Tyres: More than just black rings of rubber

PetrolBlog is invited to the Continental Tyres event at the top secret MIRA establishment in Warwickshire and discovers the truth about budget tyres.

Picture the scene. It's Saturday afternoon and you're in John Lewis looking at TV sets. You're rather taken by a state-of-the-art 40" HD television. It's been getting good reviews and comes highly recommended by the sales assistant. But then, out of the corner of your eye, your attention is grabbed by the sight of an almost identical set. It looks the same, promises the same features and yet it could be yours for £150 less. You're tempted, right up until the point the assistant tells you that it has a tendency to switch itself off about 15 minutes from the end of your favourite shows. Not worth the £150 saving is it?

Or how about a DVD of your favourite film? Would you buy one that was £5 cheaper if it missed the final 20 minutes of the film? Of course you wouldn't. Or what about two seemingly identical tickets to a football match? Identical other than the fact that one is £20 cheaper as it only entitles you to watching half of the match. Not worth the saving is it?

In such circumstances, the cheaper options are quite obviously a false economy and yet many motorists fail to see the logic when it comes to buying new tyres. Through magazine tests and word of mouth, I've always veered towards the premium tyre options, but last week I was fortunate enough to experience the difference between premium and budget for myself. This was thanks to an invitation from Continental to one of their brand experience days at the top secret MIRA establishment, just off the A5 between Nuneaton and Hinkley. It was quite an eye opener.

The first thing worth establishing is that the difference between premium and budget tyres isn't as simple and clear cut as a difference in price. In many ways, the seemingly humble tyre is let down by very poor packaging. To all intents and purposes, it looks just like a black ring of rubber that is used to incase a lovely set of alloy wheels and keep the car on the road. Apart from a different name on the tyre wall and a different tread button, you'd be forgiven if you couldn't spot the difference between a Linglong and a Contintental. Compare this with the scenario a shopper faces in Waitrose. Even a simple item like butter presents a range of options, from the budget Essentials range, up to the Waitrose premium butter, not to mention any number of own-label brands. As they say, 'you pays your money, you takes your choice'.

Continental Tyre cutaway - premium versus budgetBut with tyres it is different. There are no labels to mark out a premium product from a budget. This presents a problem for the major tyre manufacturers and is why they spend millions on advertising and sponsorship, desperately trying to grab the attention of the consumer. When you consider that a new Continental tyre will travel 25 million miles and go through 100,000 laboratory tests before it gets near your car, you can understand why they don't necessarily want their tyres to remain on the shelf. What's more, Continental invests £100 million on research and development every year and other premium brands would quote a similar figure. Premium tyres are premium for a reason, you're not just paying for a fancy name.

There are many things that surprised me during the day at MIRA, but one standout discovery is the fact that pretty much anyone can make a tyre and put it on sale in the UK. The law only states that the tyre must be the size it says it is, be the correct construction and can carry the load it says it can at the speed it says it can. Blimey. This probably helps to explain why there are over 200 different tyre brands in the UK, although I'd struggle to name more than 20. Did you know there was a Chinese brand named Triangle? Surely alarm bells would start ringing if you found yourself asking for a set of Triangles for you car? The last time I looked, my wheels were round.

It's no coincidence that car manufacturers will use a premium brand for their new cars. They will work with the tyre manufacturers to find the best tyre for their new model, specifically focusing on areas such as ride comfort, noise, wear, rolling resistance, braking and handling, Getting the tyre right is critical and the process is long and complex. By way of an example, Continental started developing the tyre of the Evoque in 2007, although I'm unsure just how much involvement Victoria Beckham had in the process.

Ingredients in a tyreThe other thing that amazed me was the ingredients that go into making a tyre. For example, did you know that each tyre contains 15 compounds, with each compound containing a further 20 ingredients and up to 30 components. The mixture is a closely guarded secret, meaning that although a budget tyre may look the same, it's virtually impossible for it to be constructed the same. It's not just Kellogg's and Heinz who are rather protective over their recipes. In this game, if you don't know your sulfur from your silica, then you're better off making pencil rubbers than tyres.

Ah, I hear you cry, but the big brands are of course going to bang the premium versus budget drum. After all, it is they who spend millions on television advertising, sponsorship and branding. Surely this is a case of the big boys working together to lead us blindly into spending more for our tyres. Well not if my experience is anything to go by.

Of course, tyre tests are a regular feature in motoring mags. The majority of consumer publications will carry out extensive tests and will suitably adapt their methods according to the audience. A performance car magazine will naturally have a natural slant towards ride, handling and braking, whereas a more general magazine will focus more on overall ability and value. But it's no coincidence that the budget tyres on test will nearly always come out bottom.

