Car tyres Winter tyres
- Decide whether you need winter tyres
- Check out the pros and cons for yourself
- Find out the alternatives for driving in snow and ice
Winter tyres - a hot topic for cold weather
Are we heading for another cold snap?
A couple of severe winters, and suddenly it seems like everyone's talking about winter tyres. Tyre makers, car manufacturers and fast-fit centres have all been promoting them hard and extolling their virtues - but perhaps shying away from any of their downsides.
In this guide, our experienced tyre experts cut through the hype to help you decide whether you need winter tyres for your car.
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10 questions about winter tyres answered
1) What are winter tyres?
Most UK cars are fitted with summer tyres, and some with all-season tyres. But winter tyres are designed specifically to give you extra grip in cold temperatures and when driving on snow and ice. The key differences are as follows:
- they use a softer rubber compound (usually by including more natural rubber in the mix),
- the surface of the tread blocks is covered with little jagged slits – called sipes,
- they generally have deeper tread grooves than a conventional summer tyre.
2) What are winter tyres good at?
They are good at gripping cold, damp roads, below about 7C.
Snow gathered in the tread improves grip on loose snow
The key to their improved grip on wet and ice-covered surfaces is the sipes, which provide hundreds of small extra ‘edges’ to grip the road as the tyre rotates. The sipes help, not only because of their edges, but because they enable localised movement of the rubber as the soft compound clings to the road. A larger single, solid tread block, like the ones you see on summer tyres, would stay rigid in such conditions and be unable to maintain grip as effectively.
Winter tyres are also designed to gather a snowy 'in-fill' in the tread grooves and in the sipe slits, to help with grip on loose snow. Think about how you create a snowman by rolling a snowball, bigger and bigger, and hopefully it will help you understand that snow clings to snow, so a covering of snow on the tyre actually aids grip.
The extra deep tread grooves also help the tyres to disperse surface water and usually increase resistance to aquaplaning.
3) What are winter tyres bad at?
At temperatures above 7C they offer significantly poorer grip in dry conditions than the best summer tyres. This can mean a marked increase in braking distances and poorer handling and grip in bends.
4) Are they just for snow and ice?
No. They are designed for use in all winter conditions – with the tyre manufacturers claiming this means all conditions below 7C.
5) How much do winter tyres cost?
Ideally, you need a second set of rims to which to fit your winter tyres. In many countries that already use winter tyres, drivers often opt for steel rims, which are less likely to corrode after exposure to winter grit.Four winter tyres and spare rims for a Mini start from £560, excluding assembly. However, if you’re a family-hatch driver, KwikFit quoted £635 for a set of four 205/55 R16 Goodyear Ultragrip8 winter tyres (Nov 2011) – but additional rims are extra.
Punctures are a distinct possibility - buy five winter tyres not four.
However, we think if you’re fitting winter tyres, it’s worth carrying a winter spare as well – since fitting a summer spare alongside three winter ones could seriously upset your car’s handling, whether it’s cold or not. So get quotes for five! Kwikfit quoted us £12.50 to store one tyre for six months (so that's £125 per year to store five tyres).
Those up-front costs may seem eye-watering, but overall costs aren’t actually as high as they sound. You’ll get wear from both sets of tyres, so once you’ve made the initial investment, the average time between replacements will be roughly doubled.
Unless you have room in the garage or shed, you'll probably also need to pay to store your 'out-of-season' wheels – several fast fit centres and car dealers are already offering this facility at a relatively low cost.
6) Do I need winter tyres in the UK?
Winter tyres aren’t mandatory in this country, although they are in other parts of Europe that experience extreme weather for prolonged periods, each and every winter.
The last two winters have seen three exceptionally cold spells (by UK standards), when there is no doubt, winter tyres may have been beneficial to many people. We completely understand why some people, especially those living in remote areas, are preparing their cars for winter by fitting winter tyres. It makes good sense if there’s another bad winter and you don’t fancy being cut-off. If that sounds like your situation, then try to buy the best winter tyres early in the season, for two reasons.
People in rural areas could benefit
First, it's no good waiting until the bad weather arrives, as you'll find you are unable to get to a tyre retailer to have them fitted. Second, the volume of tyres produced for the winter is limited, meaning retailers don’t have a never-ending supply. When they are gone, they are gone and there won't be more stocks until the run-up to next winter.
