The Time To Buy Your Winter Tires Is Now

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The Time To Buy Your Winter Tires Is Now

Now is the time to buy winter tires. Not tomorrow, not next week and certainly not next month.

The reason for this is that by mid-November, there will be nary a winter tire in the manufacturers’ warehouses. All of the 2010 winter tires will be at dealers and tire distributors. The racks will be empty waiting for next spring’s tires to start trickling in.


For the consumer, that means choices in brands and haggling ability over price diminish as the clock ticks. This is especially true if you have a size that is not common. By mid-November, the tire dealer will be telling you what brand you can have and what price you will pay.

When you start shopping for winter tires, arm yourself with some basic information. Start by knowing what your tire size, speed rating and load index numbers are.

This information can be found in a string of letters and numbers on the tire’s sidewall that look like this: P205/55R16 91H. These numbers are important so you get the same size tire and the correct weight-carrying ability that your car requires.

Next, have an idea of the kind of winter driving that concerns you: slush, snow or ice. Do you drive mostly on paved, ploughed roads or do you have to struggle through ankle-deep snow or worse?. There are as many classes of winter tires as there are types of winter boots.

If you can’t remember what boxes you ticked off on the option sheet when you bought your vehicle, take a look for any “sports” or “track” options on the vehicle. Did the sports package include bigger brakes? This may affect your ability to downsize tires for winter.

The classes of winter tires for cars and SUVs can be divided into normal (what the industry likes to call studless) and multi-cell tires. There is a small new category of tires emerging called All-Weather tires, and these may be a consideration for some drivers. Please note that these are not All-Season Tires.


For snow traction, a tire needs lots of edges. The sharp edges on the leading edge of the tread blocks cut into snow, so the more tread blocks the better, and irregular shapes of tread blocks are better that squares or rectangles.

Irregular shapes have more edges. Many blocks are good until we get too many of them and the tire becomes unstable at speeds on the highway. That is one of the things that was wrong with the old blocky-tread snow tires of yesteryear.

In addition to many blocks of tread, tires designed for snow will have wide channels between the blocks. This is where snow will be temporarily deposited while the wheel turns. Some will be ejected out the back as the tire rotates, and some may stay in the tread grooves to act as a bonding agent for the next layer of snow.

Some examples of general purpose winter tires that lean towards snow traction are the Firestone WinterForce, Altimax Arctic, BFGoodrich Winter Slalom, Goodyear’s UltraGrip series, Dunlop’s inter Sport series, Hankook Ice Bear, Pirelli Snow Control, and the list just goes on and on.

Tires that specialize in ice traction have an above average count of sipes. Sipes are the little cuts in the tread blocks. They look like superficial cuts that do nothing but when they are touching the road, the car’s weight makes them open up and grab the water off the ice to reduce the lubricating effect between tire rubber and ice. Again, lots of sipes are good, but too many sipes and the tire will squirm because the tread block is unstable.

Tires that lean toward giving extra ice traction are: Dunlop Graspic, Michelin X-Ice and Continental ExtremeWinter Contact.


There are only three major players in this high tech, high cost category of specialty tires — Bridgestone, Michelin and Yokohama.

To illustrate the problems with ice traction, hold an ice cube in your bare hands. It will feel very slippery. Now hold an ice cube while wearing a woollen mitten. The ice cube is not slippery anymore, because the wool of the mitt is absorbing the water on its surface.

Since your car cannot wear wool mitts, there has to be some other way to get rid of the water, and it does not take a lot of water to create slip. A few microns of water are all it takes to make ice slick. A micron is one millionth of a metre. We are not taking a lot of water on the ice and, in case the ice is bone dry, the weight of your vehicle on it creates enough pressure to get an instant film of water.

Sipes worked well, but something better was needed. The revelation by tire manufacturers that water on ice was the main problem with winter traction, not the ice itself, led to a major breakthrough in tire design.

In 1988, Bridgestone revolutionized ice grip with the Blizzak winter tire.

