Ask 100 people about the Nokian Hakkapeliitta R, and you'll get 96 blank looks. 3 people will ask if it's a new cell phone. Only 1 person will nod confidently, because that person is a snow tire geek. “Best snow tire in the world” they will quite possibly say, because it quite probably is.
Oh sure, they have competition. Continental makes some great winter tires. Michelin has made enormous strides lately as well. But Nokian has always been the leader when it comes to winter tires, and until relatively recently the battle has always been for second place. Based in Nokia, Finland, Nokian boasts of inventing the first winter tire in 1939, and holding more patents on winter tire technology than all other tire companies combined. For more than a decade, their flagship passenger snow tire has been the Hakkapeliitta line, named for Finland's feared medieval light cavalry with their chilling, “Hakka Paale!” (Hack them all down!) battlecry. The Hakka R has for many years been the pinnacle of current winter tire technology.
This year Nokian has announced a major upgrade to its winter tire lineup, including a new Hakka R2 and Hakka R2 SUV for larger vehicles. Both get a huge infusion of the very newest winter tire technology, and yours truly got to go to Nokian's “White Hell” test center in Ivalo, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, to check them out for the first time.
- Cuts through even deep snow with ease.
- Handling is extraordinary for a snow tire.
- Superlative ice and snow grip.
- Surprisingly fun to drive.
- Lateral grip limits and progressive grip are unknowns.
- Cryo Crystal Concept:
“The weakest point of any nonstudded winter tire is ice creep. That's for sure.” says Matti Mori, Nokian's Technical Customer Service Manager. Nokian has embedded a kind of sharp crystalline particle which acts as grit in their tread compound especially to improve ice grip. The company won't tell us what it is, only what it isn't. “It's not aluminum oxide, not corn, not rice, not walnuts.” Mori jokes. “The difference, we've been told, is that ours is working.“ The company notes that the Hakka R2 takes 10 meters less distance to stop from 80 kph on ice than the Hakka R. The crystalline medium apparently becomes more dense as the tread compound wears down.
- High-Silica Tread Compound:
The R2 boasts a new “cryogenic silane” compound using low-volatile oils, high percentages of natural rubber and a high degree of silica. Nokian says using lots of natural rubber “has a decisively positive effect on winter grip under extreme conditions, since natural rubber is stable across a wide temperature range.”
- Angled Hakka Sipes:
Nokian invented and patented the “Hakka Sipe” many years ago, and now the jagged siping pattern that presents multiple biting edges to the snow as the tread flexes is practically the industry standard winter siping pattern. For the R2 Nokian has put a denser mesh sipes on the tires, as well as sharply angling the siping on the shoulder tread blocks for greater lateral and handling grip.
- Cool Touch Siping:
When the sipes cut all the way through a tread block, the tread block will flex easily. By only connecting the edges of some sipes, Nokian makes the tread block flex less, reducing heat buildup and tread squirm while still allowing enough flex to engage the sipes.
- Pump Sipes:
Specially shaped siping patterns that act as voids to suction the last layer of water off the surface of the ice to give the tread better grip. The R2's pump sipes are slightly larger than those on the Hakka R.
- Grip Claws:
A set of sharp edges placed in the grooves between tread blocks for better grip in deep snow. Very similar to the “worm drive” groove edges on Michelin's X-Ice Xi3 and others, and for good reason – the concept seems to work.
- Sipe Activators:
A set of wider sipe openings strategically placed on the tread blocks help to open up the smaller sipes as the wider sipe is stressed. This adds in more grip as the G-forces build on the tire.
- Slush Penetrators:
Nokian was the first company to do testing and development to deal with issues of slushplaning. The R2's have a set of jagged edges on the trailing edges of the shoulder blocks designed to cut through thick slush and keep the tire's footprint stable.
To that end, the Hakka R2 is crazy good. On hardpack snow they drive like pavement, handling the Audi's power and agility with confident authority and out-of-this world grip. A smooth application of power engages the tires immediately with almost no wheel spin, and steering response is both strong and sharp. Swerving into the deeper snow to the side of the road, (earning a mild protest from my right-seater) barely even tugs at the car as the tires cut through the deep snow like nothing at all. Braking is forceful and quick on both ice and snow.
What surprised me most was the handling on pavement. The R2's were as much fun to drive on cold pavement as any Ultra High Performance Winter tire I've ever driven, something I would never have said of my beloved Hakka R's. The R2's were smooth and precise, with a springy handling and great steering feedback. They were also remarkably quiet for winter tires, generating only a medium bell tone that I had to open the window to hear at all. They seemed to qualitatively add to the experience of driving the high-performance cars in extreme conditions.
The Bottom Line:
Whichever way you slice it, you get a truly great snow tire, one that is substantially better than it's predecessor in every way that I can see. Nokian has once again planted their flag at the top of the winter tire heap.
Nokian's Hakkapeliitta R2 will be available in the fall of 2013 in 55 sizes from 175/70/R13 to 255/35/R20.