by Jim Kerr

As I accelerated around the corner onto the freeway, the soft sounds of Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin’ Away came from the radio. A sudden gust of wind and a flurry of leaves made me think of how my commute to work would soon change. Winter is on the horizon and “Slip Slidin’ Away” will be the norm for many drivers on the snowy roads. It’s time to switch to the winter tires.

Many drivers don’t think they need winter tires. After all, when All-Season tires came out in the late 70’s, they were good for winter and summer driving. Wrong! All-season tires may work fine for most driving conditions, but they are no match for the traction of true winter tires.

Some tires are called winter tires because they have the Mud and Snow (M + S) on the sidewall. They sound like they should be good for snow, but the M + S designation is not regulated and you can find it on all kinds of tires. Some work in snow; others don’t. To reduce the confusion, the Rubber Association of Canada has developed severe snow tire performance standards and a Mountain/snowflake icon for the tire sidewall to identify true winter tires. Current winter tires often look more like summer performance tires. It’s the technology that gives them the grip.

More compliant rubber compounds provide much better traction, especially at lower temperatures, but that is only the beginning of winter tire technology. Tread design gives the tire mechanical grip on the snow and ice. Look at a winter tire and you will see small, close-together tread blocks with lots of biting edges and wedge-shaped openings between the blocks to grip loose snow. This design also has the added bonus of being quiet at highway speeds.

Winter tires also have thousands of tiny cuts in the tread surface. These are called “siping” and provide extra bite on slippery icy surfaces. The siping is often made in several directions, so the tire will have good cornering traction as well as straight-line traction.

All-season tires work reasonably well, so why bother with the added expense of the tires and changing them? Try a set of winter tires and you will never want to drive on a slippery road without them. For rear wheel drive cars, they are almost a must. Performance cars like the Firebird spin their tires if someone sneezes on the pavement, but after installing a set of Goodyear UltraGrip Ice radials, the car drove on snow covered roads like it was summer time. It drove like it had traction control – it didn’t!

Studded tires do offer excellent traction on ice if they are in good shape, but they are noisy and wear the pavement. Most provinces do not allow studs at all, or only allow them during the winter season. Winter ice tires work almost as well as the best studded tires, so I would avoid the hassle of studs.

While most drivers install winter tires because they want to avoid becoming stuck, the biggest advantage of winter tires is accident avoidance. The extra traction works equally well when stopping as accelerating. The superior lateral grip helps keep the vehicle under control, so spins and slides are less likely. Install four winter tires for the best stability. Installing only two tires can cause one end of the car to loose traction on corners. The cost of even a small accident is much higher than the price of a set of winter tires. Think of them as a little extra insurance.

Six years ago, you wouldn’t find much on the market for winter tires other than aggressive open lug types. Now, almost all tire manufacturers offer specialty winter tires for passenger cars, light duty trucks and SUV’s. Most of the manufacturers refer to their best winter tires as “ice radials”.

I checked around to see what the going price is for a set of winter tires. I priced out two sizes for each brand of tire: P205/65R-15 and P245/70R16. The smaller 15-inch tires represent common sizes found on many passenger cars, and the larger 16-inch tires can fit many SUV’s and pickups. I found a wide range of qualities and prices, so I focused on only premium tires that offer the best traction. In reality, there is usually less than $100 difference in price for a set of four premium winter tires versus less capable ones. I think the extra safety is definitely worth the slightly higher price.

First stop was at the Bridgestone dealer. Bridgestone Blizzak tires are perhaps the best-known winter tire and are the traction standard other tires are often measured to. Retail list prices started at $204 dollars each for the 15-inch tires, but the everyday price was quoted at $132.00. I could buy the 16-inch tires for $182.00.

While Blizzak tires are good, they have one problem. The siping in the tread goes only half way down into the tread blocks. Traction on ice is good while the siping is showing, but after the tire wears about half way, the siping is gone and the traction is only about as good as most all season tires.

Toyo tires market a winter tire with the Observe name. The Observe GP-4 15-inch tire was priced at $134 each, while the Observe G-02 16-inch tires were priced at $153. These tires use microbit rubber technology (like small grains of rubber moulded together) to enhance ice traction, and have siping that is full depth of the tread. I haven’t had personal experience with these tires yet, but technicians in the shop recommended them over the Blizzaks because of their full depth siping.

Goodyear market the UltraGrip Ice radial. The Ice radial was priced at $140 for the 15-inch tire size but it is not available for the 16-inch size. Instead, there is a less costly (and less traction) regular UltraGrip tire priced at $176 for the 16 inch size.. I like the UltraGrip Ice tires. They tamed a Firebird for winter driving so well it felt like the car had traction control. You won’t go wrong with the Goodyears.

In head to head comparative testing on ice and snow, Michelin Arctic Alpin tires make a great impression. These winter tires offered outstanding stopping and cornering ability on ice, and great traction in deep snow. With the 15-inch size priced at $124, and the 16-inch at $155, these tires are very competitively priced.

There are many other winter tires on the market. Make sure the tires you chose have the mountain/snowflake icon on the sidewall and shop around for the best price.

Finally, buy an extra set of wheels for your winter tires. New steel rims cost from $50 to $100 each. Used ones are about half that price. If you have the tires installed on your regular rims, it will cost you about $70 in the fall to mount and balance four tires and another $70 again in the spring to install the summer tires. Extra rims make it easier and much cheaper to swap back and forth.

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