When it comes to testing winter tires, there are few places better than Canada. From coast to coast, Canadian winters offer everything from freezing rain to storms that hit with white out conditions.
While all season tires offer fair handling characteristics above 7 degrees Celsius, when the temperature drops below that threshold, rubber compounds used in all season tires get hard, slippery and give up traction.
Winter tires are made of softer compounds that remain pliable when temperatures drop and allow them stay soft enough to expel snow and slush. This traction and handling increase comes at the price of excess road noise, but this is an acceptable tradeoff for most.
Best winter tires comparison table
The prices listed are for a standard midsize vehicle tire. The specific size for comparison purposes is P205/55R16, which is suitable for the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra. Approximate prices have been taken from TireRack.com, Kal Tire, 1010Tires and Canadian Tire.
|Tire||Type||Price Per Tire||Size Range||Tread Depth||Warranty||Studs|
|Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2||$190||13" to 21"||11||Defects: 5/6 years;||No|
|Bridgestone Blizzak WS 80||$170||15" to 18"||11||Defects: 5/6 years; |
Tread Warranty: 50,000KM
|Michelin X-Ice Xi3||$180||14" to 19"||11||Defects: 5 years; Tread Warranty: 60,000KM||No|
|Continental WinterContact SI||$160||15" to 20"||10||Defects: 6 years;||No|
|Gislaved Nord*Frost 100||$120||14" to 19"||12||Defects: 5/6 years;||Optional|
|Pirelli Ice Zero FR||$170||14" to 19"||11||Defects: no time limit;||No|
|Toyo Observe GSi5||$140||13" to 20"||12||Defects: 5 years;||No|
|Dunlop Winter Maxx||$140||13" to 19"||11||Defects: 6 years;||No|
|Goodyear Ultra Grip Ice WRT||$170||15" to 20"||12||Defects: 6 years;||No|
|General Tire Altimax Arctic||$120||14" to 17"||12||Defects: 6 years;||Optional|
|Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8||$170||13" to 21"||12||Defects: 5/6 years;||Yes|
|Michelin Latitude X-Ice Xi2||$190||15" to 20"||11||Defects: 5/6 years; Treadwear: 40,000 miles||No|
It is important to remember that no specific tire brand or model is the absolute right choice for every vehicle and every situation. The road tests that have been conducted test all aspects of winter tire performance including; stopping and starting on snow, ice, wet and dry pavement. These tests also provide feedback on fuel consumption, changes in control and handling and overall ride quality attributes like road noise.
1) Best overall winter tire – Nokian Hakkapelitta R2
This is a non studded tire that offers superb traction, decent fuel saving rolling resistance and top notch safety. Added grip particles are added to the rubber compound to give good traction on icy roads and the tire siping allow it to move slush out of the way to provide top notch handling by keeping more of the tire in contact with the road. Sizes are available for most cars and SUV’s.
2) Bridgestone Blizzak WS 80
The Blizzak was introduced in Canada over 2 decades ago and remains one of the better winter tire options for icy roads and conditions. It was one of the first tires to be manufactured with a special rubber compound that offered superior handling especially on ice covered and hard packed surfaces.
Its design helps it wick water and slush away from the contact zone of the road giving you grip and traction that you would usually only be found in a studded tire without the increased noise. Morning commuters will be happy with this tire all winter and the Blizzak family of tires has grown to include car, SUV and truck options.
3) Best value snow tire – Michelin X-Ice Xi3
In most tests the Xi3 matches up squarely with the Hakkapelitta R2 but gives up just a little bit in handling. Traction and acceleration are equally as good but you will not have to break the bank for the Michelin X-Ice.
This is a studless winter tire so the noise level is kept down and Michelin concentrated on longevity to improve overall cost of ownership. They did this by using a unique design of the tread that helps to distribute road forces more evenly. Vertical sipes help move debris and reinforce the individual tread blocks to help reduce wear. The X-ice Xi3 is available in many common sizes and is widely available.
4) Continental WinterContact SI
Continuing on the success of Continentals Extreme Winter Contact series, the 2017 offering is the WinterContact SI. The SI (Snow and Ice) has the added feature of Polar Plus Technology that uses special additives to provide enhanced grip on snow. Angles cut into the contact patch and sidewalls help move snow without slipping and give better control when braking.
