Tyres are a generally underestimated part of a car’s anatomy. They’re an often neglected aspect of vehicle maintenance, and replaced only when strictly necessary. However, given that every accelerative, braking and directional force applied is passing through the small area of rubber in contact with the road, it’s essential to make sure they are in good condition and that you buy wisely.
Changing tyres shouldn’t just be a consideration when the tread depth is approaching the legal minimum of 1.6mm (across three quarters of the tread) – if a tyre has any lumps or bulges this suggests its structure is failing and not fit for purpose in the eyes of the law. Similarly, if any of the tyre’s internal metal cords are exposed, it’s time to change them immediately.
Ideally, you should replace all your car tyres at the same time, but this is rarely practical because front and rear tyres wear at different rates. A tyre’s ability to grip, especially in wet conditions, will deteriorate well before this, so start looking for replacements when the depth reaches 2-3mm. A new tyre has a tread depth of about 8mm, though specialist performance tyres can come with much less than this.
But which new tyres should you be buying? Your car’s handbook will be able to guide you as to the correct size, but there are a number of things to consider.
In the UK, vehicles are fitted with summer tyres as standard. These offer their highest grip levels in warm, dry conditions, but are also designed to operate safely in the wet. For most drivers they will be the default choice, given their all-round performance.
However, if you’re changing tyres during the winter, you may wish to consider specialised winter tyres. These are constructed from a different rubber compound that stays supple at lower temperatures. Below 7°C, winter tyres will generally out-perform summer tyres in terms of outright grip.
Winter tyres also features tread blocks with small cuts or ‘sipes’. These sipes improve traction on both snow and ice enormously, and will give greater control in the slipperiest of conditions.
Of course, when the temperature rises above 7°C, it’s worth changing back to summer tyres, as not only will they perform better, but winter tyres wear out a lot quicker when used at higher temperatures.
Bridging the gap between summer and winter tyres are all-season alternatives, which purport to offer improved performance in cold and slippery conditions without impinging on performance during the summer. However, their performance levels will not be as high in extreme weather conditions as dedicated summer and winter tyres.
For example, where winter tyres are a legal requirement during colder months (Germany, for instance), the majority of all-season tyres do not meet performance requirements and are unsuitable.
Run-flat tyres are increasingly popular. If you have a puncture on your journey, a run-flat tyre uses a stiffened sidewall that supports the vehicle weight, so you can travel for another 50 miles or so at a maximum speed of around 50mph.
There are many markings that could indicate your tyre is a run-flat tyre, including DSST, RFT, ROF and RunFL.
Run-flat tyres and traditional car tyres should not be mixed on the same car, as it could affect the handling.
TyreSafe, an organisation that promotes tyre safety, advises run-flat tyres should not be used on cars without a tyre-pressure monitoring system, which is used to alert you of a deflation or puncture.
It also warns against using deflated run-flat tyres when towing, as they're only designed to support the weight of the vehicle itself.
It might be tempting to save money by buying used or part-worn tyres, but we don't think it's worth the risk.
It is legal for garages in the UK to sell part-worn – or second-hand – car tyres, but only if they are safe and properly marked. In addition to be being free of the defects (for example, cuts and bulges) that would render a tyre unfit for purpose, they have to:
Some outlets sell part-worn tyres that do not meet these standards, which means they might have suffered internal damage and could be dangerous. That's why we advise you not to buy part-worn tyres.
Car tyres are a complex assembly of materials with very different properties. The following are some of the key elements:
The tread rubber compound determines how well the tyre grips on dry roads. In the wet, the best car tyres disperse water using the grooves of the tread, maintaining contact with the road and preventing aquaplaning - where the tyre rides on top of the water, rather than passing through it - which increases the likelihood of a loss of control.
Rubber-wrapped bundles of steel wire give structural rigidity to the tyre and hold the tread flat to maintain good contact with the road.
These combine with the air in the tyre to carry the car’s load. Lower, stiffer sidewalls (as found on low-profile tyres) help the tyre retain its shape better when cornering. This improves handling, but can also make the car's ride less comfortable.