But these severe cold spells are unusual. For the majority of UK urban-dwellers driving in normal daytime winter conditions, it's harder to justify the expense and hassle of fitting winter tyres.
7) When should I fit winter tyres?
Three really cold spells in two winters is unusual
They need to be fitted before bad weather strikes. Waiting until the roads are frozen and the car is under a snow drift will mean you’re unlikely to be able to fit them. In the European countries where the use of winter tyres is mandatory in cold conditions, most people have them fitted around October and then removed (and replaced with summer tyres) around March. In the UK, fit them before the bad weather sets in, then remove them in spring when you are confident the last of the cold conditions have passed.
8) What alternatives are there to winter tyres if it turns cold?
We’ve checked out a couple of alternatives:
Tyre socks are a quick-fix to get you off a slippery, snowy drive. These ‘fabric’ socks wrap round the tyre and give extra grip on the snow and ice. They cost around £50 for a pair (that you fit to the driven wheels), but need to be removed once you're off the snow or ice. Driving on tarmac will tear them to shreds quite quickly. Even on snow, we suspect they won’t last very long. Best considered a something to keep in the boot for emergencies.
All-season tyres are a half-way-house between winter and summer tyres. They can be left on the car all year round (so avoiding the need for winter and autumn change-overs), but the all-season tyres we’ve tested don’t perform as well as the best summer tyres in summer conditions or as well as really good winter tyres in cold conditions.
9) Will winter tyres affect my insurance?
We've heard of a few people asking their insurers about this and being told that winter tyres are counted as a 'modification'. In fact we’ve heard of at least one person being declined insurance if they fit them. We’ll continue to investigate this.
As far as we're concerned, as long as the tyre meets the car manufacturer's specified size, and minimum speed and load ratings, they should not be counted as a ‘modification’ to the car and should not therefore change the insurance risk. And many might argue that improving grip in winter conditions should reduce the risk of accidents, thus pleasing insurers.
10) If I don’t fit winter tyres, what are my options in cold weather?
The snow on the roof may look solid, but once you're moving it can be a hazard.
First, check your existing tyres are in good condition - preferably with at least 3mm of tread left across 75% of the tyre width, but certainly with more than the 1.6mm legal minimum. Look for any signs of damage to the tread or sidewalls, as this could cause sudden tyre failure, which will be even harder to control in poor conditions.
Second, good driving techniques are just as important as the tyres fitted to your car. They're not complicated, and don't cost any money - the secret is simply to employ a calm, balanced approach. Here are some top tips:
- Make sure you clear the car body of any snow that fell when the car was stationary. Thick snow on the bonnet obscures the driver's view and if it's on the roof it is fairly heavy and can fall across the front or rear screens, startling the driver, obscuring the view and upsetting the car's handling.
- Use higher gears – pull away in second rather than first gear - this sends less torque to the wheels and reduces the chances of spinning the wheels and digging yourself into a rut.
- Be very gentle with the clutch and throttle – again to reduce the chances of starting a wheel-spin.
- Apply the brakes as though you are a ballerina! Sharp application of the brakes will lead to a skid. As soon as you’re skidding, you’ve lost control.
- Be very gentle with the steering. Any tyre’s ability to offer lateral grip (that's the sideways grip that means you change direction when you steer) is reduced in these conditions. The faster you travel and the more you need to turn, the less sideways grip the tyre will offer. Once you’re sliding sideways, it’s even harder to regain control.
- Use major routes where possible - these are much more likely to have been gritted and usually, the higher traffic volumes help prevent snow from settling. Leave much bigger stopping distances between you and whatever is in front of you.
- Above all, reduce your speed. Lower speeds mean more control – and more time to react if you start to lose control.
Prepare your car for winter travel before bad weather strikes. Let someone know where you are heading, what route you're planning to take and what time you hope to arrive. Carry a snow shovel and two old rugs in the boot and a fully charged mobile phone in the car. If you do get stuck, digging away snow from the wheels can gain you some purchase, potentially getting you out of trouble. A rug can also provide a friction surface if tucked in front of the wheel, to allow you to move.
If you get completely stuck, call for assistance and use the other rug to keep warm. If you want to run the engine to keep the heater working, make sure the exhaust is clear of snow. Blocking the flow of exhaust gases can mean they are diverted into the cabin where the carbon monoxide could endanger the occupants.
And if you don't need to make a journey in extreme weather, stay at home.