Just before the pandemic began I attended a winter tire conference. All the major tire companies had a booth staffed by sales representatives. They all had the opportunity to host a session discussing their products and what set them apart. Most were pretty boring, but one speech caught my attention as he answered a nagging question for me – why do we need winter tires now, but we didn’t decades ago?
Before the 1980s, all-season tires worked in all seasons. They were big, heavy, knobby and noisy. Winter tires didn’t exist and what we called snow tires were used by those drivers who ventured on to unplowed back roads.
At this time, government fuel efficiency regulations were being updated and implemented, forcing auto manufacturers into action. They had to consider and research previously un-thought of or disregarded areas to improve fuel efficiency. Tires went under the microscope and they found those big, heavy, knobby all-season tires had significant rolling resistance. As auto manufacturers struggled to meet these tightening standards, they were also lobbying that their tire manufacturer counterparts also needed to get on board. They insisted that the tire manufactures had to share the burden and develop greener products to assist them with meeting their mandates.
And so began the evolution of the all-season tire. They became smoother and tread patterns were streamlined with fewer gaps between the tread blocks. Steel belts were supplemented and/or replaced with a variety of fabrics such as Kevlar. Rubber chemistry changed and became a smorgasbord of compounds with the intent of reducing weight and increasing grip.
As the rolling resistance of all-season tires decreased, so did their usability as a year-round tire. Snow tire sales climbed as drivers found they were no longer comfortable driving in blustery conditions. But these snow tires were aggressive and not capable of providing a refined driving experience on the highway. Naturally, the snow tire also had to evolve, which it did as it migrated into what we now call a winter tire. Just as the all-season tire went through extensive refinement, so did winter products as they catered to a new market for those who wanted the best of both worlds.
The tire company representative also said government tire ratings changed over the decades as well. He said government testing parameters were modified. From his own research, he found if you took a current generation all-season tire and applied the same traction measurement standards from that of the 1970s and 80s, it would fail to meet the criteria of an all-season tire from that time period. It would be a three-season tire only. I can’t verify his claims.
In my job, I have on many occasions experienced the cynic’s point of view when they are accompanying a loved one standing at my sales counter inquiring about the price for a set of winter tires. The naysayer always insists they have driven for decades with all-season tires and have never needed anything more. They always testify that winter tires are a farce, a conspiracy by tire companies to sell more tires. That loved one almost always comes back alone at a later date and buys that set of winter tires, without the negative pressure from the doubter. Believe what you want, but from my own research over the years, I believe a reasonable amount of that salesperson’s speech was accurate. It isn’t the great tire company conspiracy, it’s the simple evolution into a greener world.
What tire is right for you? The most popular big named brands are consistently at or near the top of Consumer Reports surveys. When you are buying a set of top-tier tires, you are buying the most advanced tire, kind of like the latest smart phone. However, any winter tire is better than no winter tire.
I tend to push the bigger name brands for a selfish reason – they rarely come back to haunt me, as overall satisfaction from the moment of sale is extraordinarily high. People simply don’t complain about them. The value conscious tires differ in two noticeable ways in my experience. Firstly, they don’t last the same number of seasons. While tread life may still be passable, most complain that the rubber hardens and becomes ineffective sooner, typically with a life span one or two seasons shorter. Secondly is tire balancing. After your tire is mounted on the wheel it gets balanced and weights are added to counteract heavy spots in the rubber. The top-tier tires take little weight to achieve a balanced reading on our machine. The cheap tires always take significantly more weight to achieve that same balanced reading. As more weight is added, so are the chances of a problem that usually comes in the form of vibrations at highway speeds.
Lou Trottier is owner-operator of All About Imports in Mississauga. Have a question about maintenance and repair? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, placing “Lou’s Garage” in the subject line.