Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi
Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi. Click image to enlarge


Review and photos by Haney Louka

The first true test for this season’s winter tires happened in the second week of November – relatively late in the season for a first snow in Winnipeg, but it proved an ideal situation in which to appreciate the benefits of tires specifically designed with traction in snow, ice, and freezing temperatures as the primary objective.

This story follows on the heels of Autos’s GIANT Winter Traction Test, and serves to both reinforce the findings of that test and also provide my own observations on this specific tire.

First, some housekeeping. I’m compelled to play the broken record each time I write a winter tire review, for the benefit of those who are not sold on them as a smart investment.

While the cost of winter tires might seem prohibitive, consider that the two sets of tires you use will last considerably longer than a single set of all-seasons. Combine that with savings resulting from even one avoided collision during that time and the added cost, while still up-front, is less of a factor.

Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi
Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi. Click image to enlarge

The subject of this year’s test is the Hakkapeliitta RSi, made by Finnish tire manufacturer Nokian. If you think that’s a mouthful, Nokian’s rep gave me a hint: if it sounds like “have a fajita” when you say it, you’re on the right track.

New to market last season, the RSi is a studless winter tire that bears the “severe service” designation common to all winter tires, denoted on the sidewall with a snowflake-on-mountain emblem. It features a directional “arrowhead” tread pattern with many sipes (zigzag grooves in the tread blocks) that allow the tread to remain flexible while at the same time channeling water away. Lower-profile versions incorporate a rim guard flange to protect the rims from light brushes with the curb. The RSi incorporates a 40 per cent increase in shoulder siping over the previous generation Q, for more traction during braking.

Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi
Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi. Photo: Nokian. Click image to enlarge

The rubber compound uses rape seed silica, which helps it to remain flexible in cold temperatures. Nokian’s “driving safety indicator” displays the remaining tread depth in millimetres – no need for a tire gauge with this one. When the tires are new, the numbers “8 6 4” appear in the centre of the tread. As the tires wear, the higher numbers disappear. Simple, yet effective.

So how do they perform? Let’s start with their dry performance, since I had the tires installed three weeks before the white stuff started falling. The sharp steering response that my Mazda6 wagon exhibits with its stock Michelin Pilot all-seasons is dulled significantly, and the car does not have quite the same sense of straight ahead. Furthermore, the tires are quite noisy under acceleration and at speed. But none of these things are unusual with winter tires because of their soft compounds and open tread patterns.

During that first snowfall, all 20 cm of it, the Hakkas proved their worth more than any other time this season so far. The snow came down wet and heavy and was the type that instantly turned to ice as soon as a tire spun on it.

Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi
Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi. Click image to enlarge

As the morning scramble to work proved futile for many of my neighbours, I helped a few of them push their vehicles back up their driveways – something I also did at our place with a Honda Civic equipped with all-seasons. These cars simply would not move. And ground clearance wasn’t the issue: among the disabled vehicles were a late model rear-drive Ford pickup and a full-sized van. After the street was clear of immobilized vehicles, I backed the Mazda out of my driveway and pulled away down the street, without a hint of wheelspin.

That experience alone proves the worth of winter tires, but we also need to look at other conditions to which winter tires are subjected. A typical Winnipeg winter involves very cold temperatures and snow, but not as much ice as in more temperate parts of the country to the east and west of us. But this year has been different. With the warmest January on record, our season has been much more like that in other parts of the country: lots of freezing and thawing, lots of precipitation at near-freezing temperatures and, most significantly, lots of ice on the roads.

Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi
Nokian Hakkapeliitta RSi. Click image to enlarge

And this is where the benefits of winter tires need to be put into perspective. Don’t put tires like these on your two-wheel drive car or truck and expect to out-accelerate those with all four contact patches doing the driving. I haven’t tried a set of tires that can do this, and besides, that misses the point. While smart acceleration from a stop in slippery conditions can be fun, it has nothing to do with safety or higher all-around performance during the winter season.

So, back to the tires. I’ve become accustomed to the softer steering response and noise on dry pavement, so it’ll be a nice treat when the snow melts and I put the stock Michelins back on my car. But the best thing to do when considering winter tires is to accept the decrease in dry-weather performance against the benefit of superior winter traction. Last year’s winter tire test involved a set of Michelin Pilot Alpins, which gave up almost nothing in dry weather performance. They were decent in the snow, but paled in comparison to these Hakkapeliittas. For me, I’ll make the dry-weather sacrifice to maximize the benefits on snow and ice.

And through this milder-than-usual winter, the Hakkas have taken all situations thrown at them in stride. Often I’ll hear people talk about how slippery it is outside, only to realize I hadn’t noticed to nearly the same extent. Acceleration is excellent on snow, but is downgraded to merely reasonable on ice. Stopping and turning performance is similarly elevated in all conditions, to the point where I can say these are the best winter tires I’ve tried to date.

Here’s the only challenge: what do I try next year? If you have suggestions on which winter tires I should put on my Mazda6 wagon next season, send us an email and we’ll try to pick the most popular choice.

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