Winter tires: Do you really need to buy the most expensive brand?

TORONTO – It’s that time of year: Starbucks has switched to holiday cups, fake fir tree branches are appearing on lamp posts and Christmas carols are about to stream through stores. What’s next? Winter tires.

Winter tires are made of a softer rubber compound than all-season tires, so when the temperature drops below a certain temperature (typically seven degrees), they make better contact with the road, which means better traction.

Many safety experts are strong advocates, touting the benefits for control and stopping distance.

“Four winter tires for winter driving. That’s all you really need to know,” said Brian Patterson, president and CEO of the Ontario Safety League.

But there is a little bit more to know, since snow tires are listed at various prices. So do you really have to buy the most expensive brand?

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Centennial College professor and coordinator of the automotive programs Stephen Leroux says yes.

And…he also says no.

“Depending on the type of climate you’re going to operate the vehicle in, and depending on the amount of snow you’re going to be operating the vehicle in, you may want to buy a better grade winter tire,” said Leroux, who has taught at Centennial for seven years, and worked as an automotive technician for twenty.

He believes “you get what you pay for” rings true in this situation, noting a higher-grade tire might have a tread pattern that provides better traction, and a lower-priced tire may not last as long.

“Different rubbers will give you different amounts of traction on ice and snow,” he said. “So if I wanted to buy the best [rubber] compound that gives me the best traction, I might have to spend a little bit more for it.”

And then there are terms the average consumer may not be familiar with: tread blocks, sipes, tread depth and wear bars.

Tread blocks

Tread blocks are the “big, square” parts of the tire that bite into the snow, he explained. So if you’re driving through deep, heavy snow, like up at a cottage, you’ll want an “aggressive tread-block pattern.” However, this pattern would make a lot of noise and could cause a rough ride if you’re driving on plowed, paved city streets.

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Sipes are the grooves in the tire that help disperse water from underneath the tire (between the tread and road) to prevent your car from hydroplaning. This is good in both city and heavy-snow situations.

Tread depth

Tread depth is a measurement from the deep groove part of the tire to the top of the tread block, said Leroux, who said this can be measured with a depth gauge.

“A more aggressive tread block might be great in deep snow, but if you’re driving on plowed, paved road, it’s going to be a lot noisier,” he said.

Used tires

If you’re buying used tires or wondering if your tires are worn out, you can tell by looking at the “wear bars.”

“If you’re looking down on top of the tire, inside the tread you’ll see little raised sections that run from side to side. They’re called wear bars,” he explained. “If you can see the wear bars and they’re even with the tread, the tire should be replaced.”

Other key words are “studdable” tires, which aren’t allowed in Ontario, but can be used in Quebec. Leroux noted studded tires give more traction, but are extremely noisy and can chew up asphalt, wearing out studs quickly.

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Leroux believes consumers “can’t go wrong” with most name-brand tires (e.g. Michelin, Firestone, Goodyear, Bridgestone, Yokohama, Continental).

If buying used, he advocates checking the wear bars and the serial number on the back (which includes the build date).

“If a tire has outlived its shelf life—in the neighborhood of about 7 years, I wouldn’t be buying it,” he said, suggesting people also check side walls of the tires for cracking and chafing.

Bottom line: you need winter tires that fit your vehicle and are appropriate for the conditions you’ll be driving in.

“If you’re going to be driving in an extreme situation like up north at a cottage, you might want to spend money on a better tire,” said Leroux. “If you’re driving around in a relatively tame area, like the city of Toronto where streets are plowed, you could go mid-grade tire.”

He notes some manufacturers might have an appropriate tire for $50, but it’s always a good idea to ask for details when making a purchase.

“Ask the salesman what the advantages are to the $80 tire above and beyond what the $50 tire offers, and if you think that fits your needs, then maybe you should be spending the $80.”

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