PetrolBlog's somewhat simple guide to Winter Tyres

PetrolBlog has some simple words and advice on the subject of winter tyres. Brace yourself.

Until last year, you'd be forgiven for thinking that winter tyres didn't exist in the UK. But with the winter 0f 2010/11 bringing with it a dumping of snow for the third consecutive year, not to mention another bout of freezing temperatures, it seemed as though everyone was talking about winter rubber. A sudden surge in demand meant that stocks ran low and a fair amount of mix messages meant that there was a considerable amount of confusion surrounding the subject.

But the winter of 2011/12 looks to be different. We're barely into October and all the talk is about being prepared and fitting winter tyres. Pretty much every automotive magazine and website has run a feature and test, with the tyre manufacturers jockeying for position with a series of high profile advertising campaigns. Even the tyre fitters are getting in on the act and ensuring that all special offers 'include winter tyres'. This year, like never before, there can be little doubt that winter tyres exist. Of course, what this means is that we'll have the mildest winter on record and the snowman will forget to bring the snow. No great big smile on somebody's face this year.

Continental Winter Tyre - review on PetrolBlogAs part of the Continental Tyres brand experience day last month, held at the top secret MIRA establishment near Hinkley just off the A5, we were given a presentation on the effectiveness of winter tyres. Naturally, like the other major manufacturers, Continental want to ensure that it's doing its bit to promote winter rubber in the hope that they'll be top of people's shopping list. The problem is, as I explained in my 'more than just black rings of rubber' update, there's a great deal of confusion surrounding the subject and, for the most part, very little in the way of appetite to fit a second set of tyres. In the UK, it's hard enough getting people to understand the benefits of premium tyres without asking people to replace what appears to be a perfectly good set of tyres with another set.

So, I thought I'd share the information I picked up during the Continental day, along with facts and figures I've picked up over the past 12 months. This isn't a 'PetrolBlog insists you buy a set of winter tyres' article. Instead, it will hopefully help you to decide if winter tyres are for you.

What are winter tyres?

Winter tyres exist because it's unreasonable to expect a 'summer' tyre to deliver the same results from temperatures ranging from +30°C to -15°C. A winter tyre differs from a normal tyre in three simple ways - its tread compound, tread pattern and sipes. What sticks best to snow? Well, as every child who has ever built a snowman knows, the answer is more snow! Winter tyres use this simple scientific fact and work in the following ways:

  1. Tread compound: At temperatures below 7°C the tread compound in a standard tyre begins to harden and lose grip. Winter tyres remain flexible and grippy at even the harshest temperatures thanks to a higher proportion of rubber content. The good people at Continental demonstrated this by placing a section of winter and standard tyres in a beer fridge. The difference was startling - it was nigh-on impossible to bend the standard tyre. In simple terms, this means that the standard tyre will glide across the road surface rather than digging in. Grip is reduced and safety is compromised.
  2. Tread pattern: The pattern on a winter tyre is designed specifically to pick up snow and slush, therefore giving additional traction.
  3. Sipes: These are the tiny lines you see in the tread pattern of a tyre. A higher number of sipes create a number of biting edges that grip the wintry surface, improving stability and braking.

Are winter tyres only good on snow then?

In short, no. Whilst they will have huge benefits when trying to make your way down a snowy lane, the benefits of a winter tyre will be felt as soon as the average air temperature drops below 7°C. In fact, a winter tyre will be more effective in ice, rain as well as snow. Take these braking distances by way of an example.

  • Braking on icy road from 20mph to rest: winter tyres 57m, summer tyres 68m. A difference of 11 metres.
  • Braking on snowy road from 30mph to rest: winter tyres 35m, summer tyres 43m. A difference of 8 metres.
  • Braking on wet road at 5°C from 62mph to rest: winter tyres 65.7m, summer tyres 70.5m. A difference of 4.8 metres.

Considering the fact that the average temperature during the winter of 2010/11 was 2.4°C, I'd say that there will be a fair chance that you'll find winter tyres to be of some use this winter. Face it, we do get our fair share of rain in this country. In fact, Continental reckon that wet weather use makes up 45% of the benefit of running a set of winter tyres, with snow only accounting for 15%.

When should you fit your winter tyres?

Continental suggest fitting your winter tyres between October and March. There is of course a risk that the temperatures may be unseasonably warm during October and late March, but it's better to have winters on in warm weather than summers on in cold weather. Although the stopping distance of a winter tyre is compromised in warm temperatures, the difference is less than that of a summer tyre braking in cold weather.

Are winter tyres mandatory in the UK?

