When most people think of Canada, they think of Winter, hockey, and fluffy snowflakes. While in some parts of the country that might be the scene this time of year, Vancouver, BC, has a slightly different look. One that includes cold, gray, wet, and puddles. We might get a dump of the white stuff once or maybe twice a year. So, the question is, why would we even need Winter tires if we lived in the lower mainland of British Columbia? Do they still provide enough of a benefit to swapping to them every year?
Tire manufacturers, who create many different tires for different road conditions, optimize their treads and compounds to give a broad operational range. But in some cases, these broad ranges have drawbacks. That’s why the industry has evolved into these four categories, to serve regional driving conditions better.
All-season tires (sometimes called three-season) give a broad warm weather biased range, which is good if you travel back and forth frequently through weather that ranges from early Fall to a moderate Summer. They might not last a long time in the hottest tarmac melting conditions. But they give a sure-footed performance in most conditions especially when new. Their warm weather bias puts them at a disadvantage as the temperatures drop below double digits. Some carry the M+S symbol for added off-road traction, but none carry the three-peak mountain symbol that designates them as a Winter tire. Despite their wide temperature range, their compounds simply aren’t designed to remain compliant as their temperature drops. They harden, which means they slip faster when it’s wet and cold.
Summer tires do best in climates that are warm year-round. Their compounds are harder and engineered to be stable in those sticky conditions without wearing too fast. However, those compounds’ harden even faster as the temperatures drop, making them predictably squirrely in cold and wet conditions. An apt comparison might be a hockey puck as the temperatures go below double digits. Don’t drive with these tires on in the Winter. They are not safe for you or the people driving around you.
All-weather tires are a fairly new category biased towards colder climates. They are well suited to a range of temperatures experienced by most Canadians year-round. As a result, this type of tire has become very popular as a single replacement offering some benefits of Winter tires without the seasonal tire change. They also carry the three-peak mountain symbol that designates them as a tire rated for Winter conditions. Their softer compounds and mixed tread patterns that give them their range of performance can lead to faster tire wear, which is why, in general, warranties on these types of tires are shorter. However, the convenience of one set of tires over owning two sets is favourable.
Winter Tires, like their Summer cousins, fit in the more extreme range of the temperature spectrum. They offer the ultimate in cold-weather traction in ice-covered conditions thanks to their soft compounds, and they cling to the ground with their optimized treads, which bite into the surface. When compressed, the patterns often look like a bunch of zig-zags expanding, which help the tire grab the ground in snowy conditions too. A three-peak mountain symbol on the sidewall designates them as a true Winter tire. Next to chains, these are your best defence against the cold and snowy conditions beyond what other categories of tires offer. The only downside is that wear can accelerate as the temperatures increases.
Manufacturers, including one of the largest, Michelin, recommend that you change to Winter tires when your area’s average temperature drops below seven degrees Celsius. The claim is that all seasons (three-season) and Summer tires begin to lose their performance at this temperature. Some think that tire manufacturers only want to sell more tires.
Kal Tire, a Canadian retailer with years of tire experience, has been an advocate for the seven-degree switch rule. In fact, independently controlled test results do show a significant performance decrease as non-Winter biased tires cross this temperature. Because cold-weather accidents are often avoided by mere centimetres, increased stopping distance and control are often worth it.
Recently, Mike had an opportunity to test drive some new tires from Michelin. His first stop was to the local Kal Tire to get them mounted. Here’s how his visit went which took less than an hour to complete.
He chose to use his existing rims for the changeover and we’ll go over some of the pros and cons.
It’s not just snow or ice traction that is compromised when temperatures drop. Wet braking, which many people encounter in the Fall and Winter, is also greatly affected by these same temperature drops, down past seven degrees Celsius. So, even if Vancouver receives no snow this year, they’ll at least be beneficial in the cold rain.
While it is obvious that Winter tires perform better as the temperature drops, the performance gap is much closer than tires in the all-weather category. Both of them have the three-peak mountain symbol. Also, all-weather tires work in a range of traction conditions. That’s why Winter tires need to innovate or die. They need to justify their existence and the effort to change over to them every year. Simply put, they need to be better at what they do than what other tires are best at.
