We received our first serious snow dump in Ann Arbor last week, but the Automobile Magazine fleet of Four Seasons test vehicles was ready for the cold, since we had fitted each car with a set of winter tires from various manufacturers well before Thanksgiving with the assistance of the Tire Rack, our official wheel and tire partner. We've been big proponents of winter tires at Automobile Magazine for more than two decades, and although I notice more and more vehicles here in Michigan are wearing them in the cold months, those cars are still definitely in the minority. I personally have counselled many friends, relatives, and acquaintances to use winter tires, preferably on a second set of dedicated wheels, but often the reason they don't is due to the extra cost. When it's December and the snow starts flying, a lot of people would rather buy a couple of plane tickets to Florida than invest $800 in a set of winter tires, which doesn't seem nearly as exciting.
Last winter, I attended a media event in Quebec City at the invitation of John Taylor, whom I knew years ago during his tenure as head of product PR for Bridgestone. Taylor is now working for a tire company I'd never heard of and one I'd wager most Americans haven't heard of, either, GT Radial. The company is a division of GiTi tire, which was founded in 1951 in Indonesia to make bicycle tires and only started making passenger-car tires in 1996. Although we've never heard of them, GiTi and GT Radial are huge, making millions of tires a year in factories in both Indonesia and China, supplying everyone in the Chinese market, from BMW to General Motors, and selling tires in some 100 countries worldwide. They also own Seyen, which makes wheels. The company's international logo is an elephant, harking back to the original name of the firm in Indonesia, Gajah Tunggal, or "Supreme Elephant." GT Radial is expanding in the North American market with a line of value-priced tires, including the IcePro and WinterPro winter tires. To give you an idea of the pricing, the IcePro ranges from $95 to $105 per tire in the common 195/65/R15 size for cars and $125 to $145 for the common 215/70R16 size for many SUVs and light trucks.
Up in Quebec, GT Radial had us drive front-wheel-drive cars shod with IcePro tires through a short slalom course on an indoor hockey rink, back-to-back with Firestone WinterForce tires under the same conditions. The GT Radials seemed to provide similar braking and turning capability as the more expensive Firestones. Then we stepped outside to a circular track set up on an adjacent athletic field. The sun was shining brilliantly but it was about 0 degrees Fahrenheit and the track was covered with several inches of snow. Here, we got to have some fun power-sliding rear-wheel-drive BMW 3-series sedans shod with both GT Radial WinterPro rubber and a comparable Firestone model. Again, the GT Radials seemed to acquit themselves pretty well, although these tests were purely seat-of-the-pants impressions, and we had no on-road driving at all.
This fall, I had a conversation with Woody Rogers, a product information specialist at the Tire Rack, about low-cost winter tires, GT Radials in particular. "I don't have firsthand knowledge of the brand," he admitted, "but with any third-tier brand, everything comes with a price. Their tires might be heavier than [more expensive tires], you probably have a faster wear rate on clear roads, and you probably don't have ultimate ice traction, like in a packed-down, glazed-over intersection....that might be where they give up [some advantage] versus a more expensive tire. In deep snow, it's the tread depth and the tread design more than the compound that are important.
"It takes effort and cost to make the tire relatively quiet on clear roads," Rogers continued. "To handle well and wear well on clear roads, to stop the car well on clear roads. Just working in the snow is not the whole story with a winter tire, because it's not just a snow tire. Most of the time, in most climates, the roads are clear to drive on, and it's once or twice a week you might get a snowfall that you have to drive home in. 70% of the time the roads are wet, maybe slushy, and the tire has to work in that condition as well."
I asked Rogers what the least expensive brand of winter tires is that the Tire Rack carries: "Well, across the board it's probably the Firestone Winter Force or the General Ultimax Arctic, which will probably last 2 years, 2 seasons."
"It's better to have some winter tire than no winter tire, isn't it?" I asked. "Indeed," Woody confirmed. "I would put those [Firestone and General] up against any all-season tire for snow and ice traction, and it's an incremental step. You put a better winter tire on and it's [even better]. At some point you're certainly better off having something than nothing. A new set of cheap winter tires is better than a 2-year-old set of all-season tires. I guarantee that's the case."
If you have a new car that you intend to keep for four, five, or six years, the best plan of action is to buy a set of high-quality winter tires from the outset, Rogers advises. That way, both the original-equipment all-season tires and the winter tires will have plenty of useful life for as long as you own the car. "Often when people keep a car for five years," says our man at the Tire Rack, "that last winter on the original all-season tires is really a stretch," as the winter performance can be quite compromised.
If, on the other hand, you have an older car that you don't plan to keep much longer, a set of less expensive winter tires--whether Firestone, General, or GT Radial--might make sense. The Tire Rack doesn't currently carry GT Radial.
In any case, I'll say the same thing now that I say every year in December: winter tires are a very smart thing to put under the Christmas tree of someone you love. True, they're not as glamorous as an iPad or a diamond necklace, but they're more important. Start your shopping at www.tirerack.com. You can have a set of winter tires on your car before you ring in the New Year.