The time of year is here where the white stuff starts flying and you are probably thinking “Do I really need winter tires?” Well here in Calgary the answer is always YES. It doesn’t matter if you are sporting an All-Wheel Drive Subaru, Honda Civic, or a ½ ton truck.

Calgary Nov 15th 2010
The reason why I say you should always use winter tires is because while you may think your All Season tires are fine, they will not do their job when you need them in emergency situations. The benefits that a true winter tire brings to the table will increase the maneuverability, acceleration, and braking abilities of your vehicle by great amounts. A good set of winter tires will give you the confidence you need to zip down the Deerfoot without getting that feeling that your heart is in your throat when a good wind hits your car, or you pass a transport.

** For simplicity I will only be dealing with passenger vehicles and not commercial vehicles or light trucks. I will also be leaving out some specifics to keep it as short as possible, and you awake.

Calgary Driving Conditions

Calgary has some unique weather characteristics that will play a big role in deciding on which tires you should chose. But it won’t be the only factor.

Here in Calgary we get warm winds, and high traffic which heat up the road melting the snow. When the traffic dies down, the temperature drops, or in the shade, water becomes ice.

On the side streets here in Calgary you would be lucky to ever see a plow. Some winters we end up with rock solid snow so built up that cars high center and get stuck.

So we have slush, ice, bare roads, and hard packed snow mainly. The soft snow gets packed fast by traffic. If you drive off the beaten path often choose a more aggressive tire.

So what winter tires should I buy for Calgary?

I put this section at the top but I highly recommend reading on as you will learn most of what you need to know about winter tires. It will give you the tools you will need to work with the Service Writer to find the best tires suited to your needs. If someone at the tire shop contradicts something I say here, listen to them. They are there with you looking at your car. I am not.

Goodyear: Their focus has always seemed to be safety and a well built tire.

If you have a performance vehicle and like to drive like a nut in the winter as well, go with the Eagle Ultra Grip GW3. If you want to stick with Goodyear but not get the GW3 the Ultra Grip Ice is an amazing tire for its cost.

Michelin: AKA MUG (Michelin, Uniroyal, BFGoodrich) Their focus in my eyes was ride quality.

Primacy Alpin PA3 is great for Calgary. Solid centre block for good start and stop.

Toyo: Their primary focus has always seemed to be performance.

Observe G-02 Plus have been some of my favourite tires I have ever owned. If your car has gobs of power or is heavy, go with the Observe G2S or Goodyear’s GW3 as they will be more stable with stop/start and on corners due to larger tread blocks.

Nokian: You may have never heard of them, but they know snow!

Hakkapeliitta 5 or 7 (sold by Kal-Tire) is one kick ass gripy tire. Major downside is super soft sidewalls. I have removed a toothpick from a sidewall of one of these. Weak sidewalls is the price for a smooth ride from such aggressive tread. Should be noted they also sell All Weather tires. The WR line. The All Weather tires Nokian makes are far superior in winter traction compared to any All Season (Note the difference, All Season vrs All Weather) but they rarely  hit the rated waranty kilometres stated by Nokian. But they come real close.

The difference between a All-Weather and a All-Season is the All-Weather are the rare type of tire that can be driven year round but also sport the “Extreme Weather Rating” symbol.

Bridgestone: yes they are Firestone. Remember that Ford Ranger fiasco? Well forget it. Firestone tires are just fine.

Blizzak WS70 sport some crazy grip, Pretty close to Nokian Haks. Blizzaks are great in the wet snow and ice. Only real down side is if you leave them on your car past May you can watch them melt right off the wheels. Well not literally.

Where do I buy them?

It isn’t just which tires you buy, but who you buy from. In Calgary I would lean towards dedicated tire shops. Car dealership techs are not specialists in tires, the guy in a dealership doing you tires are quite often 1st or 2nd year automotive apprentices and do not get anything near the kind of training a certified Tireman gets as they are on to a more glorious and well paying future. Mechanics are not Tiremen. It is similar to the difference between a General Contractor and a Finish Carpenter. Who do you want to do make your cabinets?

