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These New Winter Tires Turned My Humble VW Into a Snow-Conquering Beast

A simple tire switch, and my front-wheel-drive car was passing 4WD trucks left and right in the white stuff.

vw golf sportwagen with nokian tires
Tyler Duffy

As Gear Patrol’s motoring writer, I drive new cars new cars just about every week. (Tough job, I know). As a result, my personal car — a 2016 VW Golf Sportwagen — spends most of its time sitting neglected in my garage. That's not to say I don't love it; it has many excellent characteristics, like great handling, a manual transmission and earning 40-plus mpg on the highway. But it suffers from one critical flaw: it’s not ideal for winter. It's front-wheel-drive, and I live in Michigan.

Now normally, southern Michigan isn’t the winter hellscape that social media would have you believe. (That's lake effect-affected Chicago.) But it does snow quite a bit. And like most Americans in winter climes, I've put off getting snow tires — even though I know I definitely should.

After all, crucial as they may be, snow tires can cost a fair bit. Getting tires put on requires planning and effort (and more money). And, yes, in my case, I don’t drive the car that often.

To prove just how big a difference the right rubber can make, Nokian recently loaned me a set of their new Hakkapeliitta R3 non-studded winter tires to see what I had been missing during the winter. A lot, it turns out. Their new treads turned my skittish VW into a weather-conquering beast...at least, by passenger car standards.

Nokian is based in Finland, where even grandmothers know the Scandinavian flick and winter rallying's massive popularity helps produce some of the planet’s most skillful racing drivers. They describe themselves as the “world’s northernmost tire manufacturer.” So as you'd expect, they know a thing or two about designing a grippy winter tire.

The Hakkapeliitta R3 is designed for passenger cars (though there is an SUV version), and features Nokian’s “Arctic Sense Grip” technology, which includes tailored blocks, functional siping and Cryo Crystal 3 particles. The latter are microscopic crystals that dig into the ice for better traction, so you end up with an ungodly amount of grip where most other tires find far less.

nokian
Tyler Duffy

Now, Michigan has evaded its customary heavy snowstorms as of this article's publication in late January. But in a couple of inches of snow that left a slickness that had SUV drivers sliding, my VW handled flawlessly, leaving me able to do the speed limit with confidence — which, in those conditions, meant passing all-wheel-drive crossovers like I was Kimi Raikonnen in Portugal.

The Nokian tires give you the traction to get going — and, more crucially, the confidence to be able to stop without skidding and relying on the ABS brakes. Turning left or right was also immensely improved; indeed, the R3s in snow felt better than my slightly-worn stock tires do in the dry. The tires only lost their grip once in an hour and a half of driving, and even that was only for a split second, when starting from a stop pointed uphill on, effectively, a patch of ice.

In the end, driving with the Nokians felt almost like cheating at winter — like when I realized I could buy specialized kindling and get rip-roaring fires all winter with ease. Thanks to those solid winter tires, the car I was afraid to pull out of my driveway is now my default snow car.

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