To find the season's best studless snow-and-ice tire, we head north. Really quite far north.
By K.C. COLWELL
From the December 2015 issue
Assuming you don’t read Suomi, the language of Finland that sounds like a mashup of Dutch and Klingon, there are few road signs you will understand when you’re 186 miles above the Arctic Circle. But one announcing that Murmansk, Russia, is 188 miles away gets your attention, reminding you just how far north you are. Murmansk is a Cold War relic on the Arctic Ocean–to Soviet submarine warfare what Cape Canaveral is to spaceflight. These days, the Russian Northern Fleet occasionally moors nearby.
Then another sign we can read pops up on the left: “Test World Oy.” Oh yeah, we’re here to test some winter tires. Murmansk will have to wait. We have a cold war of our own to deal with.
The Test World Mellatracks proving grounds is a facility that offers year-round testing on natural snow, as opposed to the man-made stuff. During winter months it operates like any other automotive proving grounds, but with frozen canals and snow-packed fields standing in for the concrete and asphalt you find at more-temperate venues. In early spring, Test World stockpiles snow, filling its two buildings with about two feet of packed, natural white stuff, enough to last the entire indoor-testing season. We headed up to the refrigerated covered complex in late summer, as we wanted this story to appear in time for you to take advantage of its findings for the winter soon to be upon us.
The Indoor 1 building is a 525-foot-by-52-foot pole barn of packed snow that includes a lane of Zamboni-maintained ice. Indoor 2 contains a 0.2-mile, 30-foot-wide squiggly handling *circuit. Both buildings have cooling circuits in the floor and chilled forced-air ductwork. On our test day, the inside thermometer read -11, as in degrees Celsius, or 12 degrees Fahrenheit.
Indoor 1’s maximum speed is relatively slow: Braking tests on snow and ice are from 18 and 16 mph, respectively, down to 3 mph. The acceleration tests are just the opposite. Eliminating the zero-to-3-mph range for both going and stopping is a way to test around widely varying performance at low speeds on low-friction surfaces, attributable to differences in driver inputs as well as ABS behavior.
Indoor 2 is where the real fun happens. From the air, it looks like a giant hollow Jelly Belly. Its top speed of 45 mph on snow feels like triple digits in the dry. Get a corner wrong or slide too much and you’ll hit a strategically placed snowdrift, there to catch the car before the Armco does. Because “Indoor 2 subjective handling test” is a mouthful, we’ll just call it the “snowcross” test. Between each tire session, a maintenance crew resurfaces the snow to keep conditions as constant as possible. Also, a control tire laps periodically to normalize results if the track becomes faster or slower.
For this test we wanted to determine the best-performing studless snow-and-ice tire. As with past tire tests, we deferred to ex*peri*enced drivers, this time supplied by Test World, for the objective acceleration and braking on snow and ice. We also partnered with our hosts for the subjective evalu*ation conducted on the indoor snowcross circuit and measured in lap times. Our mule was one of Test World’s Ford Focuses fitted with 225/45R-17 rubber.
These tires rely on their construction, rubber compounds, tread design, and what occasionally feels like magic to generate grip at the contact patch. Almost all tire manufacturers make a tire in this category, which is targeted mostly at family sedans and hatches. But we limited our testing to the heavy hitters: tires from Bridgestone, Continental, Dunlop, Michelin, Nokian, and Yokohama.
Only 25 percent of snowbelt drivers fit their vehicles with winter tires, while Quebec and many European countries make their use compulsory. This tire war won’t have the impact of the real Cold War, but if you are among the three-quarters of drivers who don’t use a set of cold-weather tires, we hope to change your thinking.
Your Best Foot Backward
No one recommends you install just two winter tires. If you must for reasons of cost, though, the conventional wisdom is that you want the best shoes (or the least worn) in the rear no matter if you have a front-, rear-, or four-wheel-drive vehicle. To confirm or bust this bias, we mixed two sets of Michelin tires, winter and all-season [see “Seasoned Perspective,” below], and ran a few laps of the snowcross with the all-seasons in front and the winters on the back, then vice versa. Conclusion: Putting the winter tires on the front wheels was a lot more fun. Not only was the grip-in-front car easier to steer and brake, it was also 3.2 seconds quicker around the little circuit at Test World. But that lap came with a wallop of oversteer, the kind of rear-end looseness that would catch most drivers out and toss them right into the ditch. Putting the winter tires at the rear yielded stubborn understeer, which is way more predictable than the alternative. So if you’re going to mix tires, for safety’s sake put your best rubber at the rear.
Service Description Decoder
The number indicates the maximum weight each tire can safely carry:
The letter indicates the maximum speed the tire can safely travel:
Extra-load tires are capable of carrying more weight at a higher air pressure than a similarly sized tire.
You may think you don’t need winter tires because your car has all-seasons. But, ironically, if you live somewhere that actually has all the seasons, you need winter tires. For perspective on this issue, we asked Michelin for a set of all-seasons, and it sent over its Pilot Sport A/S 3. If we were going to buy an all-season tire, it would be this one, because it actually has some serious dry grip in summer conditions. But as good as it is, the Pilot Sport was nearly six seconds off the Nokian’s pace on the snowcross, and it didn’t come close to any of the winter tires’ braking performances. On the snow, it took five feet more to stop than the average of the six winter tires on the following pages. Five feet may mean the difference between a fender bender and an accident-free winter. Braking distances on snow may be the best reason to fit a set of winter tires, and Inuit stoplight drag racers would do well to note the extra second of acceleration from 3 to 18 mph.
Check out pages 2 and 3 below for the tire comparisons and test results.
Winter-Tire Test: Six Top Brands Tested, Compared ? Feature ? Car and Driver