The Blizzak was the first tire to use a multi-cell compound; it is essentially a rubber with air pockets in the tread rubber. These millions of “cells” within the rubber are too small to see with the naked eye, but they do a fabulous job of wicking away the water from under the tire’s tread. As the tire rotates, more new cells are exposed, creating an endless stream of little voids where rubber can hide. Well, almost endless. These bubbles are only in the first 60% of the tire’s tread.

Over the years, the Blizzak has evolved from tiny bubbles to irregular shaped tubes. The tire has grown more stable, less squirmy in ride quality. Bridgestone has also added “bite” particles, little microscopic grit particles for more traction.

Yokohama has joined this class of tire with its Ice Guard IG20. It goes the extra mile and encases the bubbles in resin, so the tire is very stable since the air pockets cannot change shape when stressed by cornering.

In addition, they have added absorbent carbon flakes to the rubber. They act like the wool of the mitts above. In the average Ice Guard tire, there are about 1 billion carbon flakes and 5 billion resin coated bubbles.

Michelin has joined this group with the X-Ice Xi2. It features little pockets at the base of the sipes that act like suction cups to get water. They compress, then fill with water before spitting it out after the tire’s rotation clears the ice.

Some other winter tires try to make their sipes do the job of air pockets, but for ultimate grip, it has to be this type of multi-cell compound.


Tires for these vehicles are all of the general winter tire type. There are no multi-cell compounds except in a few cases where tire sizes overlap between cars and small crossover SUVs. When you see a tire labeled Blizzak in this class, it carries the branding but does not have the multi-cell rubber. For SUVs look for tires with more siping for ice use and more irregular tread blocks for snow use.

In SUV tires it is very important that the load index be the same or greater than the original equipment tire. Ask about that when you discuss tires. If the salesperson fudges, go somewhere else. Speed ratings can drop for the winter, but load ratings – never.


In this category, you will find many choices; most are skewed toward icy roads. There are no speed-rated multi-cell compounds. If ultimate grip is your goal, you may have to move down several speed rating levels to get a Michelin, Bridgestone or Yokohama multi-cell if they have your size.

Tire companies have winter tires up to V-ratings, but to get that kind of stiffness in a tire you do give up some snow grip.


Often, people choose to downsize tires for winter. The rational is that a narrower tire can get down through snow better than a wider one. There is some merit to that idea, but it has less validity than it used to. There may be a little extra traction down deeper in the snow but, in reality, not much.

Modern winter tires actually use the snow. They compact it in the tread grooves and it then binds to the snow on the ground as the car’s weight creates water. The process is sort of like making a snowball. The tire uses this bond to push itself off the snow on the ground to create forward motion.

The digging down deep theory works best on soft fluffy snow. The downside is a changed shape of contact patch when you are driving on pavement. Downsizing a tire means a narrower tire: a wider tire stops better.


Some tire shops will offer winter tires mounted on new wheels and market them as the “winter package.”

Some offer steel wheels, others offer alloy wheels, depending on the glitz factor of the car. Remember, alloy wheels will corrode after a period of time while steel wheels are ugly. Steel wheels will cost between $65 and $85. Alloy wheels start at $100 and head up from there. Which way you choose to go is up to your personal tastes.

The bigger question is does a package make sense. Generally speaking, the break-even point on the costs of a package versus the twice yearly tire swap is between four and five years. If you plan to keep your car that long, it may be worth considering. If your tires are already mounted on wheels, you will be in and out of the shop in under an hour while you wait. Mounting and dismounting tires is generally a two-hour project.

In closing, let me leave you with a few words of wisdom. The worst winter tire is better than the best all-season tire when the weather gets ugly. The winter tire will stop shorter, turn better and give better gas mileage.

You must use four winter tires. End of story. Using two may get you into a crash far quicker than using four all-seasons.

You should not mix tread patterns. You cannot mix brands or tread patterns in the multi-cell class. These brands all work differently and will not play well together.

If you get a price that is too good to be true, chances are it is. Ask to see the tires and check the date codes to make sure they are fresh. You will have these tires for five years; do not start with tires already a year or more old. This year’s winter tires were manufactured last spring. That is, in 2010.

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  • Author: John Mahler
  • Date Posted: November 3, 2010

Why winter tires? There are many reasons

We all like to save a little money, but scrimping on the number of winter tires on your car is not an option.