The WinterContact SI also has an Alignment Verification System that visually alerts the driver of alignment issues so they can be fixed before the tires are ruined. The SI is offered in a wide range of sizes and is popular in most shops in Canada.
5) Gislaved Nord*Frost 100
Like its predecessor, the Nord*Frost 5, this tire offers good performance in both snow and ice. The tread design also handles well on dry pavement but, like most winter tires, can become noisy with imbalanced wear.
Gislaved is the exclusive winter tire choice of Volvo and being manufactured in Sweden, it is a favored tire in the European market due to overall winter performance.
6) Pirelli Ice Zero FR
The Pirelli Ice Zero FR (friction) is one of the best winter tire options to ever come out of the Pirelli line up. The sipe design and cuts give it great snow grabbing ability and helps drivers maintain control in slippery conditions as well as at higher speeds. The tire is available in both studded and non-studded options, is widely available and has a good price point.
7) Toyo Observe GSi5
While Toyo may not be the most popular household name when it comes to tires, the GSi5 does give optimal performance in deep snow and icy conditions. Although road noise can be harsh at times, the overall feedback has been positive for the Observe GSi5. With a design that favors heavy vehicles it offers a deep long-wearing tread pattern but when the birds start chirping get them off the SUV to prevent some performance lag on dry pave.
8) Dunlop Winter Maxx
Manufactured in Japan and distributed in Canada by Goodyear, the Winter Max has a proven history and continues to be a solid choice for winter tires. Great tread life, attractive price points and better than average quality means top notch handling in all types of winter conditions. An asymmetric tread design and soft compound provides rigidity and enhances drivability.
9) Goodyear Ultra Grip Ice WRT
Goodyear usually provides a decent tire and the Ultra Grip lineup is never a bad decision for any vehicle. It can provide a stiffer ride for smaller cars and SUV’s due to harder direction tread design but the tradeoff is not substantial enough to avoid the tire and the expected life makes it cost effective. Excellent traction and handling characteristics for any winter road and easy to find in almost any shop.
10) Best affordable snow tire – General Tire Altimax Arctic
The best bang for your buck, the Altimax Arctic is a decent mid level tire with an entry level price point. A unique design with a multi-angle sipe system gives high performance in low temperatures. It will give you long life which is a leading consumer demand but should be rotated regularly to prevent wear problems which will lead to excessive noise but for the price you won’t hear the noise during cold trips to the hockey rink this year.
Best studded snow tire – Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8
A studded tire provides superior traction on icy and hard pack covered roads. The addition of small metal spikes can turn an already good winter tire into a grip and traction beast. The studs sink into ice and limit slipping which translates into the finest handling one can get. The Hakkapeliitta 8 boasts the most advanced studded tire on the market for all weather conditions and has made improvements on downside to studded tires, the noise.
Best winter tires for SUVs and Trucks – Michelin Latitude X-Ice Xi2
If your daily driver is an SUV or truck, you should put the Michelin Latitude X-Ice Xi2 on your shopping list. An industry leading design provides quiet, comfort, handling and stopping and starting power in a variety of winter conditions.
A Flex Ice compound maintains flexibility when temperatures plummet and Cross-Z sipes are deep so you will get several winters out of your purchase. A safe, tough, fuel efficient option that Michelin, as always, delivers on.
Winter tire buyer’s guide
4 factors to Consider
1. Grip and traction on ice and snow
Any approved winter tire will give you better traction in winter conditions than any all season tire. Don’t be afraid to spend a little extra on winter tires to get the best performance.
2. Ride Quality
What winter tires offer in handling can sometimes be given up in ride comfort. In the last decade, the manufacturers have made leaps and bounds in the comfort and ride quality of winter tires. Many studless tires are hard to differentiate from summers when it comes to road noise.
Generally speaking, you should expect to get at least 3 winters from a winter tire. With proper maintenance and storage you can expect 5 or more years. The softer rubber compound in winter tires can wear out quickly if not properly maintained and rotated.
Check the treadwear warranty before purchasing. A tire will usually offer an estimated kilometer range to expect and will give rebates on replacement tires (typically prorated) that wear out prematurely as long as records of the required maintenance can be provided.
Where can you buy winter tires?
