Studded vs. studless: driving in Winterpeg

by Haney Louka . Dec 16 2016
HANEY LOUKA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSLouka tests out how studded and non-studded tires size up in the wintery roads of Winnipeg.

HANEY LOUKA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Louka tests out how studded and non-studded tires size up in the wintery roads of Winnipeg.

Based strictly on observation, I’d say Winnipeggers are finally embracing winter tires as an essential piece of equipment for getting through our prairie winters.

And there are numbers to back that impression up: a recent survey commissioned by the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC) found winter tire usage in Manitoba and Saskatchewan is up to 50 per cent —11 points higher than in 2014.

That’s good news, since winter tires are the only proper footwear for your vehicle through the winter. But there’s still work to do: the national average (outside of Quebec) is 61 per cent. Quebec is the only province that legally requires the use of winter tires.

In Manitoba, there’s no doubt the financing program offered by Manitoba Public Insurance is playing a role in increased usage; since 2014, drivers have been allowed to finance the costs of winter tires with monthly payments that are added to their insurance bills.

This year, I’m setting out to answer a very specific question: I know studded tires provide superior grip on icy surfaces, but are they the right choice for Manitobans wanting to maximize their traction through the winter?

Nokian was willing to help me find the answer, so I requested a set of studded Hakkapeliitta 8 tires and a set of studless Hakkapeliitta R2 tires for installation on the two VW Golfs in our garage.

While the cars are both Golfs, one is a front-drive wagon, while the other is an all-wheel drive hatchback. Both have manual gearboxes. The plan, then, is to compare the studded and studless tires with the two different drivetrains.

I had the tires installed on both cars in late October. Studded on the AWD Golf R, and studless on the FWD TDI wagon. And come February, I’ll be swapping them so the front-driver will get the studs.

The R2 brings the company’s state-of-the-art studless technology to cars and crossovers. The rubber compound in the R2 includes hard granular particles that are evenly distributed through the tread for added bite on hard snow and ice. The sides of the tread blocks are serrated for added grip in deep snow, and the sipes have tiny reservoirs to store water and reduce the film of water that forms between a tire and the ice surface.

The Hakka 8 studded tire was introduced last year, boasting 50 per cent more studs than its predecessor. Nokian has also increased the number of tread blocks, which means more biting edges for gripping a slippery surface.

On Dec. 5, Winnipeg was the lucky recipient of at least 20 centimetres of snow, followed by truly frigid temps. Welcome to Winterpeg: better late than never.

But for the first month-and-a-bit, I drove both cars on dry pavement in mild (around zero degrees) weather. Predictably, the studless tires added a fair amount of mush to the Golf Wagon’s handling repertoire: dynamic response to driver inputs is notably more remote than with the factory all-seasons.

With studded tires strapped onto my Golf R, I was a bit shocked with the noise level on dry pavement. The Hakka 8s are promoted as being quiet for studded tires, but clearly, expectations need to be kept in check. What remains to be seen is whether the noise of the studded tires is a small price to pay for the added grip on icy surfaces.

And then, the snow came. Keep in mind that this is but a snapshot of winter conditions so far, and we’ll be providing an update later in the season with more performance impressions.

All I can say at this point is that my Golf R with studded tires on eight inches of fresh powder is an absolute blast to drive. And as the snow became packed down and the intersections glazed over, the studs could be felt scratching the surface for added grip. In short, the car felt unstoppable. Unless, of course, I was trying to stop, in which case the tires allowed me to do that, too.

Not surprisingly, the front-drive Golf wagon with its studless tires wasn’t quite the carnival ride by comparison, but at least getting stuck wasn’t a concern, even with the fresh snow that challenged the car’s ground clearance. These tires dig down and churn through the snow to keep things moving.

After two days, the streets were all plowed, and now we’re back to driving on frozen pavement. By the end of the season, I hope to encounter a range of winter conditions to help determine which tire type is more suitable for our climate, and whether the car’s drivetrain might influence that decision.

As for price, there’s not too much of a difference between the two tires: a visit to Kaltire.com shows that the R2s cost $235.35 each, while the Hakka 8 studded tires are $246.17, for the 225/45-17 size installed on the two cars.

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