For as long as we’ve had cars, we’ve been faced with the daunting task of buying tires. But, in the absence of comparative testing data on a level playing field across their many brands, figuring out what’s what to buy when it comes to tires can be a complicated task for for the best of us. So how do we decide what tire to buy? Or, in the case of winter tires, if we should buy them?
As an auto journalist, around this time every year, I typically begin fielding questions about tires for the winter. And every year, nearly every automotive news publication runs a story – or ten – about winter tires and how we should all be using them. Yet every year, countless Canadian drivers make the decision to stick with their summer tires for the winter.
They’ll explain it away with some anecdotal tale about how their grandfather’s uncle’s son’s nephew swears by one set of tires all year long or how their coworker’s brotherinlaw says winter tires are a sham made up by the tire companies in an effort to sell more tires.
Regardless of what the reason is, the bottom line is simple: you can explain away anything if that’s the story you want to believe. But the fact of the matter is, just like we’ve come to know and accept the science showing the earth is round, we know that winter tires are a must for vehicles in Canada.
Putting it to the test
To further highlight how important winter tire decisions are, national tire retailer Kal Tire commissioned a series of independent tests to rate and review new passenger vehicle tires.
The first phase of Kal’s tire testing program included winter, wet and dry weather testing of 12 passenger tires and seven light truck tires. The tires that were tested were selected based on their popularity with Kal Tire customers.
Each tire was subjected to 10 individual tests, including braking on dry, wet, and ice, cornering on dry, wet, and ice, hydroplaning resistance, straight line stability on slush, cornering ability on slush and road noise.
All 19 tires were tested in Canada over eight days in January, on a variety of surfaces, in a variety of cold weather conditions, and most importantly, by a completely independent testing organization.
The results for winter weather performance were exactly as expected, with winter tires far exceeding the braking performance, cornering ability and slush stability of allseason and all-weather tires.
Across the 19 tested tires, on average, allseason tires required an additional 14.68 metres (48 ft) to come to a complete stop compared with winter tires, when travelling at just 30 km/h! That’s about the length of a semi trailer! Just pause and picture for a moment what that would look like in a real world situation. And then make an argument against winter tires!
All-weather tires, although not as capable as winter tires, still managed to stop 9.3 metres (30.5 ft) shorter than their allseason counterparts.
Although the differences are not as severe, wet braking in cold weather told a very similar story between the three tire types. And similar results could be seen in icy cornering, wet cornering, and handling in slush, where winter tires perform strongly, followed by allweather tires with allseason tires a long way behind.
Sound reasons for performance differences
These results only reinforce what the experts have long known. Allseason, or three-season tires as Kal Tire calls them, are made up of stiffer rubber compounds meant to give users longer tire life in warm climates. In colder climates, like Canada, the harder compound stiffens up significantly when the temperature drops below 7o Celsius, making the sticky traction we expect from rubber almost nonexistent.
While all-weather tires attempt to counter this tendency with softer tread compounds, they still have to balance it with excessive treadwear concerns which arise from yearround use in hot summer weather.
Although all-weather tires can offer a fair compromise between cold weather traction and hot weather treadlife, the advantage to having separate winter and summertime tires can’t be discounted. Over the long run, having two sets of tires also means each set gets used only about half the year, essentially doubling the lifespan of your tires.
Scrutinizing the testing
Kal Tire makes their test results known through an easy to follow star rating on their website. For those of you who are like me, and want a more detailed breakdown of scores, the company invites you to visit a store where associates have additional scoring details to share.
But what is this scoring, who did it and how was it done? That’s the really important information that got me excited about this story in the first place.
The scoring was based on the aforementioned gamut of 10 tests – decided on jointly by Kal Tire and the independent testing group, headed by veteran racing driver, tire and vehicle tester, and driving instructor Alan Sidorov.
“Once we’ve decided mutually on what the tests will be, [my group is] on our own," said Sidorov. "So everything that I do, everything my team does, is done independently. Sometimes they (Kal Tire) will come and watch or their filmmaker will come and film, but they have no influence on what we’re doing,” he added, explaining the separation between his testing group and the client.
Sidorov, like most professional racers, has a keenly developed sense of precision and a love of accuracy. He and his team measure and take into account everything from air temperature, ground temperature, wind speed, and brake pad wear on the test vehicles, along with suspension set up and even whether or not the sun was hitting the ice during ice tests amongst others.
They collected data on each set of tires over multiple runs, using a variety of tools and perhaps most importantly, with a focus on removing the human variable as much as possible.
“It’s actually quite hard to be precise enough that the driver is not affecting the results of the test. So we spent a lot of time and effort making sure everyone’s driving consistently," said Sidorov. "We always had the same target speeds, same approach, same everything, so that the data would be clear and consistent.”
The best tires and final takeaway
One caveat on the test results: Kal Tires’ testing program is limited to the many brands the company sells, so it does not include all the tires available across the industry. While being an independent retailer means the company has no direct affiliation with tire manufacturers, Kal Tire is the exclusive distributor of Nokian brand tires in Canada.
And so to the results...
- With a leading score in seven of the10 tests, the category winner and the best overall winter tire that Kal Tire sells is the Nokian Hakkapeliita R2.
- Leading six of 10 tests in its category, the best allweather tire is the Nokian WRG3.
- And, leading in six of 10 tests in the allseason category, is the Michelin Defender.
According to Kal Tire spokesperson Brent Spruston, the goal of the testing was to give consumers objective ratings on the tires they shop for rather than having to rely on the anecdotal stories that are rife with human bias.
This is the first time in Canada that such a wide variety of tires have been tested independently with results that have been released to the public. Kal Tire will release the results for an additional 57 tires in Spring 2016.