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Why you shouldn't cheap out on winter tires

Lorraine Sommerfeld witnesses the difference between winter tires and all-season tires.

When Quebec enacted a mandatory winter tire law back in 2008, there was much discussion from both sides of the road. While few could argue that having winter tires is safer than not, it was legally mandating something that can be a considerable expense to already burdened car owners.

I will be direct: I am a huge proponent of winter tires. I cheaped out and had not equipped my last (leased) van with them, and it was the wrong decision. Because our second, older car had them, it became the only vehicle I would let my son drive in bad conditions. And that was when it dawned on me.

I can argue with myself that my years of experience mean I can more adequately handle bad driving conditions, but my teenage sons do not have that experience, and my internal procrastination is putting them in a dangerous position.

With the recent acquisition of a Hyundai Santa Fe — bought, not leased — I knew I would be kitting it out with winter tires. I did some research and called Pirelli, who sent me to Burlington Tire & Auto for a crash course in all things tire.

Tires have come a long way since my father used to slap two big gnarly snows on the back of our station wagon. Rubber compound — the thing that makes snow tires grip better — has evolved along with tread patterns. The array can be overwhelming: every brand has a line of tires to address any and all scenarios.

I can see why the appeal of all-season tires is so popular; the problem is that they are effectively no-season tires. You can’t be all things to all people, and a tire can’t be all solutions to all conditions.

As an ice rink is most slippery when the Zamboni has applied a layer of water to it, our roads are the same way. Many winter tires, comprised of a softer compound than summer tires (harder rubber becomes more brittle), have some variety of small cuts that effectively wick the water. This puts the tire in direct contact with the snow/ice/road combination beneath, where more aggressive tread patterns come into play. Traditional snow tires (like the gnarly ones of my youth) are made to get out of snow banks. But on clear pavement, the noise is distracting and handling takes a beating. Improved winter tires provide better braking, handling and cornering — by far the most important reasons to invest in winter tires.

With Pirelli’s Scorpion Ice & Snow installed on my Santa Fe, I asked Colin Brown from Burlington Hyundai to give me an assist in some testing. He brought a vehicle identical to mine with the standard all-season tires on it that I had just swapped out. We set up cones, put a guard at the entry to the unplowed dead-end street, and performed some brake tests. I wanted to mimic an ordinary scenario: heading down a residential street at 50 km/h, and executing a sudden stop.

With my son Christopher, 19, in our car, and Colin in the other, they did several runs as I measured. On average, the winter tires — the only variant — stopped nearly 3.5 metres sooner than the other vehicle. Highly scientific? Nope. But clear enough to show all of us the difference between hitting a kid, smacking your alignment on a curb or plowing into the back of a stopped car.

We played with traction control on and off, and found the biggest difference was felt when the traction control was on. Traction control does a good job. Winter tires help it do a better one.

Winter tires come in a range of prices. I would recommend factoring them into the original price of any vehicle you purchase. If storage is a problem, many tire shops can store them for you for a nominal cost. I purchased an extra set of wheels for mine — plain black steel, which don’t get so pitted from road salt. They’re also the cheapest option.

Can I get through a winter without winter tires? I have, so yes. But if I want my vehicle to have every safety option, especially for my sons, why would I ignore those four hand-sized patches of rubber that are the only thing putting them in contact with the road?

And the best test of winter tires? How about 3,200 kilometres to James Bay and back? That was how I spent last weekend — and you will never, ever find me in a vehicle between November and April without those tires again.

Lorraine Sommerfeld appears Mondays in Living and Saturdays in Wheels. Reach her at www.lorraineonline.ca

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