Winter Tire Myths and FAQs

Winter tires. We’re not here to say you should use them, because you already know that. Instead, we’re going to throw you some facts and dispel some myths about these round-and-black purveyors of cold-weather rubber goodness.

So what’s a winter tire all about?

Winter tires aren’t just a plot to get you to buy two sets of car-shoes. Since rubber gets harder with the cold, the compound in winter tires is formulated to stay softer as the temperature drops. At 7°C and below, a winter tire does a better job of gripping asphalt than an all-season tire, by staying soft and pliable. The tread is also designed to bite into snow, and to channel away water and slush.

Winters are mild where I live, and there’s hardly any snow.

See above. There’s a reason they’re now called “winter” tires, rather than the old “snow” tires, because they perform better on cold, dry pavement than all-seasons do. Shorter stopping distances are always a good thing, whether on dry, wet, or snowy asphalt.

That said, your weather conditions will determine what type of winter tires to get. There’s little point getting ultra-beefy, extra-blocky tread patterns if you’re driving primarily on dry pavement. On the other side, those who regularly face deep snow need very aggressive patterns to get them through the rough stuff.

My tire says Mud + Snow. Am I good to go?

The best answer is “kinda-sorta”. If your tire is labelled Mud + Snow, or M+S, it’s intended to provide better traction in mud and light snow than a summer tire. In order to get the designation, it has to meet tread design standards, but its compound doesn’t have to be winter-specific. Tires that do meet all winter standards have a logo of a three-peaked mountain with a snowflake on the sidewall.

That can make all the difference in certain situations. You need the mountain-and-snowflake to meet Quebec’s winter tire mandate, and for incentive programs such as the insurance discount offered in Ontario, or Manitoba’s low-interest winter tire loans. British Columbia will allow M+S or winter-specific tires on its designated winter routes.

Any other options?

Some manufacturers now sell “all-weather” tires, which sit somewhere between all-seasons and winter-specific. Unlike all-seasons, they stay flexible at lower temperatures, and their tread is more aggressive. They’re meant to stay on all year, so you don’t have to change and store a set. They meet Quebec’s tire mandate, but they don’t perform as well on ice or snow as winter tires, and they tend to wear faster than all-seasons.

Are expensive winter tires just… well, pricier? Aren’t they all the same?

Not all winter tires are created equal. While Canada recently improved its woefully outdated standards, the reality is that to earn the mountain-and-snowflake designation, any tire only has to be 110 percent better than a tire that’s considered the “standard”. It’s virtually impossible for consumers to find out exactly what that standard is, but we’re betting it ain’t a top-of-the-line model, given some of the awful bargain-basement winter tires we’ve tried.

Higher-end tires generally have better compounds and tread patterns, and in addition to materials, you’re paying for the research and development that goes into them. Even so, the very top price doesn’t always guarantee the very best tire, and you should shop around – but you’ll generally find that a premium tire will give you better results than a budget one.

Who needs winter tires? I’ve got all-wheel drive!

Ever see a dog trying to run on a patch of ice? He’s got power to all four paws, but he’s not going anywhere. All-wheel can’t do much if you don’t have traction. And along with go, you need stop. All-wheel systems don’t brake any faster than front-wheel, and winter tires do a better job of stopping than all-seasons do.

I’ve got two-wheel drive. It’s enough to put winters on the driving wheels.

Nope, nope, and – well, nope. If you have winters on one axle, and all-seasons on the other, one end of your car will have more grip than the other. If the all-seasons lose traction and start to slide – which can easily happen on acceleration, cornering, or braking – you could end up in a dangerous skid.

What about size? Can I go up or down?

You can, and it’s often a good idea when you have low-profile or unusually sized stock tires. The trick is to buy smaller steel rims – usually 16- or 17-inch work well – and then fit them with larger tires so the outside diameter remains the same. This should keep your odometer and safety systems operating properly. Narrow winter tires will also do a better job of biting into snow for extra traction. Your tire dealer should be able to fix you up with the right set.

I change my tires promptly each season – they’ll last longer!

You will get more life out of your winter tires if you change them promptly with warmer weather, but they still won’t last forever. You should check their pressure once a month – improperly inflated tires wear faster, and also use more fuel. Make sure they have adequate tread depth. Tires should be replaced when they’re ten years old, and sooner if they’re starting to crack. No matter how many airbags and electronic nannies your vehicle has, your number-one safety item is your tires, because they’re the only thing touching the road – winter, summer, spring, or autumn.

Yes, you need them, and that’s just the beginning…