It may be difficult to start thinking about Old Man Winter, but he’s on his way and will soon be knocking. And really: Costco stores had snowsuits on display in the middle of July, so I’m not totally out of line. Before the white stuff hits, make sure your vehicle is equipped with proper winter boots.
I sometimes wonder if I’ve taken my winter tire preaching too far. After fifteen years of extolling the virtues of winter tires, I still encounter several people every year who are convinced that the winter tire industry is one that was created by tire manufacturers to increase their sales.
Have I been snowed by the winter-tire marketing machine? Are winter tires really not much of an improvement over the all-seasons that came on your car or truck from the factory? It doesn’t help my objectivity when both of our family vehicles get winter rubber each year. Nor can I try all-seasons on any of the press vehicles that come to Winnipeg for review purposes – as a rule, those vehicles destined for our testing and scrutiny are prepared with their own set of winter tires.
A real-life case for winter tires
But proof of the value of winter tires came to me during a business trip that I took last winter at the end of February. I flew into Regina and picked up a rental vehicle to drive into the Cypress Hills in southwestern Saskatchewan. Because I was picking the rental up in Regina and dropping it off in Calgary, my selection was pared down to a field of one. So, despite my request for all-wheel drive, the friendly clerk at the Enterprise desk presented me with the key to a Dodge Grand Caravan Crew.
I’m not sure what year the Grand Caravan was, but it had 30,000 km on the clock, which led me to believe that it was probably a 2016. It was equipped with a set of all-season Yokohamas, which were likely original to the van given its mileage.
The drive from Regina to Maple Creek was uneventful, as the highways were dry and it was a mild, sunny day. I spent the night there, and woke up the next morning to set out toward Fort Walsh National Historic Site, located high in the Cypress Hills.
There was a small amount of snow and freezing rain that fell overnight, enough to make the roads slicker than wet Teflon. As I ate my continental breakfast next to the hotel lobby that morning, I encountered others that were setting off for the same destination. These locals politely informed me that the van was not going to get me there given the condition of the roads. “Park at the trailer drop-off at the bottom of the hill and we’ll drive you the rest of the way.”
I was happy to have a lift beyond the drop-off because the van would not have negotiated the switchbacks. But the most surprising thing was how poorly the all-seasons had behaved between the hotel and the drop-off.
The road from Maple Creek was a shallow but steady incline, the kind that you don’t realize is there until you see your fuel consumption increase or, in my case, notice the van slowing down even though the throttle is being held steady. But what followed was the truly scary part.
I was travelling this 80 km/h highway at about 60 clicks when I applied just a little bit of throttle in an attempt to maintain my speed. That’s when the van’s torquey V6 showed me exactly how little traction I had with those tires. The front tires spun instantly, sending the van to the right with no warning. If I hadn’t immediately – but smoothly – lifted from the throttle and kept a steady hand on the wheel, I could have easily ended up in the ditch.
This may be an extreme example, but there aren’t many areas in Canada where one can be confident such a situation won’t present itself to them. Then I started thinking about how many people are driving around with similar levels of traction in winter, and the scale of this safety issue became apparent.
There are people who hate driving, and even more people who hate driving in the winter. I can’t help but think that many who feel that way only do so because they’ve been ill-equipped to have proper control of the machine they’re piloting. If you’ve ever heard yourself say, “My car isn’t good in the winter,” try rephrasing that to “My car doesn’t have proper winter tires.” Then, if it really bothers you, go out and put on a proper set of tires and prepare for the shock of the transformation that will follow.
Winter tires are specifically designed to maximize traction in low-temperature and low-friction situations. Rubber compounds and tread patterns are carefully crafted to provide a set of handling characteristics that keep everyone safer on our roads during winter.
Studded or studless?
Okay – so you know you should be using winter tires. Now it’s time to choose which type.
To help eliminate at least some of the variables related to this daunting task, I had a set of Nokian winter tires put on each of my two family vehicles through the entire winter season last year. Our front-drive Volkswagen Golf Wagon wore Hakkapeliitta R2 studless tires, while the all-wheel-drive Golf R donned Hakka 8 studded rubber for the season.
I had grand plans to swap the tires between the two vehicles in the middle of winter for a comparison, but the wagon was involved in a minor mishap in January, causing it to spend a large portion of the next two months in the repair shop.
The Golf R with studded winter tires may just be the ultimate vehicular assault on winter. There wasn’t a single day last winter – and it was a highly variable season with big snowfall accumulations and several freeze-thaw cycles in between – that my car couldn’t get me where I was wanting to go. That includes one Saturday morning after roughly 25 cm of snow fell. Without shoveling the driveway or waiting for tracks to be forged along our street, I jumped in the R, strapped on my seatbelt, and went for a drive.
The Hakkas churned through the deep snow that in places was above my front bumper, directing snow beneath, around and over the car. As I was returning home, one of my neighbours couldn’t believe his eyes. He saw a disturbance in the snow down the road and was shocked to see a VW Golf arrive at the end of his driveway. Picture the Tasmanian Devil but with snow flying around it and you’ll probably be close.
All this is to say that the studded tires worked well in deep snow, and that isn’t even their primary benefit. The upside to having metal studs embedded in the tread of your tires is to have them dig into hard, icy surfaces when you need that traction to effectively go, turn, and most importantly, stop. If studless tires have an Achilles’ heel, it’s traction on ice.
So if studded tires are so great, why aren’t we all driving on them?
The first thing you need to do is check your local laws regarding studded tire use. Some jurisdictions don’t allow them at all (southern Ontario), while others restrict their use to just the winter months (Manitoba and most others). Beyond that, it’s a matter of trade-offs.
The main downside to studded tires is noise. If much of your winter driving time is spent on dry or wet pavement, the increasing and decreasing hum of the tires can quickly get old. And that’s the case in Winnipeg, where significant snowfalls are followed by relatively prompt snow clearing operations and frigid temperatures. I would say frozen pavement is the most common driving surface in our city.
Other locales that experience regular precipitation near the freezing mark, or are more hilly, would benefit more from studded tires.
The other downside to donning studded tires on your vehicle is the potential restriction on entering city parking structures. Many such facilities have protective membranes that can be damaged by metal tire studs. So, if you see a sign that prohibits studded tires at a parking garage, that’s why.
The more common type of winter tire, at least in the Canadian market, is studless, and for good reason. A greater variety, and therefore better availability, of studless tires allow customers more choice when shopping, to find tires that best suit their needs.
The studless Nokians performed admirably on the front-drive Golf Wagon through the winter. Providing a sure footing in deep snow and reassuring grip under different winter braking conditions mean that all-wheel drive is not a must in our climate. In fact, if I had to choose between all-wheel drive and winter tires, I’ll take the latter any day.
Because as fun as it is to make a jackrabbit start in the snow with all-wheel drive, what really matters is traction and control in emergency situations, which pretty much never require quick acceleration. What matters, rather, is making the most of available traction when trying to turn and stop. And all-wheel drive isn’t a lick of good in those situations if the traction isn’t there.
As for studded versus studless: for our driving conditions, I’ll go studless and get 90 percent of the benefits and none of the drawbacks.