Owners Tips

We Answer Your 7 Most Popular Questions About Winter Tires

Cooler weather across Canada always brings the usual items: leaves changing colour, pumpkin-spice everything, and questions about winter tires. We’ve rounded up the answers to seven common queries about winter tires to help you get started this season.

My area gets very little snow. Do I still need winter tires?

Winter tires aren’t just “snow tires,” and they’re a good idea almost everywhere in Canada. In addition to their more aggressive tread, winter tires stay pliable in cold weather, while all-season tires become firmer. This means winter tires provide considerably shorter stopping distances, improved acceleration, and better control on curves. Their tread pattern also channels away water and slush to help prevent hydroplaning, a dangerous situation that can cause loss of control.

The general rule of thumb is that winter tires are superior to all-season whenever the temperature drops below 7°C (plus, not minus). Some drivers may also get car insurance rebates for using winter tires.

I’ve heard about “all-weather” tires. Should I go for them?

All-weather tires sit between all-seasons and winter tires. They stay on all year and have the mountain and snowflake symbol, so they qualify for any winter tire mandates and insurance rebates.

Compared to all-seasons, their tread is more aggressive and they stay softer in cold weather, but winter tires beat them for both. They also wear faster than all-seasons. They can be a good choice for areas with mild winters, but otherwise, winter tires should be your go-to.

Many people change both their tires and rims. What’s the advantage?

There are a few benefits to an extra set of rims for winter, starting with saving your fancier alloy wheels from road salt. You need a professional to install a tire on a wheel, but switching rims can be a do-it-yourself job. Even if a professional is doing the installation, it’s often cheaper and faster to do the swap if your winter tires are on their own rims. And if your vehicle came with large wheels, large winter tires can have a correspondingly sized price tag. In some cases, you may be able to use a smaller rim fitted with a “taller” tire that maintains the outside diameter, which could cost less. Ask your tire shop if this is possible.

When should I change my tires?

Make the switch when temperatures are hovering around that 7°C recommendation. In spring, switch when the weather warms up, as winter tires wear faster when temperatures rise.

Don’t wait until the last minute. Dealerships and tire stores get really busy as winter gets closer, and you don’t want to be stuck sliding around on the first snowfall. And if you need to buy winter tires, there’s no such thing as “too early” to start shopping. Popular sizes sell out quickly, while unusual sizes may need to be special ordered and you’ll have to wait for them to come in.

What are date codes and why do they matter?

Image shows tire date code of "0514", indicating it was made in the fifth week of 2014.

Fine wine may age beautifully, but rubber doesn’t, and the date code tells you how old your tire is. On the sidewall, look for a series of numbers starting with “DOT” (for Department of Transportation). The date code is the last four digits – usually by themselves, but occasionally with letters in front of them. They may be on only one side of the tire.

The first two numbers are the week the tire was made, while the second two are the year. For example, “1421” means it was made in the 14th week of 2021. It’s recommended to have your tires checked regularly after five years, and replaced after their 10th birthday. Even if they still have enough tread or spent their time in storage, there could be cracks or weak spots. If the date code is only three numbers, the tire was made prior to 2000 and should be recycled.

How do winter tires work with tire pressure monitoring systems?

These systems, known as TPMS, aren’t legally mandated in Canada, but most vehicles have them. Some use vehicle speed sensors, which will work with all tires. But most use a pressure sensor inside the tire, usually as part of the valve stem, and if you switch over to winter tires and rims that don’t have sensors, the TPMS readout won’t work.

Your only choices are to check your tire pressure regularly (which you should do even if your TPMS is functioning, because a tire can be low on air without triggering the system) or install sensors in the tires, which can be pricey.

How much does price matter?

Price is not the sole indicator of quality, but expect a cheap tire to give you correspondingly cheap performance. Transport Canada requires a winter tire to have at least 10 per cent better traction than its “reference test tire,” but won’t tell us exactly how good the traction is on that test unit – and you can expect bargain-basement tires to stick as close to that minimum as possible.

Avoid no-name tires and instead look for name-brand companies, most of which offer a range of tires at lower-to-higher prices. Once you’ve driven on a good-quality winter tire, you’ll know how much of a difference it makes. Tires are the single most important safety item on your vehicle, and even more so when the weather turns bad, so it’s wise not to cheap out on them.

Bonus Tip

Another important reminder: Even if you have all-wheel drive, your car still needs winter tires. Having AWD does nothing to help your car stop any faster, which can make all the difference to your safety when the weather gets sloppy.