by Craig M. Lee

Consult Transport Canada for a list of tires that meet the standards for severe winter duty

When the going gets tough, the right tires will keep you going (and on the road).

Barry Groleau is a hard-drivin’ man.

Not that the Nepean, Ontario resident drives recklessly. But when he’s got somewhere to go, he goes, come rain or snow or freezing temperatures.

And as a construction project manager with Public Works and Government Services Canada, Mr. Groleau is on the go a lot, inspecting building projects throughout Eastern Ontario. Like many drivers, Mr. Groleau says he wouldn’t think of facing a Canadian winter without a set of winter tires to get him through the snowdrifts and give him peace of mind on glare ice at highway speeds.

Francis Peori, the assistant manager of Frisby Tire on Somerset Street in Ottawa, says motorists who come to him for winter tires have clear needs: “Better handling, better traction, better braking.”

So-called “all-season” tires are really a compromise, he says, adequate if you’re willing to stay home when the roads are covered in snow and ice. But a lot of people put on something better.

That might be because tires have changed a lot recently. They’re much more purpose-built, even on family sedans. From turbo Volvos to souped-up Civics to luxury minivans, today’s vehicles often come with wide, low-profile tires that only a few years ago would be found only on the sportiest of sports cars.

Unfortunately, “performance and all-season tires lose their grip at minus 15 or so,” Mr. Peori says. In cold snaps and on icy roads, they just don’t work like the new generation of soft-compound winter tires.

“There have been major advances in construction techniques and rubber compounds,” Mr. Peori says.

Remember the old Firestone Town and Countrys? Canadian Tire’s Hi-way Bi-ways? Snow tires used to be noisy, big-lug, hard-riding doughnuts that were not very good on dry pavement.

Not any more. Now, all major tire companies market special compound winter tires with refined tread patterns that grip like the devil, while offering a smooth ride and competent road-holding on bare roads.

They have names like Bridgestone Blizzak, Goodyear UltraGrip, Yokohama Guardex, Canadian Tire’s Nordic WinterTrac (made by the Uniroyal-Goodrich division of Michelin) and Toyo Observe (which has ground walnut shells in the tread compound to improve grip on ice).

There are even winter versions of performance tires — “H and V (speed) rated, by Pirelli, for instance, in the 18-inch size,” says Mr. Peori.

Doug Wicks is the service manager at the Canadian Tire store in Orleans, Ontario. “Ten years ago, we stocked about 15 different sizes of snow tires,” he says.

“This fall, we stock more than 50. At my store alone, we expect to sell 6,000 to 8,000 winter tires.”

The practice used to be to install winter tires only on a car’s drive axle. But that idea is as dated as those old Hi-way Bi-ways.

Tire experts surveyed, including those at the Rubber Association of Canada, agree that motorists should fit four snow tires if they want to drive as safely as possible. This gives the vehicle a similar grip at all four corners.

“With front-heavy, front-wheel drive, you’ve got all this extra braking power and traction on the front,” says Mr. Peori.

“Then you add just two (winter tires) on the front? I’ve had people go out with only two on the fronts and come back an hour later having spun out. Honestly, I’ve had guys come back just ashen-faced, having scared themselves.”

Don Campbell, the Rubber Association of Canada’s president, says driving with snow tires on just the front wheels is “the most dangerous thing you could possibly do.”

“If you lose traction at the back end,” he continues, “your car can spin out on a curve,” and possibly slide sideways into an oncoming car.

“Just think,” Mr. Campbell says. “Four small tire patches, each about the size of a man’s hand. That’s all you’re riding on. That’s all the contact there is between your car and the ground.”

It isn’t just the rubber industry spreading the four-tire gospel. On the Transport Canada Web site, the federal government agency stresses that winter tires should be installed in sets of four to help maintain control and stability in slippery conditions.

But what tires to look for?

Both Transport Canada and the Rubber Association of Canada recommend motorists choose tires marked on the sidewall with the pictograph of a peaked mountain with a snowflake inside it. Doing so ensures the tires have the traction necessary for use on ice and snow in low temperatures.

“In most of Canada, these are our normal winter conditions,” notes John Neufeld, an automotive safety engineer at Transport Canada.

The Transport Canada Web site lists brands of tires that meet that severe-duty specification.

But what about “four-season” or “all-season” tires, original equipment on most cars and sport-utility vehicles? They’re marked “M+S” on the sidewalls, meaning Mud and Snow. Aren’t these good enough?

