Coming To Grips With Snow Tires For The Winter Driving Season

by Michael Taylor (@trackworthy),

Deciphering tire classifications can be a bit confusing and intimidating to the uninitiated. Depending on where you live, all-season tires really aren’t suitable for use in all four seasons. That doesn’t make sense. All-Weather tires are suitable for use in all weather conditions, sometimes, but snow tires work better in snowy conditions and studded tires work best. What?

According to the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada’s 2019 Winter Tire Report, 75 percent of Canadian drivers install snow or winter tires on their vehicles. That’s a huge increase from just 35 percent of Canadians who used winter tires in 1998. Quebec is currently the only province where winter tire use is mandatory.

The winter tire category has been the fastest growing of all tire categories in Canada over the past three years, growing by 5 percent each year. Most insurance companies offer premium reduction incentives to customers who install winter tires.

Here is a quick overview of five tire types:

1. All-Season Tires – For those in the know, all-season tires are more commonly referred to as three-season tires. They perform best in temperatures above 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit). If you live in a climate where you drive in snowy conditions at temperatures below 7 degrees Celsius, then your tires are not suitable for use and you should fit your car with snow tires during the winter months.

2. All-Weather Tires – All-weather tires are suitable for use above and below 7 degrees Celsius, during mild winter conditions with heavy rain, snowfall that melts quickly and slushy conditions. In environments more severe than that, show tires should be fitted during winter months. All-weather tires have the severe weather symbol on the sidewall; the snowflake inside the three-peaked mountain.

3. Performance Summer Tires – High performance summer tires are designed to provide superior handling performance on dry and wet roads in temperatures above 7 degrees Celsius. They are typically mounted on larger diameter rims and therefore have lower profile sidewalls which improves handling but can reduced ride quality. They should not be used on snow or ice, or at temperatures below 7 degrees Celsius as they will have extremely reduced traction capabilities.

4. Snow or Winter Tires – Full snow or winter tires should be used at temperatures below 7 degrees Celsius. They are made from very soft rubber and will wear quickly on warm dry roads. They are intended for use in harsh winter driving conditions with lots of snow in cold temperatures. Snow tires have the severe weather symbol on the sidewall; the snowflake inside the three-peaked mountain.

Switching From Summer To Winter Tires
Our long term test car, an all-wheel drive 2019 Volkswagen Golf R, is equipped with 235/35R19 performance summer tires, which cannot be used in wintery conditions. We wanted to try a set of snow tires manufactured by the company that invented snow tires, Nokian Tyres. Nokian, based on Nokia, Finland, is the most northern tire manufacturer in the world and invented the snow tire with the release of the Kelirengas in 1934. The use of snow tires in Finland has been mandatory since 1978.

We visited the tire experts at Kal Tire who fitted us with a new set of 18 inch rims and 225/40R18 Hakkapeliitta R3’s, which are Nokian’s newest snow tire. The tread pattern has been updated to improve dry handling. The compound has also been changed to reduce rolling resistance. Handling on ice has been improved with the updating of the Cryo Crystals, which act like thousands of little studs which bite into the ice surface.

By switching from the 235/35R19 summer performance tires mounted on 19 inch rims, to the 225/40R18 snow tires mounted on 18 inch rims, we gained one inch of additional sidewall. The wider sidewall will provide the rim with greater absorption from the impact of potholes and other hazardous winter road conditions. It will also provide us with a softer ride for the winter driving months. When summer returns, we can get back to the lower profile tires on 19 inch rims which provide better handling capabilities.

When Should You Switchover To Snow Tires?
The obvious answer is, you should switch to snow tires before the snow starts to fall. But, as previously stated, the best time to switchover to snow tires is when the temperature falls below 7 degrees Celsius or 45 degrees Fahrenheit and snow and wintery conditions are on the way. All-season and summer performance tires are not suitable for use in snowy or icy road conditions.

All-Season Tires vs. All-Weather Tires
All-season tires are really only suitable for use in all seasons if you live in a relatively mild climate that does not fall below 7 degrees Celsius or 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Their tread pattern and rubber compound are not designed for, and not suitable for, use on snow or ice. All-Weather tires are more suitable for use in all four seasons because their rubber compound and tread pattern is designed to handle moderate winter driving conditions.

The Bottom Line
If you live in a cold climate that receives lots of snow, then you should equip your vehicle with snow tires during the winter months. Acceleration, braking and cornering will all be meaningfully improved. This will provide you with the greatest opportunity of not getting stuck and equally as important, giving you the best chance of avoiding winter driving related accidents.

If your vehicle is equipped with low-profile summer or all-season tires, then you also have the opportunity of moving up to a larger sidewall tire with the purchase of a winter wheel and tire package. Each additional inch of sidewall for the winter driving months will reduce the potential impact of potholes and other hazardous winter road conditions which can cause flat tires and or bent rims in extreme cases.

At a minimum, you should visit your nearest tire retailer and get them to check the tires currently fitted to your vehicle. They can inspect them to see if there are any potential issues, and provide you with an estimate as to what it would cost to fit a set of snow tires, or a wheel and winter tire package to your vehicle.

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