Shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic, I attended a winter tire conference. All major tire manufacturers had a stand with sales representatives. They all had the opportunity to hold a session where they discussed their products and their specialties. Most were pretty boring, but one speech caught my attention when he answered a nagging question – why do we need snow tires now but didn’t decades ago?
Before the 1980s, all-season tires worked all year round. They were big, heavy, gnarled and noisy. Winter tires did not exist, and what we called winter tires were used by those drivers who ventured onto unploughed back roads.
At that time, government fuel efficiency regulations were being updated and implemented, forcing automakers to act. They had to consider and explore previously unconsidered or unconsidered areas to improve fuel efficiency. The tires were examined and they found that these big, heavy, knobby, all-season tires had significant rolling resistance. As automakers struggled to meet these tightened standards, they also lobbied for their peers at tire manufacturers to also get on board. They insisted that tire manufacturers must share the burden and develop greener products to help them do their jobs.
And so the evolution of all-season tires began. They became smoother and the tread patterns were streamlined with fewer gaps between tread blocks. Steel belts have been supplemented and/or replaced by a variety of fabrics such as Kevlar. Rubber chemistry changed and became a hodgepodge of compounds with the intention of reducing weight and increasing grip.
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As the rolling resistance of all-season tires decreased, so did their usability as all-season tires. Winter tire sales rose as drivers realized they were no longer comfortable in blustery conditions. But these winter tires were aggressive and unable to provide a refined driving experience on the highway. Of course, winter tires also had to evolve, which they did when they became what we call winter tires today. Just as the all-season tire underwent major refinement, so too did the winter products, serving a new market for those who wanted the best of both worlds.
The tire company representative also said that the government’s tire ratings have also changed over the decades. He said the government’s testing parameters had been changed. In his own research, he determined that a current-generation all-season tire using the same traction measurement standards as in the 1970s and 80s would not meet the criteria of an all-season tire from that era. It would just be a three season tire. I cannot verify his claims.
In my job, I’ve often seen the cynic’s perspective when he accompanies a loved one who is standing at my sales counter inquiring about the price of a set of snow tires. The naysayers always insist that they’ve ridden on all-season tires for decades and never needed anything more. They keep testifying that winter tires are a sham, a conspiracy by tire companies to sell more tires. The loved one will almost always come back later alone and buy that set of winter tires without the negative pressure of the doubter. Believe what you will, but based on my own research over the years, I believe a fair proportion of what this seller had said was accurate. It’s not the tire company’s grand conspiracy, it’s simple evolution into a greener world.
Which tire is right for you? The most popular major brands are consistently at or near the top in Consumer Reports polls. When you buy a set of premium tires, you buy the most advanced tire, much like the latest smartphone. But any winter tire is better than no winter tire at all.
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I tend to push the bigger brands for selfish reasons – they rarely come back to pursue me as overall satisfaction from the moment of sale is exceptionally high. People just don’t complain about it. In my experience, the price-conscious tires differ in two striking points. First, they don’t last the same number of seasons. While tread life can still be passable, most complain that the rubber hardens and becomes ineffective sooner, typically with a shorter lifespan by a season or two. Second is balancing the tires. After your tire is mounted on the wheel, it is balanced and weights are added to counteract heavy spots in the rubber. The top-of-the-line tires require little weight to get a balanced reading on our machine. The cheap tires always take significantly more weight to achieve the same balanced reading. Adding more weight also increases the likelihood of an issue that usually takes the form of vibration at highway speeds.
Lou Trottier owns and operates All About Imports in Mississauga. Do you have questions about maintenance and repairs? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org including “Lou’s Garage” in the subject line.
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