Sunday, December 21, 2008

Choosing the proper rubber

The final weekend before Christmas, it appears that retailer’s plans of deep discounts and other enticements to consume have been foiled by the weather, at least in the northeast. A significant winter storm is chugging its way up through New England, this one promising whiteness and wind, on the heels of the previous mayhem brought by sleet and ice.

Each successive winter of my life, I marvel at the lengths that news stations go to frighten the masses at the mere hint of winter weather. Of course, given the evolution of the human race, enamored by technology, yet increasingly incapable of storing up a few cans of Campbell’s Soup to warm up on the wood stove when the power flickers and fails, it’s small wonder that these same fools descend on supermarkets for water, Wonder Bread, and toilet paper in the event that the power goes out.

Speaking of power outages, apparently the natives have grown restless in Massachusetts. A news report on NECN reported residents of one subdivision blocking the exit of Unitil power crews from their subdivision without restoring power to every home. Apparently one woman jumped aboard a truck and refused to leave until her electricity was turned back on. Probably being unable to finish her online shopping for the holidays drove her to this level of desperation.

When I came of age during the late 70s, mounting snow tires on the rear-wheel drive (RWD) vehicles of the era was standard practice. Living in Maine, it was a given that it snowed and if you wanted that behemoth of a sedan to be able to leave your driveway, let alone carry you to your job, then a good set of snow tires was a necessary investment.

The first car I owned was a ’74 Plymouth Scamp. I’m convinced that those of us who learned to drive on RWD cars, like my Plymouth, never acquired the false sense of security that plagues many younger drivers, and unfortunately, some of the older idiots occupying the ditches each and every storm.

Not only did we learn some basic safety rules of driving in the snow—proper following distances, don’t lock up your brakes in a skid, slow-the-fuck-down when it gets slick—we also had a sense that you made basic preparations for a winter of driving through a Maine winter, like tires.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I learned the intricacies of winter driving by trial and error, and plenty of mistakes. That first winter, I skidded off the Freeport Road, on my way to Pineland Center to work, cresting a hill and continuing straight off the other side of the road, so maybe my initial attempts at winter driving mastery were tentative. A passing pickup was kind enough to stop, back up, and pull me back onto the road.

The cars of that era were nothing like today’s vehicles, which practically drive themselves, which allows our current crop of motorists the freedom to concentrate on their cell phone calls, text messages, and work their doing on their laptops as they traverse our highways and byways.

Once I joined the world of FWD motoring, I accepted the wisdom that the newer vehicles no longer needed snow tires to get through our winter snow and ice. The all-season radial was now the choice of many drivers. Oh, there were still those that understood that while all-season tires were ok, they were far inferior to four winter tires, particularly if they had an aggressive tread design to funnel ice and snow out of the grooves. Studs were even better.

Approaching 200K on my 10-year-old Taurus, I upgraded to Ford’s newest version of their utilitarian Taurus brand this past spring. Refusing to buy-in to the environmentalist claptrap and eco-propaganda that foists hybrid jokes like the Prius on consumers, I bought another American-made Ford. The new Taurus is a joy to drive. Powerful, with a new design, and an interior cabin built for tall drivers like me, I don’t regret my purchase at all.

With the approach of the snow season, and recognizing the inadequacy of my all-season Continentals, a fine three-season touring tire, I began investigating my options for motoring through another Maine winter. A long-time fan of the Michelin tire line, I had my sights set on scoring a foursome of the new Michelin X-Ices, a topnotch tire that approximates studded versions of winter tires. Unfortunately, due to Quebec’s mandating that all cars have snow tires after November 15, there were no Michelins to be had.

I’ve been a customer of Lee’s Tire in Brunswick for nearly 20 years, dating back to my Central Maine Power days, when they provided tire service for our truck fleet. Unable to secure my Michelins, the recommendation was for a studded tire, particularly when I mentioned the amount of time I spend hurtling up and down the interstate, often north of Augusta.

I’m running four Nokian Hakkapiliitta 5s, a top-of-the-line studded snow tire. These tires, made by a Finnish company, are incredible. My first test was an icy storm that found me driving home from Skowhegan after dark. While most of the drivers were creeping along at 35-40 on I-95, I was able to maintain a steady speed of 55-60, and probably could have pushed it harder if I wanted to, without any loss of traction.

I think Quebec’s policy is a good one, although it’s caused shortages here and north of the border (including a new rash of crime--tire/rim theft). While you can find skeptics galore at various forums, criticizing the province’s mandate, they most often are drivers that haven’t experienced the superior handling, and in particular, the ability to stop that you have with winter tires that just isn’t possible with all-season tires. Granted, you can compensate by driving slower, allowing proper following distances, and planning ahead, but most drivers no longer even think about doing that. As a result, many drivers running all-season varieties of tires find themselves in a skid, and not knowing how to steer out of one, they are headed off the road, or possibly worse, into the path of an on-coming snowplow, or tractor trailer.

There's a a saying that goes like this--"It's not about the car, it's about the driver." I'll take it a step further. Being a good driver helps, but being a good driver, and investing in the best tires for the road conditions increases your odds of making it through the winter safe, and free from harm.

Take it from someone that’s a good winter driver, once you buy winter tires, you’ll never go back to running all-season tires in the winter again.


Eve Channing said...

I love the juxtaposition of the Hakkapiliitta tire and the text of your post. Fine looking tire...I may just consider such a winter tire next year.

Hey, that wench blocking the Unitil truck probably prevented me from getting my power back last night. We had a freak power outage here on the King's Way on Sunday afternoon and had to tough it out last night without heat and lights. You must be able to understand my fear of total economic breakdown, reading of this type of arrogance and entitlement just from losing one's power. What will they do when they lose their money? It won't be an orderly run on the banks, like at the Bailey Building & Loan.

Jim said...

I must say, it was rather ironic that I posted this about tires, and then encountered the worst drive of my life, on our way home from Portland, last night, after a family Christmas gathering.

Fortunately, my Hakkapiliitta 5s carried us back to the compound, safely.