Ford Focus on budget (Triangle) tyres at MIRA Continental eventOn the day I was given the chance to drive two near identical Ford Focuses, one fitted with Continentals and the other with Triangles. The course was simple. In fact, it resembled a typical roundabout that you might find on your way home from work. A real world test if you like - no supercars on a racing circuit here. The result was quite staggering. With simulated conditions that could be best described as 'slush', the Triangles struggled for grip. It was virtually impossible to reach speeds in excess of 23mph, with the Focus constantly looking for grip that simply wasn't there. Worst still, it felt like a cat must feel on the centre of an ice rink. Lots of movement and frantic scratching around for grip, but something of a hopeless cause.

Ford Focus on premium tyres at MIRA Continental eventOn the Continentals there was a marked improvement. Not only was it possible to circle the roundabout at a higher speed, 30mph in fact. But it was the manner in which it performed that impressed the most. It felt stable, planted and above all, there was a great deal more feedback through the tyres. This was transmitted through the pedal and audibly as the tyres reached their limit of adhesion. An early warning system that simply wasn't there with the Triangles. It was impressive.

The counter argument of course will be that the Continentals are, on average, about £30 per corner more expensive than the Triangles. Assuming a consumer changes two tyres at a time, that's £60 extra for something that's already quite an expensive outlay. To me, buying tyres is an enjoyable experience. I like having a new set of boots on my car. But to others, it's a distress purchase, often left to the last minute, with price and convenience overriding other factors. With families having their finances squeezed, you can understand this. But consider this. Should an inferior tyre result in an unfortunate meeting with a kerb or worse still, another car, the subsequent bill is going to be a lot more than the extra cost of decent tyres. Not to mention the inconvenience, hassle and insurance negotiations.

More so than ever, I'm convinced that scrimping on tyres is just not worth the savings. With premium tyres also tending to last longer anyway, the saving at the point of purchase may turn out to be a false economy in the long run.

This is not to mention the superior stopping distances achieved by using good tyres. Although I didn't get the chance to do a budget versus premium braking test, there was enough evidence presented during the day to make a compelling case. I'm not expecting you to take my word for it, so have a look at the short video above instead.

It's also worth reading this brief summary of the Autocar budget versus premium tyre test over on the Tyre Reviews website. The eight metre difference in stopping distances between the Continentals and the the budgets speaks for itself. As rightly pointed out, saving £75 by fitting a set of four budgets tyres works out at 0.05p per mile across a 12,000 mile life of a tyre. Blimey

But it's all very well sending motoring journalists and bloggers to this kind of event. In my opinion, the manufacturers should also be investing time in educating the masses. Of course, it isn't possible to send every motorist to MIRA for a day, so why not send the tyres to the people? Demonstrations in supermarket car parks, talks at local community groups or presentations at retail parks. It's no good preaching to the converted. It's time to reach out to those who won't read motoring blogs or car magazines. To the non-petrolhead, seeing a Continental ad during the half-time break of a Champions League football match is next-to-useless. It normally involves something shiny with lots of polish, but it'll go completely over the head of the viewer. It would be more effective to show a Vauxhall Zafira on a set of budget tyres ploughing into a brick wall. Not sexy, but more memorable. It might just cut through.

And in my opinion, it simply must cut through. There's no point in the minority driving around on superior tyres if the majority are on budgets. What's the use in successfully coming to a halt in an emergency situation, only for the car behind to plough into the back of you? There needs to be an entire cultural shift, which won't be easy in this country. Indeed, as I've blogged about before, as a nation, we sadly lack behind some of our European counterparts when it comes to attitudes about driving.

Continental Tyres wet handling

But take it from me, cutting costs on tyres is likely to be a false economy. This isn't about choosing tyres that will shave a few seconds off your lap time around Silverstone or impress the neighbours. This is about common sense. Better tyres will improve your car's handling, increase your chances of stopping in an emergency, may increase your fuel economy and could quite easily give you a few thousand miles more life.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

So next time it comes to changing your tyres, give yourself some more thinking time and look beyond the price. This isn't about insisting you buy Continentals - far from it. There's a whole host of similar brands at varying prices that may suit your car and your personal needs best. Read a few reviews, ask some advice and make an informed decision.

After all, a tyre is more than just a black ring of rubber...

At which point I'll say that my next tyre blog will be on the subject of winter tyres. Watch this space.