Winter driving is all about traction, we all agree on that. But traction goes beyond just the power to go forward. Traction also includes the ability to stop and turn. In my book, stopping and turning are far more important than traction to get the car going.

If you cannot get the car moving forward out of your parking spot, you are not much of a danger to anyone. If you are approaching an intersection with stopped cars and you cannot stop, then you are a danger to yourself and to others. If the road curves left and your car cannot make the turn and goes straight, that is a dangerous situation.

Tires must be equal on all corners of the car for the car to work properly. Try running out the door into the snow with one winter boot on and one running shoe; see how far you get before the inevitable tumble. That is your car on mixed tires.

Were we to put winter tires on just the front of the car, it would do well at steering, braking and — in the case of front-wheel drive — would also get traction.

That sounds ideal, but in reality the car would spin under heavy braking. As weight is transferred forward in braking, the contact patch of the rear tires gets smaller. Smaller means less grip. If the vehicle is not 100 per cent straight as this occurs, there is a tendency for the car to want to rotate.

If we have the better-gripping winter tires on the rear only, the back of the car will have more grip than the front. That means we will now have more traction to go in a straight line than we do for turning or stopping. If the vehicle is rear-wheel drive, this will be especially bad because entering a curve, the back of the car will push the front tires beyond their traction limits and the car will go straight.

Your car left the factory as a well-balanced machine, each corner having an equal ability to do its job. Make sure you don’t change that; your safety depends on it.

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  • Author: John Mahler
  • Date Posted: November 3, 2010

Why you need four winter tires

This is the time of year when the same discussion is heard in many offices, coffee shops and homes: should I put winter tires on my vehicle?

The answer is a definitive and resounding “Yes,” if you want maximum safety.

Whatever you have on your car, high performance summer tires or all-season tires, you will not get maximum grip on cold mornings unless you are on winter tires.

All tires have a temperature range they like to work in to give you their best performance. Summer tires like it hot, all-season tires like all things moderate and, of course, winter tires like it cold.

No big surprises there. What may surprise some drivers, however, is that all these different types of tires all have somewhat equal grip when the temperature is 7 degrees C or above.

Above that magic number, the summer tire develops grip on a steep curve as temperatures climb; the all-season tire less so.

As temperatures drop below 7 C, however, the winter tire develops more grip, the all-season tire loses grip and the summer tire is just about useless.

As we approach November, when temperatures in the morning will be just above freezing, you can bet that the pavement will be very cold. Winter tires have rubber compounds formulated to stay soft and pliable for better traction in cold weather, something that all-season tries don’t have.

To better understand how traction works, we have to think small. Up really, really close, that smooth pavement underneath your car actually looks a lot like the Canadian Rockies. The pavement is all sharp points, with deep valleys in between; it is a very irregular landscape. A tire’s surface is like that as well, made up of irregular hills and valleys. When the car rolls along and these two surfaces — rubber and road — meet, they must interlace for good grip.

The tire rubber must be flexible enough to wiggle and fit into the microscopic grooves in the pavement. The tire can then achieve maximum contact and use all of its surface to push off as it moves forward. If the tire rubber is not flexible, it cannot get into the microscopic grooves in the pavement. In that case, the contact surface area is just a fraction of what would be possible if the tire was flexible.

Try interlacing your fingers to bring the palms of your hands together. You can see the size of the contact area and how strong it is. That is your winter tire on pavement.

Now try placing your hands fingertip to fingertip. There is little contact area and if one hand pushes on the other, it slips. That is your car on stiff all-season tires on cold pavement. Small surface area equals small friction patch equals small grip.

All of this friction information depends on the pavement area being cold, dry and bare. Now add the lubricating qualities of water or slush or snow and you can see that the grip situation just gets worse.

There are many types of winter tires. Some are designed to be specialists in ice or snow, some are high-speed rated. There are even a few winter tires that can be left on the car year-round.

Current generation winter tires have shed some of the characteristics that annoyed drivers previously. For instance, these tires no longer generate loud buzzing noises at speed on the highway because they no longer have the huge blocks of tread that used to make cars squirm and jiggle whenever the brakes were applied.