Another thing is that dealerships tend to get stuck selling over priced OE tires that are not as good as the retail ones. It is not their choice if this happens. Chrysler will force Chrysler dealers (usually) to sell tires bought by MOPAR from Tire Maker XX to increase MOPARS sales, that is just how this industry works. A well trained Tireman can see potential problems more easily than a guy that might change 3 sets a week.

A top notch tire shop will have a comprehensive warranty, free flat repairs, free rotation, rebalance, and doesn’t sell tackle boxes and lawn chairs under the same roof. Choose ones who have locations where you may travel. Just as an example, Fountain Tire has locations in Winnipeg and Thunder Bay. They will honour their warranty at any location. The same holds true for Kal-Tire and some others.

All good tire shops will leave a torque tag telling you to come back and get your lug nuts re-torqued to factory specs within 100Kms. This is something people in the tire industry are very serious about, and hardly any Automotive Dealership actually does it, but a good tire shop will run out of tires before torque tags. Get those wheels re-torqued people, it only takes 2 minutes and can be done in the lot.

Do not buy cheap no-name/off brand tires unless you absolutely cant afford the brand names, they tend to be harder compounds. Even if the salesman tells you they are made by Goodyear or BFGoodrich there is a darn good reason why they didnt stamp their names on those tires. Cheap tires tend to fall apart fast or go out of round creating ride issues, sometimes they will be older tread patterns from better tires but not as good rubber compounds. Tires are very much get-what-you-pay-for.

Try not to buy from Tirerack.com. I have nothing against them personally but in the past I have received tires from them with kinked beads during shipping or defects that you will have to wait for them to ship you a new tire. Which they always do, they are good on fixing their mistakes. This might not seem bad until your car is in the air with only three new shoes on and you want to go somewhere. It wastes everyone’s time. Your local tire shop can usually rectify any problems very fast unless your tires were special order from the manufacturer.

I have worked for the top 2 sales and installation companies in Western Canada and have represented almost all the major manufacturers at one time or another. So for my top picks I tried to do my best not to be biased. I didn’t mention all brands either. Talk to your Service Writer and discuss your options.

How do winter tires work?

Winter tires combat ice, slush, snow and cold temperatures in a few different ways.

Ice:
The main way a tire helps you with ice is increasing the amount of friction to the ground. Most manufacturers use unique rubber compounds like silica based compounds to keep them soft in cold weather, sometimes they add walnut shells to the rubber, or tread designs that have some form of technology to provide the tire with extra friction surfaces that will keep the tire on the pavement without breaking loose (sliding). Usually these compounds also keep the tire soft and flexible in low temperatures. Keeping the tire soft increases friction and the efficiency of siping.

Slush:
Channels called ‘voids’ are cut into the tires tread pattern to evacuate fluid and reduce hydroplaning/aquaplaning. To put it simply, hydroplaning is when a thin sheet of fluid is trapped between the tire and the road. Most drivers are well aware of the dangers of hydroplaning, and without traction assist it could render the vehicle completely out of control. Even with traction assist if all 4 tires are hydroplaning there is little the system can do for your vehicle to keep it stable. Most vehicles are equipped with anti-lock braking systems. But these systems, including traction control are only as good as the tires that are on your vehicle.

Snow:
Gaps in the tread allow excess snow to be thrown from the tire once that part has left the ground, and a place for fluid to move to when the tread block (Part that touches the road) hits the ground. They also provide an aggressive biting action for hard packed snow. In the early days people thought just having a chunky tread would make a tire good for winter. They were wrong.

Winter Tire Tread Characteristics

 

Sipes and Lugs

Siping:
Sipes are those thin cut lines you see in the tread blocks of your tire. As the tread block/lug is about to hit the ground the leading edge (Front) of the tire flexes. As it flexes it opens up the sipe like a mouth about to bite into a tasty apple. As the tire rolls and the sipe moves closer to the bottom it closes, pinching the ground (Biting the apple). This is why the more sipes there are the better… to a point.

