IVALO, Finland-It's hard to imagine a more suitable place to evaluate winter tires than Nokia Tyres' Tammijarvi Test Center in Lapland, some 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle. More than 600 miles by air from Helsinki, Finland's capital city, followed by a 30-minute journey by car from the small community of Ivalo (pronounced ee-va-lo), the 1,700-acre Nokia winter tire proving ground is called ``the world's northern-most tire test center.''
Situated in the heart of Europe's last remaining wilderness, Ivalo is a mecca for skiers and other sports enthusiasts and ideal for testing snow tires thanks to its winter climate which can be summed up in a word-cold!
Zero-degree temperatures are commonplace in winter months, when the mercury has been known to sink as low as 40 below.
With such an ``ideal'' climate for testing winter tires, the facility is in use five months of the year and is viewed with obvious pride by the Finnish tire maker, named for its headquarters city of Nokia, 500 miles to the south.
The 1,700-acre research facility employs up to 10 test drivers and technicians during peak periods. It consists of four lakes, nine miles of roads and special equipment for testing winter tires.
According to our host, Area Export Manager Hannu Teininen, it was unseasonably warm the day our group of U.S. and Canadian journalists arrived at Ivalo.
Even so, the snow crunched under foot and the arctic wind whistled coldly about our ears as we quickly made our way to the center's office quarters.
There, after hearing a brief explanation of the facility's testing capabilities, we pulled on our thermal underwear, insulated boots and winter parkas and were driven to one of the frozen lakes, reserved for our use.
In anticipation of our arrival, technicians had cleared pathways through the snow to create an icy ``road course'' where we were to compare the traction and handling of two Nokia products-the Hakkapeliitta 10 studded winter tire and the NRW M+S, designed to maximize winter traction without using metal studs.
Although most of us in the group were anything but experts at tire testing, we had been briefed as to what the company considers the most important qualities in a winter tire.
During our tour of the tire company's headquarters the day before, Antero Juopperi, Nokia Tyres' vice president of research and development, had outlined several criteria for evaluating winter tires.
Among these was the tire's cornering ability-or lateral traction-on ice and hard-packed snow. Mr. Juopperi said a recent survey showed that loss of cornering traction was a contributing factor in 76.5 percent of the winter-related auto fatalities studied.
He was critical of tire comparison articles in automotive enthusiast magazines, which frequently overemphasize starting and stopping traction while paying scant attention to a tire's cornering ability. The ideal winter tire offers optimum traction in all three respects, he said.
Mr. Juopperi also said that a well-designed winter tire loses its grip gradually on slippery road surfaces, thereby allowing the driver to take corrective action.
What's more, he said, the tire should maintain these performance capabilities throughout the life of its tread.
Mr. Juopperi said this is not the case with some of the ``studless winter tires'' developed in Japan, which he said lose traction after the soft upper portion of their tread is warn away.
After a Lapp-style lunch served in a teepee reminiscent of those used by North America's plains Indians, I slipped into one of our two test cars-a 1995 Volkswagen Vento (known in the U.S. as the Jetta) and an equally new Ford Mondeo (similar to the Ford Contour)-determined to prove something. I knew not what.
Nevertheless, after a number of laps in both test cars, I was obliged to conclude that the Vento with the studded Hakkapeliitta 10 tires handled somewhat better on the ice than the Mondeo with its unstudded NRWs.
It was just as Nokia Tyres' officials had told us the day before-that studs do offer optimum traction on glare ice.
However, I was equally im-pressed by the fact that the NRW tires on the Ford Mondeo-designed to approximate studded-tire performance without having studs-still exhibited better steering control than the tires with worn-down studs on the rented Peugeot 306 someone had driven onto the course as sort of a ``wildcard'' in the tests.
Based on that experience at least, I'd prefer driving on the NRWs to conventional winter tires having worn or missing studs.
At one point, I piled the unpredictable Peugeot into a snow bank-much to the amusement of my fellow ``test drivers.'' Later, our Nokia Tyres' hosts presented me with an ``award'' for knocking down the most cones. All in all, it was great fun.