January 28, 2013 9:40 AM | By Mark Richardson for MSN Autos

Winter tires: An investment in your safety and your sanity

Mark Richardson's 2000 Saturn L200 Sedan with new winter tires (© Photo: Mark Richardson)

Mark's old Saturn got a new lease on life with a set of good winter tires.


Mark Richardson

Mark Richardson — On the Road

I live 100 km outside of Toronto, which means some of my neighbours have a long commute. For me, a new transplant from the city, it means I had to bite the bullet last month and install winter tires on my car.

My 2000 Saturn sedan isn't worth much these days but it's reliable, fairly comfortable and the heater works. The air-conditioning doesn't, but I won't be worrying about that for a few months yet. What also doesn't work is the set of all-season Bridgestone Insignia SE200 tires, which are rated for "light snow" but I feel can make the car a deathtrap in winter.

It wasn't such a big deal in Toronto, especially over the last couple of winters when we had such scant snowfall. The road was usually bare and whenever the weather turned bad, traffic would drive so slowly that there was no speed to get into trouble. "If it gets bad, I just won't drive," I reasoned. More often than not I was driving somebody else's car anyway, and it was usually fitted with decent winter rubber.

Related link: MSN Autos' winter tire buying guide

Traffic-clogged road

Start sliding here and you WILL hit something.

I was caught out a couple of times. Once was in Toronto, driving down the Don Valley Parkway in an unexpected storm that dropped ankle-deep snow across the city. Normally, the speed limit on the Don Valley is 90 km/h and traffic drives at a bit over 100, but that day the speeds dropped to maybe 60 km/h. I white-knuckled it in the right-hand lane at 30 km/h, holding up traffic, feeling the front-wheel drive car constantly slip to the sides with that stomach-twisting slide that means it's out of control.

If I lost all traction, there would be no room to straighten the skid — cars were just a reach away to the side in the middle lane and far too close behind, impatient at my progress. Any more than the smallest squirm and I'd be tapping their wheels with my own; the deductible alone would be more than the price of a new set of tires. "This is nuts," I thought at the time. "Never again."

But soon after I had to collect my son from a friend's house here in the boonies. The friend lived on a dirt road and the moment the wheels hit the icy patches of the country lane, the car slipped to the side like Italian leather soles on an ice rink.

A modest upgrade gave this plastic-bodied midsize a new lease on life

A modest rubber upgrade gave this plastic-bodied midsize a new lease on life

In fact, the car was so bad in snow and ice that I couldn't believe it wasn't something more than the tires and I planned to sell it, but late this fall, while looking around for a replacement, Bridgestone offered me a set of Blizzak WS70 winter tires. Just give them a try, said the rep. If they don't make enough of a difference, then what have you lost? Any buyer could return them within 30 days anyway.

The 15-inch tires I needed retail for about $140 each, but Bridgestone sent them to me to review; I figured for the $80 price of fitting and balancing the winters I'd give my old Saturn one last chance. Off came the Insignias, on went the Blizzaks and I waited for snow.

The all-seasons last well but tend to be noisy, so I didn't notice a lot of difference on the bare asphalt of December. The Blizzaks have a reputation for not lasting more than two or three seasons, less if they stay on the car in warmer weather. Other winter tires last longer, but they all use blends of rubber and polymer to keep the tire flexible at temperatures pushing -40 C, long after regular tires have stiffened like a hockey puck.

This is one of the biggest developments in tire technology. In the old days, snow tires just had deeper, blockier treads and a narrower width so that the tire could cut through the snow, but these days, better compounds actually keep a winter tire sticky against ice. Different makers use different approaches, but the Blizzaks have tiny bubbles built into the tread that apparently work like suction cups when they hit frozen water.

Related link: How to prepare yourself for winter driving

We don't know about you, but we'd rather spend $1,000 on winter tires, not a deductible payment

We don't know about you, but we'd rather spend $1,000 on winter tires, not a deductible payment

When the first snow hit, I packed a shovel in the trunk and set out gingerly to give the tires a try. At least, I drove gingerly for the first couple of minutes. The car didn't squirm, it didn't slip — it didn't even slide. In snow almost to the axles, and then on bare ice almost good enough for hockey, my old Saturn stayed planted to the road as if it was summer again. The difference between the old and new tires was night and day — night and day.

I drove around for close to an hour that morning, faster and faster to get a feel for the adhesion. It was fun! When my wife had to drive into the city in a second storm, she took the Saturn and I drove her RAV4, fitted with Nokian winter-rated all-seasons. I slipped and slid in the permanent four-wheel drive just like the good old days and slowed right down on the snowy roads; she cruised comfortably in the tracks on the highway and when she came home, demanded winter tires for the Toyota.

There's no argument here. For the investment now and the price of the twice-a-year changeover and balance, the regular tires will sit unused through the winter and last twice as many seasons while the winter tires stick and grip their way out of trouble. Here in Canada the answer to better driving is obvious, whether you're shuttling around town or have a 100-kilometre drive ahead of you. Without the right rubber, you're best just to stay home.

About the author: Mark has been a journalist on the road for 25 years with both car and motorcycle. He's the author of a couple of books — Zen and Now: On the trail of Robert Pirsig and the art of motorcycle maintenance (2008) and Canada's Road: A journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John's to Victoria (2013) — with more on the way. 

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