Though Michelin does have their own all-weather tire called the Cross Climate, which is excellent, that tire results from what they learned in making their Winter tires better. They push their Winter tire tech further with every generation and their latest, the X-ICE Snow, is a Winter tire engineered from the ground up to exceed even their most highly regarded treads of the past.
The old Michelin X-ICE 3 is legendary. They are quiet, they wear extremely well, and provide some of the best Winter traction available. It’s hard to find anything to complain about. The new X-ICE SNOW stops around 2.7 Metres shorter, perform around 4% better in snow, and last nearly a season longer than their top competitors.
Much of these improvements have to do with the variable 3D sipes in the X-ICE SNOW’s new tread pattern. They vary in direction and geometry, which allows the tire to bite into the surface, enhancing grip. The best part is that as the tire ages, the 3D sipes are engineered in such a way that allows them to maintain performance even down to 50% wear. If you will, the secret sauce is that these sipes are engineered to go the full depth of the tread. Something that many Michelin owners can attest to as a trait of their tires is their longevity. The effort carries into even their Winter tires.
An important area of development is Michelin’s improvement in slush and hydroplane performance. This speaks to the tire’s ability to evacuate water quickly. The new tires use a unique chevron shape that allows for larger channels, giving slush, snow, and water more space to move. Many of us drive between transitional states of snow, so any improvement to performance and safety is welcome. For anyone that has ever hydro-planed, it can be a terrifying experience.
Tire compound is also vital. Not only because it helps the tire maintain its compliance and consistency as the temperature drops, but it also allows for these more intricate tread patterns to hold together and wear evenly. Their Flex-Ice 2.0 technology is a next-generation silica compound that maintains its flexibility through colder temperature ranges. Combined with something they call rigid polymer-based inclusions, which creates a natural roughness to the tire surface, additional friction and surface area is now available to further enhance ice and snow performance.
After having fun with the new X-ICE Snow tires at Mt. Seymour, Mike certainly has become a believer. They definitely slow, stop and steer better than his Summer treads. Although Mike is a good driver, he’ll take any safety margins he can get in the most accident-prone time of the year. With the temperatures dropping into the negatives this year, some days up to (down to?) double digits in the Celsius range, he’ll be well equipped for maximum driving control from freezing rain to ice conditions. The best part is he probably won’t even notice them working. No buttons to push. No app to download. A Winter tire is quite literally the most straightforward tech to use.
The short answer is no. You don’t need a spare set of rims to mount your Winter tires on. The video above shows the process that Kal Tire uses to mount new tires. Their equipment and tools allow them to do this safely and quickly. The cost to mount and remount tires does cost more than simply swapping wheels; one of the potential benefits to having a spare set.
Many vehicles come with aluminum rims that can be quite costly to replace. With the number of potholes and other tire dangers that can crop up from uneven snowy surfaces, the benefit of having a set of steel rims starts to make sense. They are also more durable as, by their nature, steel bends while aluminum cracks when subjected to force. By having your snow tires mounted and balanced, you also save a bit of money since you only pay for the wheel mounting. Otherwise, you have to pay to re-mount tires, balance, and then re-mount your vehicle’s wheels.
But what about storing them? Many tire retailers like Kal Tire offer yearly tire storage in climate-controlled facilities for a fee. This can prolong the life of your tires. Having them stored elsewhere also frees up space in your home.
Most people would never guess so much technology is in any tire, let alone a Winter tire. Michelin’s new X-ICE SNOW is loaded with the latest. All this technology leads to better traction, safety, and those few centimetres of margin you need when conditions get frigid. And, as we have discovered, it’s not always about the road surface and what’s covering it. The seven-degree switch is a real thing. It has actual repercussions on your driving, even in regular wet and cold environments, like the ones here in Vancouver.
We know that many believe they can drive just fine in the Winter on regular all-season tires. But imagine how much better your vehicle would perform if you had tires made for the right conditions. Thinking of those around you, imagine much safer they would be in case conditions don’t cooperate with your driving skill. It happens.
Are you running Winter tires where you are? What’s your experience with them? Join the conversation in the comments below.