If cost is a consideration, remember that your winter tires wear less in cold weather than all-season tires. All-season tires wear considerably faster when driven in winter. A Swiss auto club study showed that total tire costs for a sedan after five years were less when the car switched between winter and summer tires.

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  • Author: John Mahler
  • Date Posted: November 3, 2010

Now manufacturers are making ‘all-weather’ tires

Why were all-season tires so bad in snow and ice? Why were winter tread patterns so noisy on pavement? Why did winter tires degrade so quickly in summer driving? Was there a way to service people who really had no room for two sets of tires?

The huge dissatisfaction with all-season tires in winter has caused a few manufacturers to look at what could really be possible when it comes to compounding rubber.

Nokian, a Finish company that has been making tires since 1935, decided to put its many years of rallying and street driving experience to the task of developing an “All-Weather” tire. The result a few years ago was the Nokian WR — a snowflake rated tire that could be left on the car all summer long. Nokian had managed to find a rubber compound that liked hot and cold. I tried a set for one full winter and the better part of spring. They delivered the promised year-round traction.

This little club started to grow. Yokohama was next on board with their W.Drive tire. It was a high-end, premium-priced luxury tire. I tested it for three seasons and it was wonderful.

A Goodyear tire came across my sights, the TripleTred. It was only all-season rated but I liked what I saw and ran it for a time. Bingo, it scored as well as the other two in the winter. When I asked a Goodyear engineer why it had not been snowflake certified, he requested anonymity before telling me that Goodyear did not want to lose sales in the winter tire segment. However, Goodyear did decide to put one of its Fortera TripleTred SUV tires through the testing and it is now snowflake rated.

The list of all-weather tires is growing. Hankook, a major Korean tire company, is selling their Optimo 4S in Canada on a limited basis. Since supply is short, they are only selling this tire via OK tire stores. They are not sure they will have enough to fulfill the demand.

Like the majority of tires in this class, it is Transport Canada Mountain Snowflake rated. It promises lots of winter grip, but can be left on the car all summer long. This Optimo tested so well in Europe that the small Korean company is finding it hard to keep up with the demand. The Hankook is a premium tire.

In addition, one more all-weather tire has popped up for this winter season, the Vredestein Quatrac3.

Vredestein, best known for bicycle tires, have a long history of dabbling at the leading edge of car tires. So I would not rule them out until bad test results come forward. These tires will be distributed through Regional Tire Distributors (that is a company) to independent tire shops. No testing has yet been done, so by spring we should have a good handle on the quality level of this brand.

Joseph Park, assistant manager of Hankook Tires Canada, summed it up best when he said: “This is what all-season tires should have been all along.”

Will we see more tires move into this segment? I really do not know. Will this new tire segment — “All Weather tires” — become the next big thing or will it stay a niche market?

Would the big players in tires rather see their share of winter tires grow, or will they embrace the newest technology out there? Time will tell.

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  • Author: John Mahler
  • Date Posted: November 3, 2010

Winter tires tested in steamy Florida

FORT WALTON BEACH, FLA.—It’s 35C this summer day on the Florida panhandle. The sun is beating down relentlessly. People are swimming in the warm ocean nearby — and I’m driving on winter tires in the snow.

Yeah, that’s about the same look I had when they told me where I was going.

The source of this arctic atmosphere is the McKinley Climatic Laboratory, site of the largest climatic chamber in the world, at the Eglin Air Force Base. No matter what the weather is outdoors, the lab can create almost any type of condition, with a wide variety of storms thrown in.

My mission was to check out Goodyear’s new Ultra Grip Ice WRT, a new dedicated winter tire made specifically for light trucks, SUVs and crossovers. Tire and auto manufacturers often rent this military laboratory for testing, sometimes even when similar conditions can be found for free outdoors.

The key is consistency. Accurate testing requires conditions that remain constant —temperature, snow, rain — to reduce the chance of variables in tests carried out over a length of time. For North Americans, it’s much easier to get people and equipment to McKinley than it is to make the long trip to Scandinavian winter proving grounds.