The outside of the sidewall is where you will find the tyre size and specification markings, as explained below.
These are ultra-strong steel wires with extreme resistance to stretching. They hold the tyre onto the rim, even at very high speeds and when cornering.
With such a diverse range of tyre brands available, it can be difficult to decide which is right for you. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing a tyre brand – except perhaps to go for a ‘premium’ brand (or at least a manufacturer you recognise) rather than an unknown budget choice.
Your choice of tyre brand will also be determined by the type of car you own and how you use it. A powerful sports car will demand high-performance tyres, with a higher speed rating and a typically softer compound – maximising grip at the expense of tyre longevity. Premium tyre manufacturers such as Pirelli and Michelin specialise in high performance tyres and are the go-to choice for many sports car manufacturers.
For a typical family car, high-performance tyres can be expensive overkill, with mid-range models typically giving better value for money, through reduced fuel consumption (due to lower rolling resistance), reduced wear rates and lower prices to begin with.
If in doubt, choosing your car manufacturer’s recommended tyre is a safe bet.
Below we’ve rounded up some of the most popular tyre brands you’ll come across. Almost all will produce a range of tyres to fit your car, and offer models for a variety of applications, from maximising fuel economy to off-road driving.
If it’s got wheels, it’s likely Bridgestone has a tyre for it. For car drivers there is an array of choice, from all-terrain rubber for SUVs, winter tyres and high-performance models.
Bridgestone is a premium tyre brand, but often compare well in terms of price with rival companies.
German tyre brand Continental, like others in this list, is an OE manufacturer – meaning it's chosen by a variety of car manufacturers as the factory fitted tyre – a significant seal of approval.
From sports tyres for SUVS, to everyday tyres with high levels of performance, Continental has a diverse range of tyres designed for passenger vehicles.
A favourite amongst off-road enthusiasts and sports car aficionados alike, Goodyear has a long history of innovation. Its current UK range features a wide range of high-performance tyres, as well as tyres that prioritise economical driving, which are designed to reduce commuting costs. Goodyear also offers a decent selection of winter tyres.
French brand Michelin may make tyres for nearly everything that rolls, and it’s also one of the few mainstream tyre brands to offer track-oriented but road-legal ‘cup tyres’, which typically adorn top-tier sports cars (and are priced accordingly). You needn’t go mad, though – the brand’s range of mainstream tyres are also well regarded.
Probably better known for its risqué calendar, Pirelli has forged a reputation as a high-end performance tyre maker – not least as the sole tyre supplier to Formula 1. More recently it has launched a range of new tyres for classic sports cars, which capture the aesthetic, but improve on the performance of the tyres of yesteryear.
Traditionally, tyres were usually bought from a franchised tyre-fitting chain or a local independent dealer, but there are now a multitude of different ways of getting the right rubber for your car.
One option is to buy your tyres from your vehicle’s main dealer. It’s likely it will have the right size and recommended brand for your car, which is handy if you need them quickly. Expect to pay a premium, though, as they are often supplied by specialist dealers.
Nationwide tyre fitters, such as Kwikfit, are another convenient option as they’ll quickly be able to advise you on suitable tyres for your vehicle and change them while you wait. You can often haggle, so prices can be reasonable. However, some people can find the experience quite pressured, particularly if you’re in an emergency situation.
Online sellers, such as Black Circles and MyTyres, have a very wide selection and prices can be low. But they’re not so useful if you need a tyre at short notice – you usually need to make an appointment to have the tyres fitted at a local garage.
Some online sellers will have dedicated mobile tyre-fitting services and will change your tyres for you at your workplace or home.
It’s worth contacting several different tyre retailers to compare costs. If one retailer offers you a good deal, but is further away, try asking a nearer firm to match the offer. However, you usually won't be able to negotiate with an online supplier. Ensure any quote includes the cost of new valves and balancing the tyres, as well as simply fitting them.