I don’t really like driving on snow or ice that much, so of course I said yes when I was invited on an auto journalists press trip to drive Mercedes Sprinter vans from Anchorage to Coldfoot Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. In February. The trip two years ago was wonderful and uneventful, and the driving was easier than a snowy day on the QEW.
Feeling confident in winter driving has so much to do with tires. Think about it, tires are the only part of your car touching the road, and their contact patch, called a footprint is about the size of a hand, tiny but so important.
So my most recent field trip was out of Hamilton to Chicago to a two-day tire school put on by Bridgestone. It’s like basic training in the world of tires. Our assignment had three parts. We compared the performance of winter tires versus all season tires by driving on an ice rink. We tested Bridgestone’s new run flat tires called DriveGuard, and compared a touring tire against a performance tire on a mini race course.
Of all the exercises, driving on ice, produced the most dramatic results. They fitted one BMW 3 series car with an all season Bridgestone touring tire called Ecopia and another one with the Blizzak WS80 winter tire. The one with the Blizzaks started easily on the ice from a dead stop, braked in a shorter distance, and handled better on the slippery surface. To demonstrate grip, both cars approached a curve marked by pylons at low speed, less that 20 kilometres an hour. The car with all season tires couldn’t hold the curve and wiped out all the pylons, the one with Blizzaks went around the curve like it was dry pavement.
Why do winter tires work? Because the rubber is softer and grips better in the cold and the special tread pattern, including “biting edges” increases traction on ice, snow, slush and even dry roads. Most people don’t know or want to ignore the fact that all season tires starts to lose grip on dry pavement at +7 Celsius and below, that’s when all season rubber turns hard as a hockey puck. A set of Blizzak winter tires might cost around $500, but keep in mind, while the winter tires are on you car, the all seasons are “resting” i.e. they are not subjected to wear and tear and their life will be extended.
There is no strong argument against the benefits of using winter tires in our climate, the evidence to put run flat tires on your car however is not so strong.
Run flat tires, such as the Bridgestone DriveGuard tires allow you to drive up to 80 kilometres at 80 kilometres per hour after a puncture or complete loss of pressure. Run flats are designed to eliminate the terror of having a blowout on the highway. They work because they have extra rubber in the sidewall that maintains the tire shape and integrity. We drove the BMW 3 series with a flat DriveGuard tire and the car handled well enough to feel safe. So it all seems like a miracle doesn’t it. Well read any automotive site or Consumer Reports and you will see plenty of criticisms of run flat tires. Complaints include a stiff ride, noise and the cost to replace them. Bridgestone has addressed some of these concerns, the DriveGuard run flats are priced about $165 per tire. Testing them, fully inflated in Chicago, albeit over a very short time, they weren’t noisy, didn’t seem exceptionally stiff, but I thought in a comparison test with another brand of run flat, they did make the steering feel less precise. Bridgestone says run flat technology is improving and their DriveGuard tires are a “smooth riding, touring tire.” If you are in the market for a new set of all season tires, run flats might be for you, but do your research.
The takeaway from tire school in Chicago, tires ARE the most important safety equipment on your vehicle. So check your tire pressure once a month, under inflated tires are a safety hazard and effect mileage consumption. Keep an eye on tread wear and store your tires properly, away from heat and electric motors and wrapped in black plastic. When it comes time to buy new tires, do some research, trywww.bridgestonetire.ca or Tire Rack www.tirerack.com and decide if you like comfort, quiet or sporty handling, or tires that improve mileage consumption, there are tires designed for all those qualities.
(Travel expenses for the authour were paid by Bridgestone)
Written by: Kathy Renwald