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Are winter tires worth it? How to put your best wheels forward in snow and ice

Jim Baker of Kal Tire explains how you can tell if you tires are safe for winter weather conditions. He also explains the difference between winter, all weather, and all season tires.

Winter is coming, something that makes many a Canadian cringe. It’s not just the thought of endless hours of darkness, chill and snow-shovelling. Switching tires is another unloved — and expensive — ritual that comes with the arrival of the cold season.

But are winter tires really necessary?

Not all Canadians seem to think so. Some 24 per cent of drivers in this country say they power through winter without a dedicated set of tires, according to a survey by the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada. Winter tire utilization ranges from 100 per cent in Quebec, where they’ve been mandatory since 2008, to a low of 60 per cent in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Over half of respondents who said they don’t change tires in winter said it’s because “all-season tires are good enough.”

New Brunswick Medical Society calls for mandatory winter tires on all vehicles
New Brunswick Medical Society calls for mandatory winter tires on all vehicles

Winter, all-season or all-weather tires?

Yet experts like George Iny, who heads the Automobile Protection Agency (APA), a consumer advocacy group, say that if there’s snow and ice on the road for most of the season, you need winter tires.

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Winter tires are made of softer rubber that stays flexible even in low temperatures, allowing for better traction in snow and ice, as well as on cold, dry pavement, according to the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA). The rubber on all-season tires, on the other hand, hardens when the thermometer reads 7 C and below.

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The results of independent testing of winter and all-season tires on snow and ice are clear: winter tires are better. The average distance it takes for a car with winter tires to reach just over 30 km/h in moderately packed snow is 18 meters, according to U.S.-based Consumer Reports. With all-season tires, it takes 23 meters.

More importantly, braking and turning a corner in snowy or icy conditions are a much safer bet with winter tires. When TireRack.com drove some test cars on an ice rink, the one with winter tires took just over six meters to come to a complete stop from a speed of around 16 km/h. The vehicle with all-season tires took nearly twice as much time.

And when the cars had to turn a 90-degree angle marked by orange cones, the winter-tire vehicle made it while the one with all-season tires ran over the cones.

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Then there are all-weather tires, which, like winter tires, carry the mountain and snowflake logo, meaning they meet the snow tire standard, but are also approved for summer use.
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“All-weather tires don’t quite match winter/snow tires for maximum snow traction and ice braking, but they do have an advantage in dry braking, wet braking, handling, and tread life,” said James McQueen of Consumer Reports in an email.

“They can be a year-round convenience and ultimately reduce operating costs, making them an appealing choice for drivers who face winter weather but don’t need to tackle the most severe conditions,” he added.

Iny, however, warns that the performance of all-weather tires can vary significantly. The winter performance of the Nokian WR G4, for example, “rivals many snow tires,” according to the APA ranking. However, some made by other manufacturers are just plainly “inadequate” for winter driving, with poor test results prompting the APA to label them “three-season tires.”

In general, average-rated all-weather tires can be a good option for Canadians who live in those parts of B.C. that get little snowfall or those who can afford to drive very little in winter, Iny said.

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Edmonton debate over road safety brings up winter tires question
Edmonton debate over road safety brings up winter tires question

When’s the best time to buy winter tires?

The best time to buy is as soon as the temperature is low enough — and it’s not just a matter of safety. While many tire manufacturers offer rebates for the purchase of winter tires, these usually tend to expire at the end of December.

Postponing your winter-tire shopping also increases the chance you’ll encounter shortages and won’t be able to get the brand you want.

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What kind of winter tires should you buy?

The APA makes its winter tire rankings freely available online. Consumer Reports makes its ratings available to paying subscribers.

Iny said checking rankings based on independent testing is especially important if you’re shopping for budget tires, which may retail for less than $100 each. That’s a market segment where quality can vary significantly.

“Some of the less expensive tires are OK. They could be quite durable,” Iny said.

“Other tires are just unacceptable.”

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Rims or no rims?

Buying an extra set of rims for your winter tires makes sense according to the APA, especially if you opt for those ugly but cheap steel wheels. You’ll be out an extra $200 to $300 initially but will likely recoup that within two or three years, as switching wheels is about $50 cheaper than mounting and dismounting tires from the same set of rims.

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Switching wheels, though, becomes more of a headache if your vehicle has the kind of tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) that relies on sensors in each wheel. To avoid a yellow light appearing on your dashboard warning of a tire-pressure problem, you’d have to buy a second set of sensors, which can erase the savings of buying rims for your winter tires.