Treading carefully

Think all-season radials are good enough for snow? Think again

Few people would step out into a snowstorm in a pair of sandals. Yet, many motorists ignore the automotive equivalent of footwear—a vehicle’s tires—when temperatures drop and the snow flies.

Ironically, tire makers are partly to blame for this. After all, what’s a motorist to think when all-season tires are advertised as the driver’s best friend? Despite the name, however, all-season tires aren’t perfect all-around performers. Winter tires cost slightly more than their all-season cousins for a reason: they work better. And you don’t have to live in a snowbelt to enjoy the benefits. Anyone who drives in icy wet conditions—that’s most Canadians—stands to be safer with specialized winter tires.

Still, the all-weather myth dies hard. Overall, 20 per cent of Canadian drivers switch tires in the winter, compared to 80 per cent of Scandinavian drivers, 50 per cent of Austrian motorists and 33 per cent of German drivers. In some regions of Europe, motorists can be fined for not having winter tires.

To the untrained eye, tires may look pretty much alike except for the size and tread design. All tires have two main functions—to provide cushioning and traction. Getting the best grip possible is critical since tires are the only part of a vehicle actually touching the road. Whether you drive a $1,000 car or a $100,000 car, when you’re zipping down the highway at 100 kilometres per hour, your fate rests on four contact patches with the combined surface area of a small pizza.

Even a perfect set of brakes can be undermined by a poor set of tires. This lesson was driven home to me last winter during a hands-on demonstration at a test track. On a cold drizzly January day, a group of journalists took turns driving down a straightaway in three identical cars equipped with summer, all-season and winter tires. At a set point and set speed, I had to stomp on the brakes and stop the car as quickly as possible. The winter tires had the shortest stopping distance, followed by the all-seasons. It was agonizing to mash the brakes on the car with summer tires and see the scenery continue to whiz by.

Tire makers know that such tests are great at dispelling two common notions. The first is that winter tires are only good at keeping you rolling in bad weather; not stopping you sooner. The second is that winter tires are only good for cutting through snow. “Winter weather doesn’t just consist of snow,” notes Gus Liotta of Goodyear Canada, which sponsored the demonstration. “There’s ice, slush, wet, dry and cold.”

To help reduce the hazards of winter road conditions, tire makers spend millions developing special rubber compounds and tread designs. The result is tires with treads that are better at biting through snow and channelling away water and rubber compounds that remain more pliable at lower temperatures for better traction.

Picking a new set of tires is less confusing this season because of a new system for labelling tire sidewalls. Under Rubber Association of Canada guidelines, winter tires meeting a standard for severe snow conditions will display a logo of a snowflake framed by a mountain. All-season tires will continue to bear the “M + S” designation for “mud and snow.” For peak snow performance, however, look for the snowflake-mountain logo.

Tires vary in construction and performance, so finding the right set may still take some time. Winter tires range from about $60 to $300 each. A good salesperson should question you about your driving habits before suggesting a set. Although some drivers try to get away with only two winter tires, a vehicle will handle better with four. If you have alloy wheel rims, consider having the winter tires mounted on a second set of steel rims. It will spare your fancy rims from corrosive road salt.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is a consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.