchard / Special to Wheels.ca