Snow gathered in the tread improves grip on loose snow
A couple of severe winters, and suddenly it seems like everyone is talking about winter tyres. Tyre makers, car manufacturers and fast-fit centres have all been promoting them and extolling their virtues – but perhaps shying away from 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.
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.
Key differences include a softer rubber compound, little jagged slits (called sipes) covering the surface of the tread blocks and a deeper tread groove.
2) What are winter tyres good at?
They are good at gripping cold, damp roads, below about 7deg C.
Should you buy winter tyres?
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.
Winter tyres are also designed to gather a snowy ‘in-fill’ in the tread grooves and sipe slits, to help with grip on loose snow. Snow clings to snow, so a covering of snow on the tyre actually aids grip.
The extra deep tread grooves help the tyres to disperse surface water and usually increase resistance to aquaplaning.
3) What are winter tyres bad at?
At temperatures above 7deg C 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 when cornering.
Three really cold spells in two winters is unusual
4) How much do winter tyres cost?
Ideally, you need a second set of wheels 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 quotes £490 for a set of four 205/60 R16 Goodyear Ultragrip8 winter tyres. Additional wheels cost extra.
We think that if you’re fitting winter tyres, it’s worth carrying a winter spare as well – since fitting a summer spare alongside three winter tyres could seriously upset your car’s handling, whether it’s cold or not.
The up-front costs may seem excessive, but the average time between replacements will be roughly doubled so the overall costs aren’t actually as high as they sound.
5) 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 every winter.
People in rural areas could benefit
The last two winters have seen three exceptionally cold spells (by UK standards), when there is no doubt that winter tyres would 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 winter tyres early in the season – 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. Also, the volume of tyres the manufacturers have produced for this winter is limited, meaning retailers don’t have a never-ending supply. When they are gone, 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.
• Winter tyre guide – see our full guide on winter tyres
• Driving in snow – read our advice on how to prepare for and drive in hazardous conditions
• Best car tyre brands – get the low-down on 19 different tyre makers from Bridgestone to Goodyear and Michelin to Pirelli