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Winter Tires 101

The only place your vehicle touches the road is through the tire tread. That small patch of rubber, about the size of the palm of your hand, determines how well the vehicle starts, steers, and most importantly, stops. It doesn’t matter how much power, how sophisticated the suspension or elaborate the brake and electronic systems are – they all depend on the grip available through the four contact patches. It stands to reason therefore that tire choice and maintenance are critical to your safety on the road. Generally speaking tires can be divided into three categories: Summer or high performance, all-season and winter. There are sub-categories and huge varieties in price, quality, effectiveness, design within each, but for the purposes of this discussion we will keep it general. There are many factors at play in tire design and development, but the two main issues are compound and tread. All-season tires:By their very nature and description these are compromise tires designed to be suitable for all four seasons and conditions. They do not offer the same degree of grip in the warm summer months as the summer tires described above, Conversely they do not offer as much grip as winter tires when it gets cold. The tread design is not as efficient in cutting through snow or gripping ice, and the same compound that has to perform at 25°C will not be very happy at -10°C. All-season tires are suitable in many warmer climates where the winter temperatures do not drop to or below freezing, but in most parts of Canada we experience a wide range of temperatures and conditions. It can be relatively mild one day and very cold the next. All-season tire performance drops off dramatically starting at about 5°C and worsens as the mercury drops. Winter tires:Readily identified by a pictograph of a peaked mountain with a snowflake inside, these tires have been specifically designed for cold temperatures and snow or ice. They meet federally mandated (Canada and U.S.) winter traction requirements and are now required by law in Quebec. Winter tires should not be confused with tires marked M + S. These “mud and snow” tires are a form of all-season tire and in most cases are not suitable for very cold conditions. Winter tires should be installed in matching sets of four. Because of their superior grip in winter conditions, mixing them with other tires on a vehicle will create a dangerous miss-match and likely result in a loss of control. While any winter tire will be superior to an all-season or other type in winter conditions, this is one of these situations where you get what you pay for. The tire market is ultra-competitive so there is very little opportunity to profiteer. If one tire costs considerably more than another the chances are that it cost more to develop and produce and offers associated advantages. Today’s winter tires are high-tech marvels able to deal with ice, snow, dry pavement and wet conditions. Scientists at the various tire companies are constantly stretching the envelope in the search for an edge (pun intended.) Multicell compounds, carbon flakes and intricate little cutting edges and air spaces that act as miniature suction cups are common – and the bar is raised every year as new designs and development reach the market. One of the latest is the emergence of all-weather winter tires with a severe snow rating from a couple of manufacturers. Although they are very expensive at this point, these tires can be left on year-round. The best way to think of winter tires is to compare them to footwear. A pair of dress shows is suitable for “good weather” occasions but you would not wear them in winter or in the pouring rain. A good pair of running shoes will do for most instances year-round but again – not the best bet when it gets really cold and there is ice or snow on the ground. Winter boots with a grippy tread are and provision for cold and snow are the ticket. Tires are the single most important safety feature on your vehicle. If you can’t use alternate transportation when winter conditions are bad, invest in a set of quality winter tires.

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