In 1934, the U.S. military recommended that tactical units train under winter conditions, and in 1942 a facility was set up in Fairbanks, Alaska. It wasn’t ideal. Aircraft needed for battle were frequently grounded due to extreme cold, and the military realized a proper facility was crucial.

Lt. Col. Ashley McKinley, an expert in cold-weather testing, developed the idea of a refrigerated hangar that could provide consistent results. The main testing chamber opened in 1947 and is still in use today. (It had a major overhaul in 1997.)

The building is large enough to accommodate jet fighters and commercial aircraft. Along with five smaller chambers, the lab is able to replicate sand and dust storms, freezing rain, fog, salt spray and solar radiation. It can go as hot as 73C or drop as low as –54C.

For my visit, the chamber was set to –9C, with several centimetres of snow and a glare ice pad — all essential if you’re going to appreciate just how much of a difference it makes to drive on dedicated winter tires.

They’re no longer called “snow tires” any more, because they’re not just for snow. They’re superior even on dry pavement in the cold, especially on sunny days when the snow melts, creating alternating patches of dry and wet asphalt.

Rubber is affected by temperature, normally becoming hard in the cold and soft with heat. Tires must do the opposite to maintain traction and handling: the rubber compound in winter tires is formulated to stay soft when cold, while summer tires stay firm when it’s hot.

So-called all-season tires are a compromise between the two, and when the temperature drops to just 7C, they start to lose their grip.

Tire traction is the single most important safety feature on any vehicle (along with a trained, attentive driver, of course). Everything else, from electronic stability control to seat belts, works to save your skin once your tires have lost contact with the road.

The Ultra Grip Ice is Goodyear’s first application of its new Winter Reactive Technology (WRT). It includes a sticky new rubber compound, a special pattern that helps to channel water and slush away, and new designs in the “blades” of the tread blocks. In the centre of the tread, the blades open to allow maximum contact when accelerating or braking. On the tire’s edge, they lock together to maintain the rigidity needed when the wheels are turned.

To measure a tire’s grip, which then helps engineers to improve it, Goodyear uses a special “Traction Truck,” a pickup truck with its box removed and its cab stuffed full of data-collecting equipment. The driver flips a switch, and a special electric motor spins one rear wheel — again, providing multiple-test consistency that even a skilled driver couldn’t accurately maintain.

Afterwards, it’s a shock to walk outside into the heat and humidity. Glasses and camera lenses take several minutes to defrost. Nearby, Air Force personnel sweat as they prepare a fighter jet for takeoff — while another puts on gloves, a hat and heavy coat and gets ready to go inside a chamber where the South truly meets the North.

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  • Author: Jil McIntosh
  • Date Posted: November 3, 2010

10 tips to make you go in the snow

With the colder temperatures of late fall and winter just around the corner, it’s time to prepare for the inevitable and get both you and your vehicle ready for a distinctive season of driving.

Winter conditions are unique and winter driving requires specialized equipment and techniques. The old adage of “better safe than sorry” lends itself quite well for driving in winter.

The most important safety feature of any vehicle is the driver so we’ll look at preparing the driver first and then talk about getting your vehicle equipped to handle the harsh conditions.

1. If you are unsure of how to drive in winter conditions or lack confidence, enroll in a specialized winter driving school to help you learn limited traction driving skills. Road conditions can change drastically in a matter of metres and drivers must be able adapt to driving situations with limited traction. The safest winter vehicle can still easily end up in the ditch with a poorly trained driver.

2. Motorists have to focus on driving in order to see changing conditions and then process that information into prudent driving adjustments. Do not allow yourself to become distracted by cell phones, navigation aids or even your passengers. It’s critical to pay attention to your driving environment.

3. One of the contributing causes of winter crashes is cold weather attire. Never drive wearing winter boots or coats. Motorists wearing winter boots have often stepped on both the brake and gas pedals at the same time, causing crashes. After removing all the snow and ice from your vehicle, take off your winter coat and boots and drive wearing thin-soled shoes. This will allow you to feel exactly how much pedal pressure you are applying and to which pedals.

