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The Gripping Tale of Winter Tires

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It’s not a big segment of the U.S. market – only about 4% – but winter tires are a significant sales opportunity for tire dealers who live in traditionally snowy parts of the country. Depending on the prevailing weather conditions, heavy and consistent snowfalls can hit most of the continental U.S. – from Nevada north through Idaho and east across the Great Plains, on up into the New England states.

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According to industry estimates, 1999 sales of winter tires (don’t call them “snow tires”) in the U.S. were nearly 8 million tires out of a total replacement market of around 193 million tires.
In Canada, though, the market for winter tires is hot – one out of every four tires sold north of the border is a winter tire.

Do the Canadians know something we don’t?

Actually they do. Winters are much more severe in the northern latitudes, where ice and snow create treacherous driving conditions for many motorists.

Consequently, Canadian drivers want tires capable of maintaining maximum traction regardless of the weather. So they buy winter tires in large numbers.

All-Season Not Good Enough

In most parts of the country, all-season tires are a good choice for driving during most of the year, and they are certainly better than ordinary tires on wet surfaces, ice and snow. Even so, all-season tires can’t match winter tires when it comes to providing maximum traction on snow covered and/or icy roads.

Winter driving conditions include both wet and dry roads, slush, “soft” ice, "hard" ice, "black" ice (the kind that’s impossible to see but makes roads very slippery), light snow, deep snow and hard-packed snow. Because of this, winter tires must provide not only good snow and ice traction, but also good wet and dry traction.

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For drivers who are not accustomed to driving on slick roads (and even for those who are), loss of steering control or the ability to stop are scary experiences. So the tire manufacturers try to optimize their winter tire tread designs and compounds to provide the best possible traction, handling and stability under all of these adverse driving conditions – without major sacrifices in ride comfort, noise or tire wear.

Making Winter Tires Work

Phil Pacsi, director of consumer tires brand marketing for Bridgestone/Firestone, says loss of traction occurs when a film of water gets between the road and tire. The heat of friction melts the ice or snow, forming a water film that causes the tire to lose its grip. The key to maintaining traction, therefore, is to displace the water or give it someplace to go before it can lift the tire off the road.

“Our Blizzak winter tire line, which is now in its second generation, uses a multi-cell technology that has randomly spaced microscopic pores to displace water. As the tire wears, it continues to expose more of these pores so the tire’s traction characteristics don’t change.

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“Winter tires can provide a measurable improvement in stopping ability, braking and handling over all-season tires. Any motorist who has to drive on icy or snow-covered roads should put on winter tires in the fall and leave them on until spring,” Pacsi said.

At Continental General Tire, the company’s new ContiWinterContact TS 790 premium tire line, which was engineered in Germany, uses a number of technologies to provide optimum winter traction. Numerous tread blocks on the inner side increase braking performance in snow, and a reduced number of tread blocks on the outer side improve steering response, particularly at high speeds.

The arrangement of the tread blocks is also computer-optimized to minimize noise. Cross-linked sipes enhance interlocking, improving traction and lateral stability. Inclined, counter-angled rows of sipes add straight-line stability at all speeds. Three wide longitudinal grooves route water into lateral channels to resist aquaplaning, while fine grooves in the central rib enhance tread block stiffness when braking. An advanced silica compound provides improved road holding and grip on ice, especially at higher speeds.

Moving Past Old Technology

“Today’s winter tires have gotten away from the luggy design of yesterday’s snow tires,” said Ron Margadonna, technical marketing manager for Michelin. ®€œThe latest generation of winter tires grip better, run smoother, are quieter, and last longer.

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“The reason why we call them ‘winter tires’ rather than ‘snow tires’ is because snow is only one of the elements a winter driver is going to encounter. In fact, dry roads and wet roads are the predominant modes of driving once the roads have been cleared,” he said.

“So our approach is to give balanced winter performance that provides maximum snow and ice traction without giving up dry handling, wet traction or tread wear.

“As for studs, we’re neutral on their use. In some areas they are not allowed, and others have restrictions on their use. Studs are best on soft ice. When ice becomes very cold and hard, studs don’t penetrate as easily, so you may actually be better off without studs. Studs also don’t help on snow unless it is hard-packed like ice,” Margadonna said.

“The key to selling winter tires is to separate their performance from that of all-season tires. All-season tires just don’t cut it in severe winter climate areas like Canada, the Rocky Mountains, Maine and Buffalo, N.Y. For these kinds of markets, winter tires are essential,” Margadonna said.

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Goodyear’s Bob Toth, marketing manager for auto tires, says Goodyear is expanding its winter tire line-up with more sizes for the 2000-01 winter season, including eight new sizes of its popular Ultra Grip Ice winter radial.
“Retailers and consumers have responded to our drive for improved winter traction,” Toth said (Goodyear sales of winter tires were up 80% over the previous year). "Despite this tremendous response, we feel we’ve only scratched the surface with our Ultra Grip line."

The new mid-priced Ultra Grip even replaced the company’s best selling winter tire of all time – the F32. It joined the Ultra Grip Ice, high-performance Eagle Ultra Grip and Wrangler Ultra Grip winter tires. Toth said the new tires contributed to the selling surge, as did advertising.

“I believe we made some inroads into educating consumers on the need for winter tires. There’s no substitute for the traction that winter tires offer,” Toth said.

Compared to a conventional winter tire, the studless Ultra Grip Ice tire delivers about 25% improved ice traction. For further comparison, a winter tire provides about 25% better snow traction than an all-season tire. The Ultra Grip Ice’s improved ice traction is achieved through an advanced IceLoc silica-based tread compound and a directional, highly bladed tread pattern, Toth said.

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Who Are The Customers?

The answer is: Anyone who has to drive on slick winter roads. Sport Utility Vehicles and light trucks are especially good applications for winter tires, as are minivans. But so too are many passenger car applications, particularly those with performance tires designed for dry traction and handling. Many of these cars can become very difficult to handle on wet or slick roads, even with ABS, traction control and stability control.

People who buy winter tires should buy four tires, not just two. Replacing all four tires is recommended for all four-wheel drive and front-wheel drive vehicles, though it is acceptable to replace only the drive tires on older, rear-wheel drive vehicles.

Snow-Rated Tires

  Something else tire dealers should make their customers aware of is the Rubber Manufacturers Association’s Severe Snow Performance Marking. The mountain/snowflake symbol on the sidewall indicates a tire has a snow spin traction rating of 110 or higher compared to a standard reference test tire. Tires that meet the severe snow tire standard are listed on Canada’s road safety Web site at www.tc.gc.ca/roadsafety/Topics/-winter/wtirlise.htm.

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Winter Tire Challenges

One of the challenges winter tire manufacturers face is the proliferation of tire sizes. One manufacturer says you need a minimum of 40 different sizes to provide fitment in a winter tire line, and probably 50 or more to provide reasonably complete coverage.

Another concern is matching OE speed ratings, particularly on sporty passenger car applications. Though many of these vehicles come factory-equipped with H-rated (130 mph) or higher tires, is it really necessary to provide a winter tire with such a high speed rating? Nobody in his right mind is going to drive 130 mph on ice or snow, but who’s to say how fast someone might drive on dry pavement?

Replacing a speed rated tire with one that has a lower rating may create a potential liability risk, so customers should be warned (verbally and in writing) if this is done, and be advised to drive at more reasonable speeds.

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