Visiting Nokian Tyres white hell

Posted on April 8th, 2015 by Rob Marshall

nokianBefore I dismount my cold-weather tyres and pen my last evaluative blog of the season on the subject, I took the opportunity, last month, to join a hearty group of European journalists and witness the extremes of tyre testing in the frozen Arctic. Welcome to White Hell.

Born out of necessity, Nokian Tyres pioneered the winter tyre in 1934 but the company has developed since one of the most exotic, bleak and punishing test centres on the planet. Being its most northerly development site in Lapland (another one is located in the milder south of Finland, although other tests are performed world-wide), the Ivalo centre spans over 700 hectares and comprises over 20 test tracks, carved out of a snow-bedecked forest. While tyre testing is a precise science, the Finns have gifted the world with some of its finest motorsport drivers and Nokian has also taken advantage of the nation’s seemingly natural instinct for car control, by training its drivers further, to provide vital driving feedback that complements computer-generated test data. As an engineer told me (admittedly in a Finnish sauna at the end of the day), “You can judge a tyre only by driving on it.”

A RESERVED CONFIDENCE

Although not especially prevalent in the UK, Nokian Tyres desires to increase its market reach in the premium tyre sector. Performance-wise, it has nothing to prove, with Nokian’s cold-weather range tending to jostle with the Continentals, fitted to my own car, for top spots in numerous independent tyre tests.

Yet, the Finns may have gained the upper hand, with Nokian’s new WR D4 (and WR C3 for commercial ranges), the chief improvement of which is the ability to disperse water and slush more effectively, not just snow. This is proven by the WR D4 being the first cold-weather cover for passenger cars to achieve an ‘A’ grade in the Wet Grip category of the EC tyre labelling assessment, which is a development that has particular relevance for a soggy and slushy UK winter.

I had the opportunity to drive a V8-powered, 443bhp Audi RS5 Quattro (pictured), shod with these covers on snow-compacted northern Finnish roads. As Audi’s Quattro system is praised universally, for making optimum use of the grip available, it was difficult to establish whether, or not, the excellent stability was down to the tyres alone but, when I drove on a wide and smooth off-road track, I discovered that a loss of traction could still be provoked, albeit with aggressive use of the controls.

However, while playing with Audis in this winter wonderland was fun, it bears little resemblance to real-life motoring in significantly milder UK conditions. Taking the opposite tack to that of Michelin’s CrossClimate, the latest cover from the French giant, Nokian is poised to introduce its all-season line-up and the ‘Weatherproof’ range is a winter tyre, optimised for summer use. The idea is to provide Finnish cold-weather expertise, for drivers that require the safety benefits of cold-weather tyre in conditions that are not as chilly as those encountered at White Hell, but who are also unwilling to switch their tyres twice yearly. Yet, I was disappointed that Nokian did not demonstrate any performance differences between its WR D4s and the ‘Weatherproof’ alternative, meaning that we shall have to wait until any independent comparison tests are conducted.

With Nokian expressing serious intent to expand in the UK and with its very high-quality tyre ranges being optimised to be more appropriate to our climate, it will be interesting to see whether, or not, there is further market share for Nokian to exploit. While the company has nothing to prove with its cold-weather tyre expertise, it possesses only a sole distributor in the UK, although a brief online search reveals the tyres can be obtained through other retailers – although you ought to be wary of buying stock that has been stored for lengthy periods, if straying away from the official distributor.