Summertime and the driving is easy – at least that's the common perception. After a torturous winter with all its freezing rain, whiteouts, snow storms and Christmas carols on the radio, drivers can be forgiven for feeling the worst has passed as temperatures rise. Yet we should be wary of growing complacent. Warm weather brings its own traps. When it comes to spring, the most frequent problem is a sin of omission. Specifically, treating your winter tires as if they're all-seasons.
I was reminded of this fact recently while testing tires on a Michelin-sponsored obstacle course. Carl Nadeau, 41, was on hand to act as driving coach. A professional driver and a celebrity on the French-Canadian automotive scene, Nadeau educated me on the perils of winter driving. It seemed fitting that he follow up with a warm weather warning. Driving 2015 Kia Sorentos, we tested the Michelin Premier LTX, which will be available at dealerships on June 1. We drove on a new set, a set shaved down by 50 per cent and on a set of Michelin Latitude X-Ice Xi2 winter tires.
Some motorists figure if a tire can handle tough winter conditions, it should have no problem dealing with warmth. They try to save money by riding their winter wheels all summer. I drove on my winter set for a few hot months many years ago and still have nightmares about the experience.
You see, once temperatures are steadily above 7C, winter tires (which are designed to stay soft in cold conditions) start to lose their grip and control. That means you need a lot more distance to come to a complete stop than you do with all-season or summer tires. A 2012 Consumer Reports study found you need one-and-a-half to two car lengths more. The hotter the temperature, the worse the decline – more than 30 degrees and the rubber will start to marble, which causes it to form balls and spin under the wheel. It's a dangerous choice, a bit like buying an airplane and scrimping on the wings.
"You are going to be scared," Nadeau told me before my drive. "We're going to replicate road conditions. That's the problem with accidents – they're hard to predict." Although, perhaps, not so hard to predict if a car is on an obstacle course designed to cause you problems and I'm driving.
The Michelin summer tire course could just as easily be called "So You Think You Can Drive?" No matter how you perform, you leave knowing you could do better. The Premium LXT held up well; in fact there wasn't much difference between the fresh set and the tires that had been shaved down. The winter tires were another story. It felt like my brakes were going. The grip was loose. It made the fact that some drivers spend hot summers zooming down highways on winter tires deeply disturbing.
Let's fact it, tires can be mystifying. You can use the old "Quarter Test" – insert a quarter into your first tread. If you can see all of the Queen's head it's time for new tires. When it comes to driving on winter tires I have a much simpler test: the "Mirror Test." Stand before a mirror and ask your reflection, "Are you still driving on winter tires?" If the answer is yes, swear at yourself and get your vehicle to the nearest garage to get those big round rubber things changed.
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