No, but in some countries, such as Germany and Austria, they are. In fact, if you're planning on driving to these countries, or any other mountainous or Scandinavian country, you'll probably want to check the laws before travelling. There are on-the-spot fines handed out for those trying to drive on summer tyres.

Surely winter tyres are just a way of the manufacturers earning some extra income?

Actually, no. If you remove a set of summer tyres, they're no longer being used. So although you'll have to pay for the supply and fit of a set of winters, in the long run you're no worse off. Depending on how many miles you do, you'll probably find that your winter tyres last you a couple or more seasons.

Do you need to inform your insurance company if you fit winter tyres?

In theory, no, but for the price and time of a call to your insurance company, it's better to be safe than sorry. Some winter tyres will have a lower speed rating than the summer tyres, so this needs to be considered. Last year, some insurers ridiculously actually attempted to raise premiums for policyholders who had the foresight of fitting a set of winters. Fortunately, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) has advised companies not to do this.

Are winter tyres more expensive than summer tyres?

Continental Tyres - winter tyre comment and review on PetrolBlogGenerally speaking, yes, although opinions vary on this subject. The lack of demand in the UK ensures that discounts are rare, but if we continue to endure harsh winters, demand will rise and prices will fall. But if you're buying winter tyres for the first time, you will have to pay to fit them. One way of decreasing the financial impact of a set of winters is buy a set of smaller alloys or even steel wheels. I was speaking to a chap on twitter who replaced his 17" Audi A6 alloys with a set of 16" A3 alloys. Even with a set of Continental winter tyres fitted, the price still worked out cheaper than a set of Continentals for the 17s. The steel wheel option is also worth considering as it'll save your expensive alloys for the summer months and leave the steels at the mercy of the gritter lorries.

I'll also say that thanks to the helpful chaps at Love Tyres, I've managed to purchase a full set of 185/55 R15 Goodyear UltraGrip 8s for just £58 a corner. I'll shortly be fitting them to the Saab and will provide regular updates as the winter unfolds.

Should you buy winter tyres?

That's entirely down to you and your circumstances. There are a number of things you could do in lieu of fitting winter tyres that might work out cheaper or more suitable for you, such as;

  1. Fitting premium summer tyres or ensuring you have a minimum of 3mm of tread on your existing tyres.
  2. Buying a set of snow socks in case of severe driving conditions.
  3. Buying a set of snow chains for similar conditions.
  4. Staying at home in the harshest conditions.
  5. Making friends with a local Land Rover Defender owner.

But remember, a winter tyre is for cold weather, not just for snow!

Are all winter tyres the same?

No. In the same way that it pays to fit premium over budget tyres, there are a number of different options to choose from. The best advice would be to do your homework first and check out a few reviews before making a purchase.

Are there any drawbacks with winter tyres?

Once again, opinions vary on this subject. I've heard people complain of increased road noise and decreased fuel economy, but what is clear is that their performance will be compromised in warmer temperatures. Other factors to consider are the storage of the summer tyres during the winter and a potentially lower speed rating of the winter tyres. But in my opinion, the positives far outweigh the small negatives. Better to be safe than sorry!

The final word on winter tyres

The final word on Winter Tyres - PetrolBlogI appreciate that this might be a rather simplistic view on winter tyres, but the fact is, I'm utterly convinced that they're the way to go. As mentioned previously, I've already purchased a set for the Saab from the excellent Love Tyres and I'm also considering a set for the Audi. The cost for the A6 is much harder to stomach than for the 9000 and this will be a stumbling block for many people. With good reason too, as the economy isn't that great (understatement) and we have the commercial wonderland of Christmas just around the corner. But if you were planning on fitting new tyres anyway, then it might pay to check out the winter options at the same time. If not, then a set of fresh premium summers will be better than a set of sub 3mm budgets.

As Continental pointed out, a driver is six times more likely to have an accident during the winter months and more than 3 million motorists had an accident during the big freeze of 2010. A whopping 45% had two or more near misses! Wow! Of course, winter tyres won't make you invincible. In deep snow you'll still have the potential to get stranded and there's the inevitable problem that the car behind you will be running summer tyres. You'll realise this as he careers into your rear end at a junction. This unfortunately happened to me last Christmas.

A year earlier I also managed to kill a driveshaft on my Focus ST170. In a vain attempt to get home across the moors, my otherwise brilliant Goodyears found themselves wanting on a short incline. The resulting repair bill of £500 could have been avoided with a set of winters.

But common sense must prevail. If conditions are so bad, you might be better off staying indoors. What's more, winter tyres won't give you the right to increase your speed and take risks. Be careful out there!

Thank you to Continental Tyres for the invitation to the brand experience day.

As a footnote, it's also worth checking out the SMMT's winter tyres video here.