A sweater or light coat will make you more comfortable and will reduce fatigue. The added resistance from a bulky winter coat is counterproductive to applying smooth steering corrections to remain in control. Seat belts rarely fit properly over winter coats, increasing the chance of injury in a crash. Never drive while wearing wool or cotton mitts. Use leather-palmed gloves to prevent your hands from slipping on the steering wheel.

4. Should you encounter whiteout conditions, don’t continue on blindly. If the vehicles in front of you disappear into a wall of blowing snow, do not follow them into it. Pull off the road and wait for visibility to improve.

5. Learn when to say “No.” Check the expected weather conditions before you drive anywhere. If the meteorologists predict freezing rain, snow or bad driving conditions, stay home. No destination, not even driving into work, is worth risking your life for.

Now for your vehicle:

1. Tires are the most underrated safety feature of your vehicle as they are responsible for transmitting all your driving requirements to the road. Installing four winter tires on your vehicle is an excellent start. For maximum safety, all vehicles, including all wheel drive (AWD) should have four winter tires. Never install only two winter tires. These specialized tires retain their grip in cold temperatures when all season tires begin to lose traction. Tests show winter tires offer the driver up to 40 per cent more grip in cold weather driving.

At this time of year, it’s a good idea to remind drivers with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive that this technology is not a safety feature. AWD is a performance feature that only enhances acceleration, not cornering or braking grip. It is a common misconception that AWD will make you safer when conditions deteriorate. The added grip for acceleration can lead to over-confidence, which can lead to a tendency to drive faster than conditions warrant.

2. Vision and visibility are vital to safe driving. Your windshield washer nozzles should be clear and aimed at the windshield. Wiper blades should be replaced and you must remember to top up the windshield washer antifreeze. Have a good quality pair of sunglasses within easy reach to reduce road glare on wet winter roads during sunny days.

3. Know how to clear fog or frost off the inside of your windows efficiently. Use your air conditioner in the winter as an effective dehumidifier. Clean the snow and slush off your shoes before getting in to reduce the level of moisture inside your vehicle.

4. Snow and spray off the roads can easily conceal your vehicle from view so be sure all your lights are working properly to ensure your vehicle will be more visible

5. Make sure your battery is in good shape and clean the battery terminals and cables. Synthetic oils do not congeal in cold weather like conventional oils do, aiding in starting and lubrication at cold temperatures.

Every driver, including truckers and those with AWD, should always remember the “Golden Rule” of driving. When traction decreases, so should your speed.

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  • Author: Ian Law
  • Date Posted: November 3, 2010

Everything You Need To Know About Winter Tires

Winter is just around the corner. In fact, there was snow in Barrie just last week. So there’s no time to waste.

Just about the most important thing you can do to prepare for the next five or six months is to put winter tires on your vehicle. To help you make the decision on when, why and what kind of winter tires to purchase, Wheels contributor John Mahler has prepared a number of articles.

As well, freelance writer Jil McIntosh writes about a winter tire testing facility in Florida and Ian Law reminds you of the top five things you can do as a driver to prepare for winter, as well as the top five things you can do for your car.

The Time to Buy Your Winter Tires Is Now

Don’t procrastinate — by mid-November, your choice of tires will be diminished and pricing will be at a premium. Read More…

Why Winter Tires? There Are Many Reasons

Once the temperature drops below 7 C, winter tires are better for your car than all-seasons — and here’s why. Read More…

Here’s Why You Need Four Winter Tires

If you don’t think you need four winter tires, try running out in the snow with a winter boot on one foot and a running shoe on the other. Read More…

Now Manufacturers Are Making ‘All-Weather’ Tires

In an effort to make a better “all-season” tire, manufacturers have come up with the “all-weather” tire. Read More…

Winter Tires Test in Steamy Florida

It’s 35°C in the Florida panhandle. People are swimming in the warm ocean nearby — and Jil McIntosh is driving on winter tires in the snow. Read More…

10 Tips to Make You Go in the Snow

Wheels contributor Ian Law sets down five things you can do to prepare for winter driving, and five things you can do to get your car ready. Read More…

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  • Date Posted: November 3, 2010