Most websites have a quoting system to use but be sure to consider shipping costs and exchange rate if ordering from a U.S. retailer. When comparing quotes, make sure they’re for the same model of tire by checking the product’s part number or SKU.
Look for a snowflake inside a mountain
A snowflake on the sidewall of a tire is the indicator that a tire has met or exceeded industry-established severe snow traction performance testing. These tests simulate typical Canadian winter driving conditions – not blizzard-like conditions.
Alternatively, all season tires are often marked with an M & S (mud and snow) but that does not mean that they are off road capable – just not a winter certified tire. They are typically only able to handle light snow.
Ice radials vs. snow treads
An ice radial is the modern version of a hybrid winter tire. Originally, winter treads had to have deep and wide grooves to provide traction in winter weather and the payoff was ride harshness and noise.
An ice radial tends to look more like an all-season tire (rounded and smoother) than larger snow tread tires (larger square cut grooves). Both have sipes cut into the lugs to provide grip and traction. Unless you regularly deal with severe winter roads covered with deep snow, stick to ice radials for a quieter ride and better fuel mileage.
Make sure to get the right size
It is important to confirm the proper tire and rim size for your car before making a purchase.
Typically found inside the driver’s door jamb, there is a placard that states the factory sizing that came new on the vehicle. You can also check the size shown on the side of the tires that are currently installed, but if you bought the car used the tires and rims may have been changed.
The first number indicates the width in millimeters; the second is the height of the tire as a percentage of the width (aspect ratio).
Using our example, the tire would be 129 millimeters tall (235 x 55%). The last number refers to the diameter of the rims needed to mount the tire. A letter may appear in front on the tire size that will be a P or LT. These stand for passenger and light truck. It is possible to get a P rated tire for a truck or SUV but the load range (weight restrictions) will not be as heavy.
Can I use a slightly narrower tread & rims?
Yes, you can use a rim and tire that are slightly narrower than your summer tires, however the overall circumference must stay within a few percentage points of the original.
Dropping to a smaller size can be more affordable and offer better performance. Smaller tires are often cheaper and can cut through snow easier.
Think of a pizza cutter cutting down through the cheese and topping to cut the crust. A narrower and shorter tire will cut and roll easier to provide better fuel economy and improved handling.
Can I use just 2 winter tires?
The simple answer is no. Winter tires change the grip the car has on the road. Only changing 2 out of 4 contact points can have severe consequences.
For example, if you were to mount 2 winter tires in the front, you would feel secure traction going into a corner but halfway through, when forces start shifting, the back end may not be able to keep up and could cause you to spin out.
Conversely, if you mount 2 tires on the rear, you may have better acceleration with a rear wheel drive vehicle, but the non winter tires in the front may not be able to grip enough to direct the car around a turn and you could end up in a ditch.
That said, if you can only afford to install 2 winter tires, the general rule is that you want them on your rear wheels regardless of whether the vehicle is FWD, RWD or AWD.
When should I change winter tires?
Winter tires are not designed for summer temperatures anymore than summer tires are made for cold winters. Above or below 7 degree Celsius the compounds used in winter and summer tires began to lose the ability to do what they were designed to do, so swap them when temperatures hit that mark.
How long do they last?
With proper maintenance, rotation and storage you can expect to get 4 to 5 seasons from a quality winter tire. Making sure you have them put on/taken off when the temperature crosses the 7 degrees Celsius mark will greatly help longevity.
Do I need studded winter tires?
Studded tires provide excellent traction on icy and hard packed snow covered roads, but they come at the expense of noise and ride comfort and may cause damage to paved roads and driveways.
They are not really suited to deep snow conditions and studies have shown they work best around the zero degree mark that can produce black ice conditions. Check your local regulations because they are restricted in some areas and/or at a certain time of year.
The initial investment in winter tires may seem a bit steep, after factoring in all installation and maintenance costs, you will see that having two sets of tires that both last for 6 years (each used 50% of the year) isn’t much more than only having one set of tires that’s used 100% of the time and lasts 3 years.
Plus thanks to the braking and handling improvements they provide, you also get peace of mind during winter driving – benefits that far outweigh the additional cost.
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Over to you
What kind of winter tires do you have for your vehicle? How long have you had them and what do you think about the handling, traction, noise and fuel efficiency? Let me know by leaving a comment below!