February 22, 2007
Gislaved Nord Frost 3. Click image to enlarge
Review and photo by Michael Clark
Pardon me; haven’t we stuck to snow and ice before?
It was almost two years ago to the day when I first read the very Swedish name on the skins of a Volvo XC70. It was during a winter test event near Quebec City, which included a little bit of friendly competition through an ice-slick slalom course. How slick was it? When my driving partner exited the XC, his feet promptly shot out from under him, knocking him out as cold as the pavement. I’m not sure what was going through his head during his 15-second whack-nap, but I’ll bet a double-double that he was wondering how that Volvo could stick to the ice better than he could.
The Gislaved brand started life in the Swedish town of the same name, originally producing bicycle tires in the 1890′s. They are now part of the Continental suite of rolling rubber. Unless you’ve made regular visits to a Volvo or Saab dealer, you’ve probably never heard of them. Cruise on over to the company website, and you start to understand the Gislaved grasp on the cold. The first picture is of a polar bear. The online catalogue has more snow tires available than summer’s.
Continental Tire of Canada supplied my Mazda MX-minus-5 tester with a set of 205/50R16 Gislaved Nord Frost 3′s for the fashionable black steels. Jerry Turchen and his Dugald Road Tirecraft team took care of the install and balance, as well as a slight rim repair. This is a good time to point out the sensibility of winter steels for seasonal changeovers. While the rim wasn’t bent, it had suffered a ding to the outer wheel lip, most likely from a pothole bounce. It took less than a minute to fix. However, an alloy rim would have most definitely required treatment from a wheel repair shop.
In Gislaved’s view, the world is flat. This refers to the contact patch of the tire, with shoulder blocks that are practically at right angles to the sidewalls. The directionally-oriented tread pattern has provisions for studs, which were nixed due to the MX-5′s feather-light curb weight. The proprietary compound uses high concentrations of silica and natural rubber, with just the right mix for temperature drops that send all-seasons scurrying into the ditch. Tread block channels are deep and wide for removal of water and slush, with an aggressive pattern for snow chomp. The inner blocks see the added benefit of multiple sipes for ice grip, with unique variations in their angles of placement. It must be to confuse the ice into thinking it’s pavement.
Greasy slop was the first traction action for the ‘Ved’s. To date, this has been one of the most impressive skins for the wet, especially under braking. Mounds of throttle push were required to get the rear wheels to break loose. The braking performance continued under icy conditions, with only a frigid water main break engaging the ABS for about three skrunches. The larger contact patch is a spot-on natch for urban winter demands. More tire surface means more pointy-teeth sipes.
The trade-off with the larger, flattened contact patch is a noticeable rumble at highway speeds. Luckily, it isn’t as high-pitched as studs. The Ved’s were excellent snow-throwers, with any exuberance in the oversteer department easily controlled. The large shoulder blocks with generous width in between made quick work of snowy corners. The only way to really get the Ved’s bent out of shape is to set your throttle inputs on “Deathrace 2000″. Keep in mind that the only weight in the trunk of the MX-5 is the front license plate holder and an empty bag of Frito’s.
Speaking of weight, one should always remember to keep the gas tank as close to full as possible during the winter months. Imagine carrying home 30 litres of milk, and you start to understand the benefits of downforce. That full tank isn’t just for rear-drivers; it can mean the difference for FWD cars, especially under hard cornering. You may still encounter a touch of skid, but it tends to be more manageable.
With minimal knowledge of their existence, the Nord Frost 3′s will probably require the patience reserved for a special order. The suggested retail price of $151.19 per tire, plus installation and balancing, is well within reason for grip that far exceeds that of an auto journalist’s shoes.