Real-world northern Ontario testing susses out the best winter tires
|driving.ca 27 Nov 2020 at 08:15|
Since 2005, I’ve put a half-million kilometres on several dozen types of winter tires, across several hundred different vehicles. Much of this testing is undertaken in severe winter conditions, travelling busy highways from central Ontario to my home up north, in Sudbury.
As a kid, winter tires fascinated me. As a young driver, my father constantly reinforced their importance — and the importance of not scrimping when it came to wintertime traction.
Dad always said there are at least two things you don’t cheap out on: winter boots and winter tires.
Accordingly, Dad proudly installed Goodyear UltraGrip Ice tires to the family vehicles — a Honda Accord, Honda Civic, and Dodge Caravan. These tires saw our family through many winters without issue, and kept his three kids safe as they learned to drive in the snow, and ventured farther and farther from home in the winter as we grew up.
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As a fan of driving in the nastiest possible winter conditions, your writer is constantly conscious of the tires fitted to his test vehicles, and has come to form a mental list of some which have left a strong impression for one reason or another.
These observations are not based on controlled-surface testing of one specific vehicle in one specific satiation, but rather real-world in-the-driver’s-seat experiences in widely varying real-life conditions.
Below, I’ll share some of my most notable winter tires with you, as well as the type I choose to run on my own personal vehicles during the long Northern Ontario winter.
I’ve never had a bad time in the snow on Bridgestone Blizzak tires. These come in various models and forms, and in each I’ve encountered, the sensation from the driver’s seat is the same: confidence to spare.
Whether braking, accelerating, steering, or tackling a highway drive through the storm of the season, I find these tires to offer strong bite and high-precision responses to your inputs. The performance is fairly consistent even as highway conditions change, meaning these tires perform reliably and predictably. This makes it easy for drivers to begin ‘trusting’ the tires, and how they’ll react — giving them one less thing to worry about.
One of my favorite things about Bridgestone Blizzak tires? Driving down a quiet snowy road with the windows down. These tires make a delightful scrunching noise as they pass over snow and hard-packed, meaning you can actually hear them biting into the road.
Recent test-drives of Blizzak-equipped test units included the Honda HR-V, Subaru Legacy, and Mazda CX-9. These tires can turn almost any vehicle into a winter-traction superhero.
I encounter these tires frequently during winter test-drives, usually on crossover and SUV models. Pirelli Scorpion Winter tires have strong ratings for performance in most winter driving conditions according to owners, but seem to deliver their strongest performance in one specific condition I encounter often: deep snow in a highway setting.
On braking bite, stability, predictability, and an overall sense of helping the driver feel backed right up in the worst possible conditions, you won’t go wrong with a set of these. On a recent test drive of a Mazda CX-5, I saw these tires do their very best work: tackling a 400-kilometer drive down a snow-covered highway with a quiet and comfortable drive, and plenty of grip for confident control.
These might be the best tires I’ve ever encountered for taking in a relaxing highway road trip, right after a heavy snowfall.
Here’s another tire I regularly encounter in sportier rides. I’ve put thousands of kilometres on Sottozero tires, though a specific test drive of a Kia Stinger through a particularly slushy snowstorm really drove home the reason why.
First, these tires slice (and I mean slice) through even heavy slush. In the Stinger, the steering stays straight and true in your hands, though you can hear the slush being unloaded into the floor-pan by the tire’s tread design.
Transitioning from one surface to the next, the Sottozero tires felt consistent and stable. With the Stinger’s AWD and traction systems capitalizing on the grip, this should have been a daunting road trip that was surprisingly laid back. If you drive a sportier car or crossover and do a lot of highway driving in wide-ranging conditions, I think you’ll find these worthy of consideration.
Best of all, they’re lovely on snowy backroads, too: providing plenty of grip if you’re driving carefully, and allowing for the sort of precision control you’d expect of a high-performing machine when you engage sport mode and turn off the traction assist for some sideways work.
Note that in their widest sizes, these tires may feel a little ‘floatier’ than some drivers will like in snow and slush.
I’ve never driven on Nokian Hakkapeliitta winter tires myself, though I have a large circle of friends, family and readers who swear by them. They’re popular in my locale, and areas further north — and especially with pickup truck owners who typically run them with studs. In my circle, many folks swear by these tires, recommending them highly and often purchasing them again and again.
Last winter, I drove a Chevrolet Silverado High Country from Toronto to Sudbury through a snowstorm that saw the highways covered with about two inches of slush and wet snow. A set of Toyo Observe tires wrapped the tester’s 22-inch wheels, and at the end of my trip, I arrived home feeling relaxed and refreshed – not frazzled – despite the conditions.
These tires left a positive impression for two key reasons.
First, in this setting, they did a great job of resisting a steering pull or hydroplane effect when encountering sloppy surfaces at highway speeds. This means fewer startling moments with the steering trying to ‘pull’ out of your hands. Also, in around-town driving on un-plowed roads, they did an excellent job of precisely transmitting my steering and braking inputs to the road with minimal drama.
Here’s an example of a tire that performs well across a wide-range of winter conditions, and should add confidence to transition months where drivers will encounter snow, slush and rain—often on the same voyage.
The X-Ice line of winter tires from Michelin are my personal favourite. I’ve opened my wallet for these tires on more than one occasion, and the reason why relates to one specific attribute that’s impressed me about them, over and over again.
In my experience, based on where and how I drive, the differences between one quality winter tire and the next tend to be somewhat marginal as experienced from the driver’s seat, provided the winter tire in question is appropriate for use on the vehicle in question.
Put another way, some winter tires are a bit more stable at higher speeds, others are a bit better at clearing slush, and others still are a bit more proficient at steering in deep powder.
It’s the braking, though, where I find the X-Ice tires to shine in the conditions I see most frequently. After putting thousands of kilometres on X-Ice tires, I consistently come away impressed with what seems to be a stronger-than-average initial braking ‘bite’ in deep snow, or on hard-packed surfaces.
In the vast majority of wintertime road hazards I’ve encountered, it’s braking (not steering or stability or slush-clearing) that’s the most important performance metric. Time and time again, I found the X-Ice to be the most impressive winter tire when I needed to stop quickly from a high speed on slippery surfaces.
If you agree that strong stopping power is of the utmost importance in winter driving, especially in real-world highway conditions, I’d happily steer you towards a set of these.