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Grading the grip

Yokohama iG52c passes winter-tire test

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The Yokohama tires did a fine job of providing confident traction under braking in even the iciest conditions.

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The more sipes the better, and Yokohama's iG52c has lots of them.

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Our provincial government has just given us one less excuse not to buy winter tires: MPI will soon roll out a low-cost loan program to make them more affordable.

While I think a discount on insurance premiums for those who buy winter tires would make more sense, any measure to encourage their use without making them mandatory (as Quebec does) is a step in the right direction.

One thing anybody looking for a set of winter tires should do is go to the tire store and have a look at what's available. The first thing to look at is the siping in the tire tread. Sipes are the narrow, zigzag slits that function as thousands of edges to help the tire grip the slick stuff under acceleration and braking.

The more sipes the better, and Yokohama's iG52c has lots of them.

It's also important to have wide grooves between tread blocks. This helps evacuate snow, slush and water to maximize the tires' contact patches on the road. This a common trait among winter tires and a noticeable departure when comparing them to all-season rubber.

The third thing to look for -- and to me the most important -- is how soft the rubber compound feels under some thumb pressure. At room temperature, as is often the ambient condition in the showroom of a tire store, the treads should squish under the pressure of your thumb. This is a sign of a rubber compound that will remain flexible at lower temperatures as well as a characteristic of a more flexible tread block.

Such traits are completely unacceptable in summer conditions, but when your safety depends on maximizing what little grip is available in the winter months, the sacrifice makes a little more sense.

And so, it was with that initial push of my thumb into the tire treads that I wondered if these first impressions would hold true through the season. While the Yokohamas that were mounted on my wife's VW Golf provided the expected yielding under pressure, the more performance-oriented Coopers installed on my GTI held their form -- and lowered my expectations for performance when it really matters.

The new iG52c from Yokohama has been designed to reduce the micro-hydroplaning that sees a thin film of water form between the tire and the road. To accomplish this, Yokohama says the rubber compound actually absorbs this water like a sponge.

While it's difficult to prove or disprove such statements made by tire companies, the proof to me is in the tires' performance through all the conditions Canadians face when venturing out on the road in winter. And by that measure, the iG52c joins the ranks of my top-rated winter tires.

As my wife's daily driver, our front-drive VW Golf Wagon needs to work day in and day out. Part of that is not worrying about getting stuck or sliding through icy intersections. So as much as she doesn't care about siping, tread block flexibility or diluted steering response, she knows a good winter tire from a bad one, thanks to a decade of driving on different tires.

Between our 2004 Mazda 6 wagon and this 2012 VW, her input on whether she likes the tires or not helps me to step back from the details and decide whether the tires actually work or not.

Her verdict? The Yokohamas work. The Coopers do not. But let's be more specific.

We've had several significant snowfalls this winter, and even though we could sometimes see the marks from the car's undercarriage between the tire tracks on this fresh snow, the tires did not once fail to dig in and keep the car moving. Not having to worry about getting stuck, particularly in a two-wheel-drive car, is a good thing.

On the ice, it's a different story because, while winter tires are designed to make the most of whatever grip is available, they can only work with what they have. Slick ice is where stud-less tires suffer the most, because they don't have the claws studded tires have.

With that in mind, though, the Yokos did a fine job of providing confident traction under braking in even the iciest conditions.

As any driver of a front-drive vehicle knows, accelerating from a stop next to a car or SUV with all-wheel drive on an icy road is an exercise in frustration. And no winter tire will make up that deficit.

But the reason I always recommend winter tires is not for their performance at the stop-light grand prix, but rather their ability to provide safe, reliable performance in the worst conditions nature can throw at us.

And those all-wheel drive vehicles? Without winter tires, they're just as susceptible to getting into a slide while braking or turning on slick surfaces.

So those first impressions proved themselves through the season, and that's important because not many people get to test out tires before forking over significant dollars and getting them installed for good.

In my books, the Yokohama iG52c is right up there with Nokian's Hakkapeliitta and Continental's Extreme Winter Contact tires as one of the best all-around winter tires.

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