In the winter, driving in many parts of Canada is a challenge. Considering this daunting task, if I asked five drivers their thoughts on tires, I would probably get five different theories surrounding the best type of “attire.”
For the most part, all-season tires work fine in the late spring, summer and early fall, but forget about winter effectiveness. Some people argue with me and state that they have driven around with this style of tire for years, with no problems.
I’ve never been really happy with typical all-seasons in the winter, and my skepticism increased exponentially after narrowly escaping a potentially nasty crash many years ago.
It would appear that my vision of what an all-season tire should be and the realities of the product were quite different. I like a larger margin of safety.
Going back in snow tire history, for many years the extremely aggressive “Ground Grip” was found on the south end of rear drive vehicles.
I have a certain memory of my Grandmother’s 1976 AMC Pacer with a set of such snow tires. A strange car from the onset, it looked like a low-level unidentified flying object. Equipped with hard, super-chunky snow tires, the car emitted a low frequency hum once in motion, adding to its UFO persona. The tires worked in snow, but the noise was obtrusive and annoying.
Super-soft compound snow tires made the scene about 20 years ago. While this design of tire does work well, expected tread life may be quite short.
For most drivers it takes only a couple of seasons to wear the tire down to harder rubber, thus decreasing the tread’s effectiveness in snow and ice conditions. While not as vocal as the Ground Grips, most of these tires exhibit some tread noise.
My opinion aside, many people simply cannot or will not buy a set of winter-dedicated tires. So what might be a good solution, and can one set of rubber work well under all conditions?
I’ve been testing a set of Hankook’s Optimo 4S tires. Billed as a true four season tire, it was originally released in the fall of 2009. Since that time, distribution has ramped up and the product has been widely available through Canadian Tire Stores since the middle of 2011.
The Optimo 4S has a unique tread design and sports wide grooves with an asymmetrical tread pattern. Top-secret rubber compounds are touted to yield great winter traction, and yet the Optimo still offers handling and smoothness for the off-season.
The manufacturer claims that one side of the tread works well for winter conditions, and the other side is optimized for everything else.
As a point of interest, the tire does qualify as a suitable winter tire in Quebec under provincial laws, which is a testament to the tire’s winter prowess.
While Hankook suggests that this tire is aimed at the urban user, I elected to take the first test drive a bit further . . . further being the foothills west of Calgary. The test vehicle was a Chrysler minivan shod with 215 65 R 16 rubber.
At the very least I expected there would be some tread noise. But in reality, I found the tires to be very quiet on the highway.
Once in the foothills the road composition turned to gravel, with loose snow over top. The tires seem to clear the snow well from the tread in addition to staying flexible in the cold ambient temperature. My trek wasn’t limited to flat ground but also included some fairly steep sections. The tires worked great – I didn’t get stuck, loose traction, spin out or fear for my life.
The second major test was urban – in Calgary, and included a base of freezing rain, covered by 10 cm of heavy snow. Admittedly, the driving conditions were ugly, and still, I was satisfied with the safety and traction of the Optimos. About the only grief I encountered was on a slight slope though 15 cm of chopped snow.
This is a situation where a dedicated set of snowies would have worked better.
My final analysis? Overall, I think these are great tires, and it is obvious Hankook has done a great amount of research and development with this product.
If my budget dictated only one set of tires, I would seriously consider the Optimo 4S.