Get a grip on tire options for winter

BY Haney Louka. Oct 06 04:00 am

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.

Proof of the value of winter tires came to me during a business trip 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 with its factory-supplied all-season tires.

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.

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 V-6 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 happen 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.

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.

So now: should you get studless winter tires, or go for the ultimate traction that studded tires provide?

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 VW Golf Wagon wore Hakkapeliitta R2 studless tires, while the all-wheel drive Golf R donned Hakka 8 studded rubber for the season.

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 centimetres of snow fell. Without shovelling 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. And it was a blast.

But the main 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? 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.

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.

But 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 allows customers more choice when shopping, to find tires that best suits 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 means 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 rarely 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 per cent of the benefits and none of the drawbacks.

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