Well, maybe, if they have more than half their tread depth remaining.

Transport Canada’s Web site states: “Tires marked ‘M+S’ … continue to provide safe all-weather performance, but may not always be suitable for severe snow conditions …

“Wide, high-performance tires, other than those that are specifically designed as snow tires, are not suitable for use on snow covered roads.”

Mr. Neufeld clarifies: “The test (for M+S) does not use real snow conditions. The test to achieve the mountain-snowflake symbol does. The latter criteria are tougher to exceed.”

Mr. Campbell of the rubber association acknowledges that all-season tires in good condition may be adequate for many drivers, if they drive mainly on well-plowed and salted roads. But then he adds, “We raised four sons, all in hockey, right up to Junior, and we were out all over the countryside in any weather going to hockey games.”

It could be a lot of us are more like Mr. Groleau and Mr. Campbell than we think — we can’t sit home until the plows go by. If that’s the case, an investment in winter tires could head off a serious collision or major vehicle damage.

Ah, you’re thinking, but I’ve got antilock brakes (ABS). I’ve got a sport-utility. I’ve got four-wheel-drive. Therefore, I don’t need winter tires.

These features are great, but any vehicle will grip better with tires specifically designed for cold and ice. And most SUVs and pickups come with tires that are a compromise. Or that are essentially just large passenger car tires.

Or they have wide “Baja-style” tires that do well in sand and situations where you want “flotation,” but that may be the opposite of what you want on city streets and highways during an icy Canadian winter.

If you’re concerned about the inconvenience and cost of switching back and forth between summer and winter tires each spring and fall, you can do what Barry Groleau did: buy four ordinary steel rims and mount your winter tires separately.

“I went for years having someone else change my summer tires for my winters onto the same rims each spring and fall, waiting hours at service stations.

“When I weighed the $200 cost of four extra rims for my Acura, added up the cost of mounting and balancing twice a year plus my own time just waiting around for someone else to do it, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I can mount my snows on extra wheels and use my floor jack in my driveway anytime I want.’

“OK, so I’m not as fast as the Ferrari F-1 team,” he adds with a chuckle. “But, it only takes me 20 minutes.”

Mr. Groleau considers it a bonus that his summer tires (high-performance Michelin Pilots) last much longer when they’re not on the car for half the year. And the alloy wheels that came on his 1992 Acura Integra GS still look like new, having been spared the salt and sand-blast from winter roads.

Mr. Groleau might also concede that if he’s going to slide into a curb, he’d rather bend a steel rim than a factory mag. And avoiding an accident might save him an insurance surcharge.

Tire dealers understand. At this time of year, many are stockpiling steel wheels. Some, like Canadian Tire, offer “multi-fitment” rims that fit more than one vehicle.

According to Canadian Tire’s Doug Wicks: “Our generic winter rims are made by Kelsey Hayes in the United States. They have the same offset and bolt pattern as OE (original equipment) steel rims from a dealer, but cost about one-third as much.”

Some outlets, mainly in Toronto, Montreal, and (ironically) the large mail order specialists in the United States such as the Tire Rack, advertise one-price “packages” consisting of four steel rims and four winter tires, mounted and balanced.

Some motorists buy used rims from auto recycling yards. Others look to the want ads at this time of year, since people sell their vehicles or return them on lease, then sell their used winter tires.

Sometimes, you can save money and improve grip by going “minus one.” Say your top of the line sports coupe comes with high-performance tires and wheels in the 16-inch size. A tire or auto dealer can cross-check wheel fitment and you may find that the base model of your car comes with steel wheels in the 15-inch size that are less expensive to buy (same for the tires).

How can a narrower tire improve road grip? The rule of thumb from experts is that a narrower tire will cut through rain, snow and slush and bear down on the road better than a wider tire, which will tend to float up and over, losing grip in the process.

According to the Tire Rack’s Web site, a 195/70 X 14 tire and wheel can often substitute for a 205/60 X 15, 225/50 X 16 or even a 235/40 X 17 tire-and-wheel combination, since the diameters (height) are within millimetres.

When tire-shopping, check for sales — prices vary widely. Something else to ask about is whether the high-grip rubber compound goes all the way through the tread, or only to half the tread depth.

Some brands, such as Bridgestone Blizzak and Goodyear UltraGrip, turn into regular-compound snow tires at about half their tread depth.

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