July 15, 2003
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Story and photos by Haney Louka
People make compromises in many aspects of life. Whether it’s balancing financial priorities, demands on our time, or maybe it’s as simple as what type of shoe to buy – we have to decide what’s important and give a little on things that don’t matter so much.
It’s no different with cars. What works best for you? A minivan? Pickup? Or a do-it-all crossover? Some people have the wherewithal to buy a different vehicle for each day of the week. But for the rest of us, we have to find one or two vehicles that manage to do everything reasonably well. Regardless of our financial situation, though, there’s one thing we all need to do: get where we want to go safely. And in Canada, that means trudging through some of the most severe weather conditions around.
Getting somewhere safely in your vehicle depends on many factors, one of the most important being the four little patches of rubber between your car and the road. And there’s no greater compromise than all-season tires, meaning no single weather condition is completely taken care of. That means you’re not getting complete dry, wet, or winter traction with a set of all-seasons.
For most of us, that doesn’t matter so much on dry pavement because the limits of adhesion are so high. But on wet, snowy, or icy surfaces, that limit becomes an all-too-often-approached threshold.
Winter Tire Pros and Cons
Most tire manufacturers produce dedicated winter tires that bear the severe service emblem (a snowflake on a mountain) on the sidewall. The emblem is used on tires that meet specific traction requirements on snow and ice at low temperatures, and is recognized by Transport Canada and the Rubber Association of Canada.
While winter tires may be the best no-compromises response to winter driving conditions, there’s a price. Tractability at low temperatures requires a softer rubber compound than all-seasons, and treadwear suffers as a result. In fact, winter tires do not even list treadwear ratings for comparison against all-seasons. Handling on dry pavement also suffers because the deep tread blocks and soft rubber compound result in a less direct connection to the road.
There’s a convenience issue as well: vehicles equipped with winter tires require a changeover to summers or all-seasons each spring and back again each fall. To some, that’s not a big deal. To others, it’s a compelling reason not to buy winter tires.
Nokian Tyres, the Finnish manufacturer of Hakkapeliitta winter tires, may have the answer: the WR “All-Weather Plus” tire. While that may sound like a fancy name for all-seasons, there’s an important distinction: these tires bear the severe service emblem, and at the same time carry a pro rata treadwear warranty of 80,000 km.
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The WR features a silica rubber compound and an ‘arrowhead’ directional tread pattern that is designed to expel water and snow while allowing the tread blocks to remain in contact with the ground. There’s also a unique feature called the “driving safety indicator,” which incorporates numbers displayed along the centre of the tire’s tread in addition to the usual wear bars. These numbers, when the tire is new, read “8 6 4″ indicating the number of millimetres of tread depth remaining. As the tire wears, the higher numbers disappear and provide an excellent gauge for drivers wanting to know how much life is left in their tires.
Put Them to the Test
But now that Nokian’s marketing mavens have cast the hook, it’s time to bite and see what these tires can really do. Kal Tire installed a set of WRs on my VW Jetta in the dead of Winnipeg’s winter and I have been driving on them ever since.
As a winter tire, the WRs performed admirably. In deep snow, they didn’t bite quite as well as some of the better winter tires I’ve sampled, but certainly enough to keep me mobile through some pretty deep white stuff. And definitely better than any all-season tire I’ve tried.
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Likewise on ice and hard, frozen surfaces: traction was at least as good as the average winter tire, and notably better than the Dunlop Graspics I tested the winter before. That the WRs did this well in winter and didn’t require a changeover in the spring is where I see the real value in these tires.
Once the snow melted (finally) and the rain started pouring, the WRs once again proved their mettle. They effectively channeled water away from under them in deep water to maximize the contact area between the tire and the road. Wet braking grip is similarly impressive, as there is no discernible difference in this respect between WRs and the all-seasons that they replaced.
But, like every compromise, there has to be a drawback. And with the WR, that sacrifice is made in dry weather performance. Don’t get me wrong: they are perfectly acceptable in all summer driving conditions, but if you’re one who places precise handling and accurate, high-speed stability at the top of your list, the WRs will disappoint.
Under normal driving conditions around town, there are no drawbacks to this tire. But throw a fast corner or quick zig-zag into the mix, and the lack of precision makes itself evident. There’s a floaty, disconnected feeling that will have performance fiends cringing. But it’s those same fanatics that don’t see a problem with owning two sets of tires.
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On the highway, the tires are reasonably quiet and offer very good ride quality. In strong cross-winds, more steering correction is required because the tires’ tread blocks allow the car to stray off the intended path more easily. And during high-speed passing on two-lanes, the same issue arises: concentration is required to keep the car on the straight and narrow. I should note, though, that this was only an issue during, um, very high speed passing on two lanes. The average two-lane pass occurred drama-free.
The WRs won’t win any beauty contests. True to their function, they do look more like a winter than an all season tire. That means chunky sidewall shoulders, deep tread blocks, and a slightly tall, narrow appearance compared with other brands of the same size tire. But again, only true fanatics will find an issue here.
To Sum It Up
So the WR hasn’t broken any rules: it’s still a compromise. But its priorities have been shuffled compared with most all season tires: winter and wet traction are most important, and dry performance, while good, is clearly not the WR’s forte.
In our harsh Canadian climate, I recommend using dedicated winter tires to everybody. But if you don’t want the hassle and expense of owning two sets of tires, the Nokian WR is the next best thing.