Monday, November 12, 2012

Snow tires? Who needs them, not me.

A little bit ago I was chatting with a friend in Connecticut who was dreading a drive during the first snow storm, the recent Nor'easter. I feigned some bravado about how driving in the snow is no big deal. But of course it can be and should be.

I spent the first 40-odd years of my life in snow country; first in rural eastern Connecticut, then in and around Toronto, Ontario. I was a pretty good winter driver although there were exceptions. So I got to thinking about winter driving and snow tires.

Very few people actually buy snow tires anymore. I pin the blame on either the auto makers or tire makers. I'm not sure if it is a chicken or egg thing but I find it hard to believe that tire makers unilaterally decided to take a profitable tire type out of the equation.

Way back in the 1970s-'80s cars started showing up with "all-season" tires. All-season tires along with the advent of front-wheel-drive made everyone believe they never, ever would need snow tires again. It was the end of an autumn ritual we all loved to hate - time to put on the snow tires.

From my perspective all-season tires are really only 3 season tires, and the answer to a question no one really asked - How can I find a tire that works so-so in the summer, pretty good in the fall and spring, and okay on winter days when the roads are clear?

Over the past decade or so we've added all-wheel-drive (AWD) into the mix and this has convinced far too many people that they are all set for winter. If you think your AWD vehicle is set for the snow with its original equipment tires you are sadly wrong. Those tires are designed to give you a decent ride, dry weather handling, and maybe do okay in wet weather. They are not snow tires.

What makes a good or great snow tire? You'll need to talk to an expert about this but here's my input. First let me qualify myself some by telling you that between 1988 and 1990 I worked for Honda Canada Inc. I spend some time testing winter tires both at the Transport Canada test site outside of Montreal and at a former military base used by Michelin near Hancock, Michigan on the Upper Peninsula.

You have to understand that there are dozens of types of snow. Finding a tire that is optimum for all types is nigh on impossible; finding one that works for many is very possible.

Strangely what we found at the Michelin facility was that the base tire for the 1989 Honda Civic, a Dunlop tire made in Japan, performed best in deep, semi-wet snow. We surmised this was for two reasons; first the tire was not too wide, allowing it to sink down to a firmer base, and second the tread cleared itself of snow allowing it to grip the snow and then spit it out. What we didn't test were all out snow tires, our mission was to see which vehicles could get by without snow tires.

A lot of people think a tire is a tire. We all know there are high performance tires but most people think any old tire will get by in the cold or snow as long as you drive cautiously. There were a few incidents during my short time at Honda that disprove that idea. The most drastic was when I got a call from a dealer in Saskatchewan saying he had a customer whose tires had shattered. I really couldn't believe him so I had him ship the tires to HQ in Toronto. The tires were shattered like glass.

Here's how it happened - It had been an extremely frigid night, around -40 degree Fahrenheit. The car was a 1990 Acura Integra GSR. The car was parked in the owners driveway. He got in the car, started it and immediately backed out of the driveway. As the tires went from the driveway to street, a drop of maybe an inch or two, they shattered, the tread blocks literally shattered into little cubes of rubber.

The long and the short of it was that the tires had been spec'd in Southern California. They were not rated for temperatures that cold. They froze and going over just a short but sharp bump they broke.

The next example involved the 1990 Honda Accord EX, a very nice car. The tires again were spec'd in Southern California. They had so little grip on hard packed snow, snow that is almost like ice, that if the car didn't perfectly straddle the road crown it would slide to one side or another - even when stopped.

Tales like this are not reserved for one auto maker. During my time at Honda I bought a 1989 Ford Mustang, a 5.0. Figuring I was a skilled winter driver I never even thought about snow tires. On the first bad snow storm I found the P225/60VR15 Goodyears were worthless. Even on a slight incline they just spun hopelessly; stopping or turning was just as bad. I immediately got a set of European spec snow tires that solved the problem.

So what should a good snow tire do? It should be able to dig into the snow and grab a bunch to pull your vehicle and then spit it out. A tire clogged with snow becomes a slick and that doesn't work. A good snow tire should have the ability to stay flexible in low temperatures so that it will grip on hard pack snow. (Some of you may remember the Goodyear "Ice Radial" from many years ago. Stuck like glue to ice but wore out too quickly on dry pavement.)

In most cases you should mount four snow tires on your car, not just two on the drive wheels. You have to be able to stop and steer as well as go.

Yes cars are much better today and more able in the snow but they are not perfect. Yes it's a hassle to change the tires twice a year. You have to ask yourself though, how much do you value your life and those of your loved ones? If you live anywhere there is snow do not rely on all-season-tires, get some real snow tires and be safe.

There are many good snow tires available. Do your homework and find one that works for you and your budget. Have them mounted on a separate set of wheels so you don't have to risk damaging them mounting and dismounting them. Enjoy winter driving; don't fear it.

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