Mustang Mach E

Halloween has been and gone. Squint hard enough and you can probably still see Canadian Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror. And chances are, as we’ve (somehow) already passed the halfway point of November, you’ll likely have heard three or four festive songs this morning alone.

Now, with snowfall in Canada surely just a matter of weeks, if not days or possibly hours away, depending on where you live, we’ve most assuredly entered that most wonderful time of the year: winter tire season.

Business as usual for the ICE drivers among you, but, theoretically, an entirely different prospect for EV owners, particularly those that are new to the electrified game. After all, as the EV industry continues its expansion, with more and more manufacturers citing 2025 and 2030 benchmarks for reducing their C02 emissions, it’s not like there won’t be a multitude of choice sooner rather than later.

Ford has tested its all-electric Mustang Mach-E in extremely cold and hazardous conditions at Smithers Winter Test Center, an 800-acre world-class facility in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“Very few manufacturers have EV-specific winter tires at the moment,” explains Kal Tires’ Gordie Henderson, who’s extensive knowledge on the subject we’ll be tapping into during this feature. “But as time goes on, and there are more electric vehicles and hybrids on the road, you should see the product offerings expand. And when that happens, you’ll really want a good quality winter tire on both axles.”

But with that in-mind, what’s actually involved with winter tires for electric vehicles? And do you even need them?

To this particular scribe, a British-native who’d never heard of the concept before making his full-time trans-Atlantic switch four years ago, it’s a resounding yes. A ‘moment’ at the wheel of a wildly fishtailing ’04 Monte Carlo, on a frosty morning one December, on slush, in front of a very crowded bus stop, quickly changed his cynical mind. The first sets of winters were bought that same evening.

Granted, depending on where you’re reading this, it’s possible you don’t have a choice in the matter. Québec drivers for instance, EV or otherwise, are legally required to run winter tires between December 1 and March 15, while British Columbians are similarly expected to make the switch between October 1 and April 30 for many mountain routes. While not mandatory in Manitoba and Ontario, switching to winter tires is, at the very least, ‘highly recommended’, and even encouraged with low-interest loans, tax credits, and/or lower insurance premiums.

‘As time goes on, and there are more electric vehicles and hybrids on the road, you should see the product offerings expand’

Of course that’s hardly surprising, given the impact on safety a set of winterized rubber can have on your vehicle.

Take, for example, the linear tread on a summer tire compared with the more hexagonal design you’ll find on a winter tire. The latter features a more aggressive and deeper pattern to clear out slush and snow more effectively, a more flexible sidewall for durability, and a network of hair-like sipes that provide additional traction. The more streamlined design of the summer equivalents, however, features fewer grooves to clear water more quickly and provide a larger contact patch to the road. Problem is, when the temperature dips below 7 °C, regardless of whether it’s snowing or not, that all-season compound becomes harder and more brittle, significantly reducing traction and, more importantly, braking distances. Winter tires are designed to keep their stickiness in colder temps.

Ontario’s official Winter Driving program even suggests that stopping distances, on summer tires in cold weather, can increase by up to 25 per cent. The 117-foot stopping distance of, say, a Volkswagen e-Golf suddenly goes up by more than nine metres, or a decently-sized bowling alley. Add to that the fact that taller and narrower EV-specific tires are specifically designed to ‘stand up’ to reduce rolling resistance – and thus improve the vehicle’s range – and grip is suddenly at an even bigger premium.

Bear in mind this is before we tackle the big issue with EVs, namely the extra weight that comes with those battery packs and electric motors. Ford’s naturally-aspirated F-150, for example, ranges from a ‘svelte’ 1,824 kilograms to a chunky 2,513 kg, depending on cab and engine size. The all-electric Lightning, meanwhile, will be lucky to dip below the 2,950 kg mark. That’s anywhere between 437 kg (or a decent-sized grand piano) and 1,100+ kg (basically a Mazda MX-5) of extra mass for those EV-spec tyres to handle. On a cold surface. Ouch!

Michelin X-Ice Snow winter tire

Michelin X-Ice Snow winter tire

Of course, if convinced, EV owners may even now be asking, “that’s all very well James, but what are the best EV winter tires for the job?” Admittedly, that’s an altogether different rabbit hole for us to disappear down but, crucially, not as tricky a prospect as you might think.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the EV market is still growing and developing, and winter tires for electric vehicles, a concept whose age has yet to dip into double digits, are not cheap. The most obvious solution then could come down to which manufacturer or wholesaler can offer you the best price. And if we take a quick look on Google … yep, Costco’s currently offering a $130 discount on Michelin winter tires, and you can get a $100 rebate if you go with Canadian Tire.