If you had too many sipes the surrounding rubber would be too weak to be stable. Wavy sipes are best because they provide more lateral (side to side) stability than straight sipes as well as more friction surface. Any edge that contacts the ground increases friction by cutting through fluid or ice like the blade of a skate.

Water/Snow Evacuation:
As the tire rolls over fluid that fluid needs to be displaced or it gets trapped between the tire and road causing the tire to hydroplane. A good tire will have enough channels also known as ‘voids‘ to evacuate the fluid and expel snow, but still leave enough contact patch to give the tire as much actual contact to the road as possible. Winter tires tend to have larger channels because slush has bits of ice in it that would get stuck in smaller channels like you would see on All Season tires. Another reason for this is to expel the snow that sticks to the tire leaving the void clear for when it touches the ground again.

For every bit of gap in the tread you lose contact patch and therefore grip. Too little of a channel and you increase the risk of hydroplaning or snow sticking to the tire that eventually packs in so hard it makes the tire a racing slick. I strongly recommend a unidirectional tire (Tires meant to roll only one way) for the best water evacuation.

Tread Blocks / Lugs:
Tread blocks are considered the large chunks of rubber between channels that touch the ground. The tread blocks tend to vary in size around the tire. The reason for this is that if the tread blocks were all the same size they would make the exact same sound when hitting the road creating a harmonic and in turn excessive road noise. By changing the sound wave intermittently it drastically reduces road noise. Some companies like Goodyear sport interlocking tread designs that actually allow tread blocks to move and pinch the ground together when cornering or braking.

Rubber Compound:
All manufactures pride themselves on the compounds they use to make their rubber. This is akin to the 11 herbs and spices KFC uses. The rubber compound of a winter tire tends to be softer than All Season and Summer tires to increase performance characteristics in cold weather.

When rubber gets cold it gets hard. When it is hard it looses its flex and friction. This is why race car drivers heat up their racing slicks. It is also why All Season tires can literally slide across bare pavement like plastic in extremely low temperatures like those seen in Winnipeg.

The soft compounds of winter tires makes the tires wear extremely fast at summer temperatures. This is why you always remove the winter tires in the spring.

Studs:
Studs are tiny pieces of metal inserted into manufactured stud holes/pockets in the tread of a winter tire. These days studs are usually bi-metallic consisting of a harder inner pin made of tungsten carbide and a softer outer jacket used to hold the pin in place. Studs protrude out the tire tread giving the tire more friction in ice and snow.

I do not recommend studding tires in Calgary because quite often the roads are clear and metal does not stick to pavement well. Obviously if you want to stud your tires a shop will gladly take your money. I have found that studs made my car understeer (Front end drifts away from the corner) on Deerfoot off ramps with bare pavement.

I would only use studs if I lived in a place where the roads were icy almost all the time like Toronto. If you go to ski hills on the weekends and you really think you need the extra traction, please use chains.

Used tires can not be studded because tiny rocks plug up the stud holes.

Stud Holes:
In studdable tires the manufacturer has created holes or ‘pockets’ where studs are inserted in the tread. Usually studs are done one at a time with a compressed air tool known as a ‘Stud Gun’. This process is a time consuming and is usually given to the rookie in the shop for ‘learning purposes’. Some manufactures have pre-studded tires. Some companies like Nokian have cushioning rubber at the base of the pocket to absorb some impact and reduce road wear. But like I said earlier, I honestly think studs hinder driving in Calgary.

Why not All Seasons?

All Season tires are a compromise between summer and winter tires. They don’t perform great in summer compared to a true summer tire. They are especially poor in the winter. If we lived substantially south of here All Season tires would be adequate but this is Calgary, and you deserve more than adequate.

If you think your car handles fine with All Season tires, it will handle great with a high quality set of winter tires.

Do I really need 4?

Transportation Canada suggests you use 4. I not only insist you use 4, but I also insist that they be a matched set.

