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Too many compromises for 'performance' winter tire

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Cooper WeatherMaster snow tires acquitted themselves well in the deep stuff, although they didn't deliver the traction found in better-rated winter tires.

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Cooper tires hold a slight price advantage over the more established competition

Having a set of winter test tires on both of our cars makes for an interesting comparison -- particularly since the two cars residing in our garage are quite similar in nature.

Certainly, a VW Golf TDI wagon and a VW GTI have unique characteristics with respect to handling and power delivery, but in the wide spectrum of vehicles that are available on the market, they'd have to be the same car to be any more suitable for comparison.

I suppose the fact that our GTI is five years older than our wagon makes the cars a bit different too. And it was that thought that had me visiting my dealer not long after a set of Cooper WeatherMaster Snow tires was installed on my car.

A wheel bearing was my initial thought when I first took my car up to highway speeds and noticed the steady hum and minor vibration that rose and fell with road speed, independent of engine speed. It had been a few weeks between getting the tires installed and having the car on some high-speed roads, so the tires did not immediately register as a possible cause. In retrospect, the sound was too evenly distributed around the car to be caused by the loss of a wheel bearing.

The dealership told me everything was okay; it was just noisy tires. While I was inclined to believe them, I took my car to the Sturgeon Tire shop that installed the tires just to see if they wanted to check anything themselves. One test-drive and the technician confirmed it was the tires making the noise.

I've been reviewing winter tires since 2001, and this is my first experience where tire noise has been excessive to the point of needing to get the car checked out. Before this, I would have identified the Michelin X-Ice Xi2 as the noisiest winter tires I had tried to date, but that was primarily due to the high-pitched hum that they exhibited on wet pavement.

When I asked Cooper about this, they said that, to their knowledge, noise hasn't been an issue for their customers, but perhaps those who don't have the opportunity to try different tires would just be expecting noise to accompany the tires' aggressive tread.

And aggressive the tread is. On first touch, the tread blocks had less give than I'm accustomed to seeing on winter rubber. Compared with the Yokohamas that are mounted on our Golf Wagon, the tread blocks on the Coopers are harder and have larger grooves between them. These are things that help both dry and wet/slush handling. The harder rubber means that the tread blocks maintain their shape better at warmer temperatures and under high cornering loads, and the wider grooves allow water and slush to be evacuated quickly to maximize the tires' contact with the road.

The Coopers acquitted themselves well in the deep stuff, although they didn't provide the kind of mountain-goat traction confidence that I've seen in better-rated winter tires. There was always a bit more finesse and concentration required with these tires to keep the car moving in the deep stuff. Fortunately, the traction control in my GTI is programmed such that a fair amount of wheelspin is allowed before the system cuts in, meaning that I wasn't constantly turning the system off when I needed to get going.

Ice performance with these tires has been good. Not great, but good. Again, the same harder rubber compound reduces the ability of the individual tread blocks to flex when trying to get a grip. The zigzag siping that is present across the full width of the tread on most winter tires is only present on the inner portion of these Coopers, further hampering the tires' ability to bite.

This is one of the compromises that accompany a tire billed as "performance" winter rubber. My personal preference has always leaned toward giving up some dry-road handling to have meaningful grip when winter rears its ugly head.

The Coopers hold a slight price advantage against the more established competition; the retail price of these 225/45-17 tires is $239.40 each. For comparison, the superior Yokohama iG52c tires mounted on my wagon cost $266.32 apiece. And the highly rated Blizzak WS70 comes in at around $258. I wouldn't consider the Coopers' price advantage to be sufficient to overlook its shortcomings.

So while I had high hopes for these new Cooper tires I don't rank them as a competitive product when comparing them to other winter tires I've tried. And especially with the side-by-side comparison to the Yokohamas on our other VW, and to the Blizzak WS70s that the GTI wore last year, the difference in performance is significant.

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