Michelin Pilot Alpin
Michelin Pilot Alpin. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Haney Louka

I normally allow myself two days per year to silently mumble to myself that it would be nice to have an SUV in the garage. December 31st in Winnipeg was one of those days.

It all started on the evening of the 30th when the four of us went out to a wedding reception located down a winding road that shadows the Red River just south of the city. During the reception and for several hours afterward, 25 cm of snow proceeded to fall (almost horizontally, mind you) on our fair town. We managed to make our way home after about 2/3 of the snow had fallen; a fine way to test the mettle of Michelin’s new Pilot Alpin performance winter tire.

But first, the basics. Winter tires are those specifically designed to provide increased traction on snow and ice and in cold weather. They are built to a standard endorsed by the Rubber Association of Canada (RAC), and are so identified by a snowflake-on-mountain “severe service” symbol found on the sidewall of the tire.

The rubber compounds used in ‘all-season’ tires begin to lose elasticity at temperatures below seven degrees Celsius, according to a document issued by the RAC. The compounds used in winter tires are designed to maintain their flexibility at lower temperatures, a characteristic essential to good traction. The RAC also notes that while tires must provide a minimum of 10 percent better traction in severe snow conditions to earn the title, most provide between a 30 and 50 percent improvement over standard all-season tires.

Michelin Pilot Alpin

Michelin Pilot Alpin
Michelin Pilot HX all-season (left) and Pilot Alpin. Click image to enlarge

And if the cost of winter tires seems like a tough pill to swallow, consider that this second set of tires will help your summer or all-season tires last much longer. A set of steel wheels is the best way to go as well, the cost of which is negligible after the first time you avoid a collision and don’t have to pay your insurance deductible.

Good winter tires are differentiated from their all-season counterparts in look and feel. Next to the car’s original equipment Pilot HX all-season tires, the Alpin has a softer rubber compound. It’s also noticeably blockier in appearance, with wide lateral grooves and big shoulder blocks for digging in rather than the primarily longitudinal grooves in the all-seasons.

Sipes, or narrow slits found in each tread block, are another feature common to winter tires. These contribute to both the flexibility and the biting ability of the tire in cold weather.

Our Mazda6 wagon is quite low to the ground, meaning that it really needs help when the white stuff falls. The Pilot Alpins did all they could to compensate for the low clearance by providing plenty of bite – enough to stuff the front air dam and wheel wells full of snow and allow my little wagon to forge its own path.

Having said that, the Pilot Alpins are not the ultimate winter tire. On ice, they are not as sticky as they could be, nor do they claw through deep snow as well as the best winter tires out there. But there is a reason.

Being a member of the Pilot family, these are winter tires with a decidedly sporty edge. Typically excellent winter traction comes at the expense of dry and wet weather handling, because the more flexible and blocky the tread pattern, the more the tires will squirm around on dry pavement. That’s where the Pilots show their balance. While they’re not mountain-goat aggressive on the slick stuff, they still maintain their composure the rest of the time when they are not on snow duty.

A quick day trip from Winnipeg to Brandon in wet weather showed their strength: these winter tires track straight and provide a smooth, quiet ride on the highway. On top of that, they still allow my 6 to turn in aggressively without requiring correction. That they still provide this level of performance given their competence on snow and ice is where the Pilot Alpins shine against the competition.

The verdict? If you need the extra traction in the winter (and who doesn’t), but still savour your performance car’s sharp reflexes, or if you do a lot of highway driving in the winter, the Pilot Alpins from Michelin strike a great balance in all winter conditions.

Connect with Autos.ca