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Winter tyres and snow socks

Should I buy winter tyres?

By Daljinder Nagra

Article 2 of 3

Winter tyres can improve traction in slippery conditions. We explain how winter tyres work, and whether it's worth replacing your summer or all-season tyres.

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Winter tyres are increasingly promoted by tyre makers and fitters. They can help improve traction and safety in wintry conditions – but are they worth the extra cost?

In this guide, we cut through the hype to help you make an informed decision about whether you should invest in winter tyres and provide expert tips on how to drive safely in winter.

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What are winter tyres? 

Winter tyres are designed specifically to remain supple in colder temperatures and maximise traction when driving on snow and ice. 

The key differences between winter tyres and summer tyres are:

  • Winter tyres use a softer rubber compound (usually by including more natural rubber in the mix), which stays softer in low temperatures.
  • The surface of the tread blocks is covered with small jagged slits – called sipes. These increase the tyre's surface area against the road and improve traction.
  • To more effectively displace water, winter tyres generally have deeper-tread grooves than conventional summer tyres.
  • The tread pattern is also designed to collect snow, further improving traction on snow and ice.

Most UK cars are fitted with summer tyres. There's no legal requirement to fit winter tyres during colder months, but in some countries on the European continent winter or all-weather tyres are compulsory in certain weather conditions.

How much are winter tyres? 

As with regular tyres, winter rubber sells at a wide range of prices. Budget models in a common size suitable for a family hatchback are available for less than £50 per wheel. 

Budget winter tyres for a family hatchback can cost under £50 per tyre

A comparable winter tyre from a premium manufacturer can cost roughly £100. But, as with their summer counterparts, they are likely to offer greater levels of grip and braking performance.

As demand for winter tyres has grown, some premium tyre manufacturers – such as Michelin and Pirelli – have even released high-end models aimed at sports car owners. These claim to offer sufficiently high grip and traction to use a powerful car that would otherwise be almost undriveable in slippery conditions. These sit at the top end of the range, price wise, and can cost around £250 per tyre, depending on model.

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Do winter tyres make a difference? 

Winter tyres do make a difference if the weather is cold enough. Winter tyres offer greater traction, grip and braking performance than summer tyres in temperatures below 7°C. Provided the temperature is low enough, their special tread patterns mean they will perform better in the wet, as well as on snow and ice, 

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 also 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 sipes to help with grip on packed snow. Nothing grips snow better than snow itself, and winter tyres exploit this by gathering and holding as much of it as possible.

The extra-deep tread grooves also help the tyres to disperse surface water and usually increase resistance to aquaplaning - this is where the tyre passes on top of the water rather than through it, and it increases the risk of losing control of the car.

At temperatures above 7°C, winter tyres offer significantly poorer performance in dry conditions than summer tyres. This can mean a marked increase in braking distances and poorer grip on bends. 

Winter tyres suffer from increased wear rates if used in warmer temperatures. 

Drivers may also notice increased road noise and a slight difference in ride quality when switching to winter tyres.

Are winter tyres just for snow and ice? 

Winter tyres are designed for use in all winter conditions, not just snow and ice. Tyre manufacturers claim this means any weather conditions with temperatures below 7°C.

To save hassle and expense when changing tyres, you may want to buy a second set of wheels which you fit your winter tyres on. In many countries where winter-tyre use is mandatory, drivers often opt for steel rims - these are less likely to corrode after exposure to winter grit. They are also less expensive to repair or replace if you accidentally slide into a kerb.

If you’re fitting winter tyres, it’s worth carrying a winter spare as well. Fitting a summer spare tyre alongside three winter ones could make your car’s handling more unpredictable, due to different levels of grip at each corner.

Unless you have room in your garage or shed, you'll probably also need to pay to store your 'out-of-season' wheels. Several fast-fit centres, car dealers and even removal companies offer this service, although prices vary.

Winter tyres: UK law 

Winter tyres are not mandatory in this country, although they are in other parts of Europe that experience extreme weather for prolonged periods each winter.

However, if you live in, or regularly drive to, a remote area where you are at risk of being cut off in bad weather without a functioning vehicle, they can be a prudent investment.

If that sounds like your situation, try to buy winter tyres early in the season. It's no good waiting until the bad weather arrives, as you may find you are unable to get to a tyre retailer to have them fitted. 

Also, the volume of tyres produced for each winter is limited, meaning retailers don’t have a never-ending supply. When they are gone, they're unlikely to be replaced until the run-up to next winter.

If you usually drive on well-serviced urban roads, it's harder to justify the hassle and expense of switching to winter tyres during a cold snap, despite their improved performance.

When should I fit winter tyres? 

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 get them fitted. 

In the European countries where the use of winter tyres is mandatory, most people have them fitted in October and then replaced with summer tyres around March, when the worst of the cold weather has passed.

Why won’t my four-wheel-drive car be fine in the snow? 

Given the go-anywhere image that car manufacturers like to give their off-road models, you’d be forgiven for thinking your SUV would already be unstoppable in the snow.

While it’s true having four driven wheels will increase your chances of getting moving in slippery conditions, this could give you false confidence. Four-wheel-drive cars on summer tyres offer little advantage when it comes to braking or cornering in the snow, compared to a front- or rear-wheel-drive car.

What’s more, many SUV models now employ part-time four-wheel-drive systems, which save fuel by only sending power to the second axle when the car detects a loss of grip. These are less effective than full-time four-wheel-drive systems, as they rely on a loss of traction before distributing engine power.

Given the huge rise in popularity of SUVs and crossovers, some high-riding models now aren’t even fitted with four-wheel-drive, to appeal to those who like the image but not the running costs associated with driving a large off-roader.

Proper off-roading SUVs, which have serious hardware such as low-range gearboxes and locking differentials, are less likely to get stuck in the snow than more conventional road models. 

If you’ve got a particularly sporty model, it’s likely to be running on high-performance summer tyres – the least suited to driving on snow and ice.

To minimise the chance of getting stuck in your SUV, check whether it has a dedicated snow mode. Most dull the response of the throttle pedal (and, if it has an automatic transmission, start in second gear) to reduce the chance of spinning the wheels.

Check out our winter driving tips, below, for more advice on how to drive in adverse weather.

What alternatives are there to winter tyres if it turns cold? 

All-season tyres are a halfway house between winter and summer tyres. They can be left on the car all year round, but generally don’t perform as well as the best summer tyres in warm weather or as well as good winter tyres in cold conditions.

There is also a newly emerging class of tyre, first seen with Michelin's Cross-Climate model. These are essentially a summer tyre, but with the requisite tread pattern and supple rubber compound for winter-tyre classification. This means that they can legally be used year-round in countries that enforce winter-tyre use – whereas all-season tyres cannot.

At approximately £50 a pair, tyre snow socks are a cheaper alternative to winter tyres, and can be used as a quick fix to get you off a slippery drive or ungritted side road. These fabric ‘socks’ wrap around the tyre to give extra grip on the snow and ice, but they're not designed for prolonged use, so you'll have to remove them once back on treated roads.

Don't want to pay out for winter tyres but you do want more control in wintry weather? Find out more about snow socks

Will winter tyres affect my insurance? 

Back when winter tyres used to be something of an unknown quantity, there were a number of instances of insurance companies treating them as a modification, resulting in increased premiums. 

However, most insurers now recognise them as a worthwhile safety improvement and don’t penalise drivers for using them. But it’s worth double-checking with your own cover provider.

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What if I have no choice but to drive on summer tyres? 

Check that 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, such as bulges or cuts. These could cause sudden tyre failure, which will be even harder to control in poor conditions.

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