To celebrate General Tire's foray into the winter tire market, parent company Continental recently invited us to western Montana--just outside of famed Yellowstone Park--to play in the snow for a few days and learn a few things about cold-weather tire performance along the way. So we left our warm mountainside rooms at the Summit at Big Sky early the first morning and made our way through a Bob Ross-esque, happy-tree-filled forest to the deserted airstrip of West Yellowstone Regional Airport.
After watching our bus nearly get stuck in the parking lot (it must not have had winter tires), we ventured out to the first and possibly most eye-opening test. It involved two Volkswagen Touaregs, one equipped with regular all-season tires and the other riding on Continental ContiWinterContact winter tires.
The goal: complete a tight slalom followed by a lane change at about forty miles per hour, after which we were invited to turn around, gain speed, and test straight line braking.
The point? Four-wheel-drive sport utilities aren't, as many drivers believe, invincible in the snow. No matter how many wheels receive power, the tires are still the only points of contact with the ground. Thus, the cherry red, winter tire-equipped VW was quicker to accelerate, grippier through the turns, and braked from seventy mph with no fear of smashing one of the Pontiac Vibes further down the Yellowstone runway. Even with vehicles that are expected to perform well in foul weather, the difference between tires was shocking. As one colleague put it, "A set of snows costs about $500, and that's my insurance deductible. I'd rather spend money on the former to avoid dealing with the latter. This just helped cement that in my mind."
The next event was for the scientists among us, since it was the only one to use actual test equipment. Our hosts also told us it was the first time their company had a competitor's winter tire on hand at a media event for comparison purposes. In the driver's seat of a BMW 325i, we first rounded a small skidpad with Pirelli Winter Carving tires while an instructor held a g-meter in the passenger seat. In a second round on General's new Altimax Arctic tires, we consistently recorded higher g's, with an average increase from 0.30 to 0.33 g's.
Some of us joked about what initially looked like a minute increase. In actuality, the Contis generated ten percent more cornering force. "When it comes to safety," our Continental representative explained, "even a two or three percent difference in grip can be the difference between crashing or not crashing." Touch, Mr. Instructor Man. Regardless of the readings, we did notice less plowing when rounding the circle with the General tires.
Hungry for some real BMW drift time, we made our way to the next station (why is this beginning to feel like an elementary school gym class?) for a stability control demonstration and a respite from the tire talk. We were to make two runs around a small autocross course, first with DSC (BMW's stability system) on and then with it off. As we've learned from driving high performance cars on the street, having stability control is less fun when we want to play, but saves us when slides aren't expected.
Some of us recorded quicker laps without DSC while a few were quicker with it. My times were equal, but the second lap was infinitely more entertaining. After we'd all done our runs, there was a bit of time left for lurid oversteer and top-notch hooliganism.
We pulled back to the airport terminal in the tired, white 325i, right in front of a sign that instructed us to "AVOID LOCKED WHEEL TURNS." The message was meant for the planes, thank goodness, because we had just been doing quite the opposite.
Lunch was an odd-for-snowy-Montana-backwoods meal of authentic tamales, tacos, and burritos, and for some reason there was a full wine rack in the corner. What event involved those bottles? With bellies full of salsa and Coca-Cola, we headed back outside to the airstrip and made our way over to a groomed snow road course for another just-for-fun event--a simple time trial race from start to finish in front-wheel-drive Pontiac Vibes.
Someone from one of the morning groups managed to get a Vibe jammed into a snow drift for fifteen minutes. We were cautioned to avoid such fate, and I narrowly managed to meet that request. With the help of a quick emergency brake hand, assistant editor Erik Johnson managed the third best lap of the day. A momentary mounting of the snow pile inside turn one kept me out of the running, but Erik rubbed it in by writing "Nice job, Stu" on the rear window of my snow-covered Pontiac. Karma will catch up to you, Erik.
And it did. Back out on the airfield, we seated ourselves in three new Vibes. All had General Altimax Arctics on the front wheels, but each had different rear tires (summer, all-season, or winter) to simulate what happens when customers decide to only replace two tires. Yes, winter tires in the front and summers in the rear seems a bit exaggerated, but the point was made. The lane change demonstration went just as expected -- loads of oversteer.
We then decided to test the lane change maneuver's Vmax with the car on four winter tires. Erik's resulting slide was nearly flawless, with the one problem being that it was five feet too far to the right. Most of the cones survived, but one was decapitated. We laughed uncontrollably as we helped place the survivors back on the course, then headed back to the terminal for the last time. On the way, we passed one of the Touaregs resting peacefully in a giant snow bank, a Ford F-150 rushing to rescue it. Looks like everyone's having fun, I thought to myself.
The night ended with even more fun, in the form of a snowcat ride up the mountain at Big Sky to eat dinner in a charming yurt, complete with a bar stocked with New Belgium Fat Tire beer and a grill full of delicious meats. We spent the laugh-filled night recapping the day over a few beverages, but in the end we all learned a little something. Indeed, if there were any among us who doubted the usefulness of winter tires, this day hopefully changed them.
What did I learn? Most importantly, never slip up and call them "snow tires" in front of a German. "Nein! Zey are called Vinter Tires! At prezisely forty-five degrees Fahrenheit zees tires become safer on dry pavement zhan zee all-season tires." Sorry, Dr. Weiss. I'll never say it again.