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Winter Tires, Are They Really Important?

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Winter tires have been mandatory in Quebec since December. Finally, a good decision from a government that tends to think about lining its pockets when it comes to the automobile sector. It’s a move that the other provinces and even our neighbours to the south will be keeping a close eye on. However, I for one am not convinced it will amount to significantly better safety record, even though there’s no doubt that winter tires are safer than all-season ones. Human nature is such that the more safety features we have working for us, the more risks we take. In the end, this translates into roughly the same results.

Continental tire manufacturers recently brought together some Canadian journalists to drive home the importance of winter tires, and of course let us try their latest creation in this field. In Canada, people are generally aware of the value of having the right tires for the season, but the same is not true in other countries. In the U.S., for example, only 2.3% of drivers go for them, compared to 14% in our country. 

A new, more effective tire
Continental, a German brand, may be less well-known than some  other tire makers, but they offer a somewhat higher-end product with more of an emphasis on performance. In the automobile industry, German products are known for their excellent quality, as well as the corresponding heftier price. So it’s not surprising that Continental products are somewhat more expensive than the competition’s, but that’s to be expected for anything that’s high-end. You’ll find these tires standard on certain BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz models. Meanwhile, the company’s General Tire division offers more middle-of-the-road products, most notably with its AltiMax line, which is affordable and very effective.

The event at Continental gave us the chance to appreciate the merits of their latest product, the Extreme Winter Contact tires. Evaluating tires is always a difficult task, particularly ones in the same range, but I’ll admit that I was pleasantly surprised by their performance.

Winter tires, are they really important?
In addition to introducing their new winter tires, Continental wanted to prove that winter tires are superior to their all-season counterparts. Now, I’ll start by admitting that only a few years ago I was convinced that all-season tires offered a good compromise year-round, particularly if they were new. However, now that I have a few performance tests under my belt, I realize that that’s not the case at all. And this event just reinforced my conviction.

The first thing you should know is that winter tires aren’t just useful in snow. The hard rubber that all-season tires are made from may mean they’re more durable at higher temperatures, but it also means they’re even harder and consequently less grippy once the mercury dips below 7 oC. You can imagine then that at -25oC, you’ve suddenly got four hockey pucks spinning under you. And aren’t your tires supposed to keep your vehicle in contact with the road? So, whether there’s snow and ice or not, all-season tires offer far inferior performance in winter.

To prove this, Continental provided us with two identical vehicles: one equipped with winter tires and another with all-season tires. Using the winter tires, we were able to shave 5 seconds off our time completing the snowy circuit with bends, a slalom and an emergency brake point. Five seconds off the usual 35 seconds it takes to complete this circuit may not seem like much, but what was truly significant was the feeling of control the winter tires give you. Especially notable was the braking distance, which goes up by a third with the all-season tires. That alone was enough to convince me that winter tires can make all the difference in a lot of cases.

Don’t mix and match!
We also test a third vehicle, this one with a pair of winter tires on the back (since it was a rear-wheel drive vehicle) and all-season tires on the front. This was common practice a few years back, but it’s really the worst possible combination. You get a false feeling of security from the good traction on accelerations, but on turns contact with the road is mediocre at best, which can fool you and set you up for some unpleasant surprises. You’re better off with four all-season tires – the lack of grip will at least force you to be more cautious!

What about money? Well, aside from the fact that you don’t have to buy two sets of tires at once, there really is no financial advantage in opting for all-season tires. A set of winter tires paired with a set of all-season tires will last longer than two sets of all-season tires. Not to mention the fact that you’ll be equipped with what’s best for each season.

In short, all-season tires are a compromise, and like all compromises, negative aspects come with them. And when you’re talking about tires and automotive safety, compromises are something to avoid. Instead, go with the best option for each season.

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