Some of the most unnerving experiences I've ever had have been in a car on a winter's night.
Here's a few particularly memorable ones: An impromptu New Year's eve jaunt to Montreal that started out clear but ended up in a raging ice storm; doing a full 360 on a slush-covered highway en route to a Quebec City ski trip; skidding sideways on a country bridge in the southern Ontario backroads during a snowstorm so thick, the road was a blanket of white.
Even though these days my husband and I do mostly city driving during the winter months, our experiences with treacherous road conditions have made the investment in snow tires seem well worth it. Still, a set can cost you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. What's the best way to get a good deal?
First of all, says Zack Spencer, host of automotive show Driving Television and founder of car blog Motormouth.ca, they're not called "snow" tires, they're called "winter" tires – an important disctinction.
"They're actually for cold weather, because regular, all-season tires become hard – the rubber compound hardens as the temperature drops," said Mr. Spencer. "So even if it's not snowy or icy, if it gets cold, winter tires stick to the road better."
If you live in Canada, you need them. In fact, Mr. Spencer thinks it should be mandatory everywhere in the country, as it is in Quebec. In terms of where to get them, Mr. Spencer says there can be an advantage to buying tires at bigger outlets like Canadian Tire, Wal-Mart or Costco.
"A lot of the bigger chains have price-matching, so if you find a better deal at another location, they guarantee that price," he said. "Also, you can do comparison shopping online with the big retailers. That's not to say a smaller shop can't have the same brands and competitive pricing, but the bigger outlets can buy more volume. Some retailers have to take hundreds of thousands of tires from a tire company in order to get a special price, so often you can get a better deal from them."
It's also worth it to go for a name-brand tire, says Mr. Spencer, even though it will cost you more than a generic, "made in China" brand.
"I've learned from talking to people in the tire business and also the Rubber Association of Canada that the brand names people recognize – like Firestone, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Nokian, Hankook, Michelin and Pirelli – all of those big tire companies spend more money on research and development than the smaller companies, and that's really what you're paying for."
That R&D can result in tires that last longer, or are better in specific applications – such as on ice or in deep snow. To do your research, Mr. Spencer recommends Tirerack.com, a U.S. website that's also a major web portal for buying tires.
"You can buy from them, but you have to consider shipping and duty," he said. "But it's just a great site, you can do your research there and bring that to your local retailer."
Though he doesn't generally recommend them, Mr. Spencer says you can find used winter tires on Craigslist or Kijiji for "pennies on the dollar." If you buy used, make sure that you're getting tires that are only one season old.
"The thing with winter tires is you need the grooves in big blocks of rubber to actually dig through the snow," he said. "As winter tires wear and those chunks of rubber get lower, they don't grip as well. So there are certain brands that even when they are 50-per-cent worn, their ability to grip in snow and ice is drastically reduced."
One trick to find out the age of a tire is to check the last digits on the serial number, which will tell you the year it was made.
Another option for urban dwellers who drive mostly on well-cleared roads, says Mr. Spencer, is a new category of tires that's come out in Canada called an "all-weather" tire (Nokian and Hankook offer them). These tires have winter capability, but you can drive on them all year-round.
"These are perfect for people who don't have the storage for two sets of tires," he said.
But if you've just bought a new car and you're still hemming and hawing about purchasing winter tires, Mr Spencer says you should think fast.
"Newer cars with new wheel sizes, those go quickly because manufacturers haven't been able to make them quickly," he said. "So if you're sitting on the fence about getting winter tires, the sooner you get them, the better, because some of the odd sizes won't be available and you're out of luck."