SOUTH BEND, INDIANA—The winter driving season is looming again, especially if you live in places like our fair city, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Time for some seasonal test driving.
I realize it’s only fall, and I’d have to go Alaska or the Himalayas to actually encounter serious snow and ice, but this is America and where there’s a will there’s a way. Would you believe the ice-skating rink at the University of Notre Dame, land of Knute (“Win One for the Gipper”) Rockne?
TireRack.com is based in the well-manicured college town of South Bend, and it partnered with tire maker Michelin on the “Winter Driving Experience.” Since I live in the Northeast, I’m always willing to sharpen my game for when the weather outside is frosty.
Woody Rogers of Tire Rack explained something I’ve found, by experience, to be true. “All-wheel drive is not enough,” he said. “It’s a great selling story, pitching invincibility, but AWD does not manufacture traction. Instead, it only makes the most of what the tire is providing, and the tire is the only point touching the ground. I wish the auto companies would tell people this story.”
The solution, I’ve come to believe, is winter tires. Since most of us in the colder states drive on all-season radials, we don’t think we need what used to be called “snow tires.” But we do, and on all four wheels. The fact is, only 20 percent of Americans in the colder states bother with winter tires.
Even in frigid Canada only 40 or 50 percent take the plunge (which can cost $1,000 with an extra set of wheels), although it’s 70 percent in Quebec (where the tires are mandated). In the U.S., Colorado and Washington demand you have winter tires if you’re going through the mountain passes in season.
I know winter tires are a pain in the butt—you have to mount them onto the car in the fall, and off in the spring, and it really helps to have a second set of wheels. They also don’t last as long as regular tires, maybe 40,000 miles (five or six seasons?). Annoying and expensive.
But here are some factoids that might convince you. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), wintry weather accounts for more than 681,000 crashes annually, resulting in 181,000 injuries and 2,400 deaths. For every 10-degree Fahrenheit drop, your tires lose a pound per square inch of air pressure, so a tire that’s 32 psi at 70 degrees will have 28 psi at 30 degrees. And underinflated tires lose a lot of traction.
Brian Remsberg, Michelin’s chief PR spokesman, points out that winter tires offer something like 50 percent more traction than the all-season alternatives. His colleague Ron Margadonna, a Michelin veteran, adds that the snow tire is a relatively recent invention, first patented in 1921. And the first snow tire didn’t appear until 1934, from Nokia. Putting on snow tires was usually Dad’s job in postwar America; all-season alternatives (“a compromise all the way,” said Margadonna) didn’t appear until the 1970s.
Today’s winter tires also have up to five times as many “sipes” as regular rubber. What’s a sipe? They're those cute zig-zag cuts in your tires that manage snow, ice and water. They’re called sipes because a guy named John Sipe, who cut slits in his shoes for better traction on the slippery floor of the slaughterhouse where he worked. This was in the 20s—tires were smooth before sipes finally caught on, only gaining wide acceptance in the 1950s (when rubber compounds improved).
Winter tires can be identified because, well, they have more sipes. Also, they have the designations 3PMSF and M+S on them. And there’s a neat little symbol, a three-peak mountain with a snowflake in the center.
OK, enough background. We went out on the ice, where it was a frigid 50 degrees (75 outside). Around us were many reminders of the Fighting Irish’s hockey prowess, though it appeared to be a few years since a championship. Did I mention it was cold? We mounted up in Toyota AWD RAV4s and did two short runs each on Michelin Latitude Tour HP all-seasons and two on the company’s X-Ice Xi2 winter tires.
On the all-seasons, I did a personal best of 14 mph in a drag-style run across the ice. There was patently more traction on the X-Ice tires, which dug in hard after some initial wheel spin (as the traction control found its feet). I managed a heady16 mph after the 60-foot run. The point was made.
With front-drive Camrys, the best I could do with the winter tires (Xi3s) was 10.1 seconds on the ice. On the all-seasons, it was 8.4 mph. Later, we did an odd curling exercise with the 44-pound devices riding on winter and all-season treads. The all-seasons went much further, because they had less traction. All the while, we were freezing and the Michelin Man (wearing a warm-looking costume) was hovering around. Mr. Bibendum does not talk.
The next day we did some spinning around on TireRack’s track at the South Bend headquarters. I managed a 120-degree spin on the all-seasons, which was great fun. The test cars are BMW 3-Series and Porsche Cayennes, and they try out all the new tires for the site—who wouldn’t want that job?
Winter tires are a pain to store if you don’t have much space, so in Canada they offer inexpensive tire hotels where they can put up until they’re needed. There’s a few of those at tire dealers in the U.S. too.
One of the highlights of our visit was a walking tour of the Notre Dame campus, which sports a gold-leafed dome, a statue of Mary (complete with crown, which was at one time stolen), and a grotto that is one seventh the size of Lourdes. Not all the students are Catholic, but 86 percent are.
Notre Dame, founded in the 1840s, has a very tidy campus dominated by a number of quads and a huge football stadium (Knute Rockne, remember?) that is used eight times a year for home games. New classrooms (and a Jumbotron!) are being added to it so there will be more utility.
The whole 90-minute tour was accomplished by our young woman guide (a junior), while walking backwards. It was awesome, and I’m sure she could win one for the Gipper given half a chance. She told us the many bicycles, skateboards and scooters in use can be explained by a sprawling campus with inconvenient student parking lots.
As an addendum, I recently slapped a set of BF Goodrich g-Force Sport Comp-2 tires on my '99 Miata. These are high-performance tires, par excellence, and they give my old buggy unparalleled grip when I'm doing my best Mario Andretti impression. The Mazda went around corners pretty well before, now it's on rails. Plus they look great with the BBS wheels I got off a '95 M-Edition parts car.
These tires are race-derived, and they're tenacious under both dry and wet track conditions, but they're in no way winter tires. So now I either put the car away for the season, or I put winter tires on the stock wheels. After my time on the ice, I'm strongly leaning toward the latter option.
Here's a closer look at the low-speed competition on video: