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Winter tyres and snow socks

Should I buy winter tyres?

By Daljinder Nagra

Article 1 of 2

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 heavily promoted by tyre makers and fitters, yet they're a significant investment for what may only be used during a short spell of bad weather.

But if you've ever driven in sleet or snow, you'll know that chaos can descend on the roads as drivers struggle to maintain control in slippery conditions.

Winter tyres 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. 

We've also put together our expert tips on how to drive in winter. Keep reading to find out more.

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

What are winter tyres?

Most UK cars are fitted with summer tyres, as there's currently no legal requirement to fit winter tyres during colder months. 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.

How much do winter tyres cost?

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 from less than £50 per wheel. 

Budget winter tyres for a family hatchback can cost from £50

A comparable winter tyre from a premium manufacturer can cost around £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.

We reveal the best sports cars for 2018.

What are winter tyres good at?

Winter tyres offer greater traction, grip and braking performance than summer tyres in temperatures below 7°C. Their special tread pattern also means that 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, where the tyre passes on top of the water rather than through it, increasing the risk of losing control of the car.

What are winter tyres bad at?

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 also 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?

No. Winter tyres are designed for use in all winter conditions – tyre manufacturers claim that 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 the 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.

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 winter.

But they can be a prudent investment, particularly if you live in a remote area, where in bad weather you're at risk of being cut off without a functioning vehicle.

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'll find you are unable to get to a tyre retailer to have them fitted. 

Also, the volume of tyres produced for the 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.

However, for drivers who use well-serviced urban roads, it can be harder to justify the hassle and expense of switching to winter tyres during a cold snap, despite their improved performance.

Looking for a tough car that can cope with tough weather? We round-up the best 4x4s and large SUVs for 2018.

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 fit them. 

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

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 around £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 on treated roads.

Find out how snow socks work and how to use them - see snow socks explained.

Will winter tyres affect my insurance?

Initially, when winter tyres used to be something of an unknown quantity, there were a number of instances of them being treated as a modification in the eyes of insurance companies, 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.

If I don’t fit winter tyres, what are my options in snowy conditions?

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, as these could cause sudden tyre failure, which will be even harder to control in poor conditions.

Don't wait until your car breaks down - discover the best breakdown cover providers.

How to drive in winter

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 (pretend the controls are made of glass!). Here are some top tips:

  • Use higher gears. Pull away in second rather than first gear - this reduces the chances of spinning the wheels and digging yourself into a rut.
  • If your car has an efficiency or economy mode, it will normally dull the accelerator's responsiveness, making it easier to get going without spinning the wheels.
  • Be very gentle with the clutch and throttle – again to reduce the chances of wheel-spin.
  • Apply the brakes very gently. Sharp application of the brakes can lead to a skid, at which point you’ve lost control of your car. If the wheels lock, release the brakes before re-applying them. ABS doesn't work well on snow, so repeatedly pumping the brakes (cadence braking) may slow you more quickly.
  • Be very gentle with the steering. Any tyre’s ability to offer lateral grip 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 (up to 10x greater) between you and whatever is in front of you.
  • Above all, reduce your speed. The car will be easier to control, and you’ll have much more time to react to developing situations.
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