Even this comes with question marks though. The choice for some EV owners is restricted, ironically, by the vehicle itself: if you were a BMW i3 owner in 2019, the awkward 155/70 R19 tire dimensions meant you were largely restricted to either Bridgestone’s Blizzak LM-500 or Nokian’s – deep breath – Hakkapeliitta R2. A Tesla Model 3 on 19-inch rims? The Blizzak again or Pirelli’s Sottozero was pretty much it.

‘Some comparable tire sizes simply do not have the load capacity, so you’ll want to make sure the tires you select can carry the weight of your vehicle by checking, and double-checking, the load index’

A good deal also doesn’t take into account probably the most important aspect of EV winter tires. Make no mistake, electric and hybrid vehicles can be incredibly hard on their tires, given the immediacy of the motor’s acceleration and the sheer gobbet of torque that’s readily available off the line. Depending on the vehicle’s weight distribution, EV winter tires could end up wearing faster on the rear than they do at the front, or vice-versa.

Of course, ensuring EV-specific winter tires can handle that vast, extra bulk – ditto that brutal torque – is pretty much step one for any reputable tire manufacturer.

“With Hakkapeliitta R3 versus Hakkapeliitta R3 SUV compounds,” Kal Tires’ Henderson continues, “the SUV tread is specifically designed for heavier vehicles with more tread block stabilizers. The same applies with EVs. Torque is another big factor for wear, but again, EV tires take this into account.

“Of course, some comparable tire sizes simply do not have the load capacity, so you’ll want to make sure the tires you select can carry the weight of your vehicle by checking, and double-checking, the load index.”

Fortunately, carmakers make such a task nice and straightforward: your EV’s ‘load index’ is the double-digit number followed by a letter you’ll find on the sidewall next to the wheel size. You can also verify this on the sticker inside the driver’s side door.

Car door label

Car door label

As a rough estimate, you can divide your vehicle weight by four – four wheels, yeah? – to see how much weight each individual tire can take. The ‘90’ designation, for example, means that particular compound can handle 600 kg per wheel, or 2,400 kg overall: a good jumping off point for your Ecoboost F-150 but something your Lightning will tear through quickly.

Road roar is also a big consideration. By design, winter tires, given the difference in tread and sidewall flexibility, tend to create more noise, though with ICE vehicles, this is usually blanketed by the engine. Not an option for your electric motor, the whir of which could barely conceal a hearty sigh. Granted, manufacturers have started to offset this by increasing the amount of foam inlay within the carcass of the tire, as you’ll find with EV-dedicated examples from Continental (WinterContact TS 860), Bridgestone (Blizzak LM001/LM005), Michelin (X-ICE Snow) and Nokian (Hakkapeliitta 10 EV Studded).

Ironically, with heavier weights, increased braking distances and reduced cabin civility to consider (hey, we told you this was a hell of a rabbit hole!), there’s still the issue of reduced battery range to consider. Worked harder during the colder seasons thanks to more regular use of car heaters and the simple act of warming up in the first place means an EV’s range inevitably drops during the winter. And while most tire brands continue to develop low resistance rolling rubber – those tall, narrow examples we spoke about at the beginning – ironically, an EV winter tire with a wider contact patch that prioritizes grip and traction works almost entirely against low resistance by its very nature! It’s a fine balance, but one that, again, tire brands are working hard to develop quickly.

‘Rolling resistance is less a priority in winter tires. It’s taken into consideration but not to the point that it deters from grip’

“Nokian has fuel economy designed into the Hakkapeliitta R3 by optimizing both tread design and tread compound to offer better economy while not losing winter performance,” Henderson adds. “Rolling resistance is less a priority in winter tires. It’s taken into consideration but not to the point that it deters from grip.”

So yes, there is quite a lot of homework involved when it comes to investing in a decent pair of winter boots for your electric vehicle: opt for a discounted package that’s prioritized grip over low resistance, and your battery range will suffer; go for a slightly more expensive set that doesn’t match the all-important EV load index, and your tire’s lifespan, not to mention cabin noise, will be affected too; think your summer tires will last the winter? Up to double the braking distance and the damage done to a brittle compound in cold weather suggests otherwise. It’s an admittedly vicious cycle that requires some fine-tuning.

And snowfall is just a few weeks, or days, or hours away. Time to start your homework.

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