The reason why I say ‘a matched set’ is because if you have two tires exactly the same size on the front or rear but different make/model it will cause the vehicle to handle poorly, and possibly confuse or disorient the driver.

If a tire shop will gladly put on just 2 winter tires you went to the wrong shop. Any decent tire shop will refuse work if it is unsafe. Those 4 pieces of rubber are the only thing between your vehicle and the road. Make no mistake; they are the most important part of your vehicle.

Should I buy wheels for my winter tires?

A bare steel wheel

A bare steel wheel

Are you leasing your vehicle? If yes, don’t bother. Also check into the price to have them TPMS equipped.

If you can afford a few extra bucks today, you will save lots later. The cost of a change-over is over $100 these days. A change-over is when the Tireman removes one set of tires from the wheels and replaces them with another. During this time the valve stem (Part the air goes in to inflate the tire) is also changed and the new assembly is balanced and takes about 20-45 minutes.

If you buy a set of steel wheels and tires from a reputable tire company the flat repairs and rotations are free. They will literally remove your summer wheel assemblies (tire and wheel together is the assembly) and slap on your winter wheel assemblies at no charge. Not only is this cheaper, but it is faster! Waiting around in a tireshop is no fun. Unless your really lonely and borderline crazy.

So math up the cost of 2 change-overs a year (spring/fall) against the cost of steel wheels and then decide for yourself. Also keep in mind that not only will you save your nice summer wheels from winter road nasties and gravel nicking them, but also those wheels and tires won’t have to go through the wear and tear on the tire machines. The down side is storing your winters in the summer, and summers in your winter.

TPMS whaaaa?

All new cars sold in Canada today are equipped with TPMS by law, which is an acronym for Tire Pressure Monitoring System. Some auto manufacturers have prohibitively expensive systems. These systems also require specialized training and tools to service. If the Tireman points at something on your wheel and scratches his head, get out of there.

Yes it will cost extra.

How can I tell if they are winter tires?

Severe Weather Symbol Mountain & Snowflake

Severe Weather Symbol Mountain & Snowflake

Winter tires are really easy to spot. They are stamped with the ‘Mountain & Snowflake’ / Extreme Weather symbol by law. If they do not have this symbol, they are not winter tires.

The winter tires and or wheel combo they are trying to sell me aren’t exactly the same size as my summer ones. Why?

There is an off chance that there are no winter tires available in your size. Usually this happens when you have a first run of a new car model but there might be other reasons.

The computer systems in cars assume you are running the stock size of tire. This stock size will equal an OD or ‘overall diameter’ sometimes called ‘outside diameter’. You can mix and match profile, width, and rim size as long as the OD remains within tolerance, the brake callipers clear the inside of the wheels rim, and the wheels can function through full range of motion including turning and suspension compression/decompression without hitting anything.

Most Tiremen were not in the Math Club so they have charts they can reference.

The computers in modern cars get their information from sensors. Wheel sensors count how fast the wheels are spinning. Messing with the tires OD changes the rate at which they spin compared to what the computer ‘thinks’ they are spinning at. This can mess with traction control, ABS, and other very important systems. Systems you probably paid extra for. But more importantly, systems that can save a life.

Why do I have these ugly green caps on my valve stems?

I remember joking long long ago that one day we would eventually charge people for the air we put in the tires. Funny enough it happened.

The green caps means that the tire has been nitrogen filled. The idea is that a nitrogen molecule is larger than those found in our atmosphere. Tires loose air by a process called natural permeation. Air literally leaks out of the microscopic holes in the rubber and sometimes the alloy the wheel is made of. Also it is supposed to reduce operating temperature of the tire increasing its life span.

By the time I left the industry not to long ago it was still widely regarded as a money grab, usually by those without nitrogen fill/purge capabilities. I have never seen evidence either way, but the theory seems sound.

If you have the green caps please leave them on. It is the only way a Tire Tech can know if there is potentially harmful gas inside.