/ Motoring

Are winter tyres worth the money?

Car tyre in snow

It’s only early-December and already we’re snowed-in. So should we all be fitting our cars with winter tyres to help us get around more easily – or are they an unnecessary expense that UK drivers can live without?

There’s a fairly good chance that you’re reading this from the comfort of your own home, as many of us are stuck indoors due to this week’s snow dump.

But would a set of winter tyres have helped you get around today? Yes, probably. Are they worth buying? No, definitely not.

In recent years, these extreme weather conditions have made driving anywhere almost impossible in some areas. Tyre firms have reacted to this by offering a solution with winter-specific tyres, as used by law in other EU countries like Sweden. The only problem is; I live in Stamford, not Stockholm.

I can certainly see the need for snow tyres in countries that endure prolonged periods of extreme winter conditions. But the extra expense of buying a set of winter tyres in the UK is ludicrous if you’ll only be using them for a week or two out of the entire calendar.

What are winter tyres?

The main difference between winter tyres (also known as ‘snow tyres’) and conventional tyres is the compound and the tread design. The rubber used in winter tyres is designed to work specifically below temperatures of seven degrees. The compound itself won’t harden when the temperature drops, reducing the risk of aquaplaning and improving braking distance.

The profile of the tyre is flatter so more of the tyre width touches the surface, helping to pull through difficult terrains like thick mud and snow. And the addition of sipes (tiny zigzag-shaped slits in the rubber) gives the tyre extra ‘edges’ to grip, even on the most slippery surfaces like wet grass or ice.

Don’t waste your money

All sounds great, doesn’t it? And although I don’t doubt for a second that they work, the technology isn’t cheap – or applicable for the UK climate.

Ford is the latest manufacturer to announce a deal on winter tyres to its customers. But at £555 for a set of four Pirelli tyres, you’re paying through the nose for the benefits they offer.

Then factor in the price of fitting, the potential damage to wheels that fitting tyres can incur, and the cost of a set of four steel rims if you want to keep the tyres on the same wheels to make them easier to access. After that lot, you’ll soon be paying towards the sharp end of £1,000 for technology that will only be of use to most of us for less than 5% of the year.

If you live in the Scottish Highlands or an extremely remote area where roads aren’t treated or used as often, it could be worth looking into snow tyres. But if you’re part of the 80% of the UK population who lives in an urban area, save the money for Christmas presents.

UPDATE 28 October 2011: Read our latest opinion piece on winter tyres, Should you switch to winter tyres?, and have your say.

Comments
Guest

Write to your MP about the British Govt winter resilience report mentioning nothing whatsoever about tyres, yet it has 322 references to salt. http://transportwinterresilience.independent.gov.uk/docs/final-report/

A separate audit considered tyres, but they were missed completely from the main report. As a result of my letter, my MP requested his own research paper on the issues of winter tyres. So he is now informed about the matter. I did find it interesting that an associated spreadsheet assumed four snow days per year (that’s based on the whole country (presumably UK) having significant snow. That may be very well for the warmer south of England and some coastal areas. I live in a town (altitude only 100 metres) within walking distance of the centre of Britain. Were it not for winter tyres we would have been snowed-in, unable to get down our drive for three weeks minimum last winter. Neighbours got a big surprise when one of them warned my wife not to drive down the incline. She explained that she was using winter tyres. He watched as she drove confidently down the snow & ice covered drive at a good speed with no fear of hitting the car port or the garage that are built either side along the 1 in 10 incline. Those neighbours wouldn’t pay for winter tyres, not even for the very nice executive car, so they left them at the bottom of the drive for weeks on end, hauling their very young children and their shopping up and down the hill several times a day.

Responding to Mike657, Scotland did a cost-benefit analysis to assess whether it made sense to fit winter tyres onto the driving axles of artics. If I recollect correctly, their conclusion was that financially, for the road haulage industry, it was marginal. That rather surprised me, but I then realised it took no account whatsoever of the costs incurred by everyone else who suffers the consequences of an immobile artic.
http://www.transportscotland.gov.uk/road/policy/freight/reports

Responding to James 1000, I agree with his points. I think he is saying that the weather in central Sweden hasn’t been very much different to the UK – interesting. Last year my wife ‘accused’ me of not looking after my safety when I didn’t fit winter tyres on my car as soon as she thought they needed fitting. She was furious that I hadn’t changed them early enough and said I was irresponsible. Yet prior to the previous winter, despite having lived in Scotland for many years, she had never tried them. That’s how much difference they make.

We need drivers who cause accidents by choosing to drive on summer tyres in winter to be prosecuted. In the case of company vehicles, the owner should be prosecuted to ensure they do not pressurise their staff. After all, when I’m over the alcohol limit I don’t even think about driving because it is obvious I’m a danger because I don’t have sufficient control of the vehicle. If I did drive, there would be no excuse for my irresponsibility. What is the difference between driving drunk and driving a car that you know cannot stop or steer properly because it has the wrong tyres?

We have seat belts and airbags that will never be needed on the majority of cars, yet we forget that improving primary safety (eg. suitable tyres), will prevent accidents. Improving secondary safety (eg. seat belts and airbags) is only of benefit in the event of an accident. Those who want to leave summer tyres fitted all year round should be able to do so, but they should stay off the road when conditions become poor. I wonder whether legislating for tyres to be marked with a suitable temperature range would be viable? Anyone driving when below the minimum tyre temperature would risk points on their licence.

Guest
John Wilson says:
16 December 2011

I’m a farmer in north Northumberland with over 30 years driving experience on all types of road, and off roading. Both winter and summer tyres have been tried. The difference between them in winter is marginal. What does make a difference is wether a car has rear or front wheel drive or 4 wheel drive. In winter, driving in 4 wheel drive gives the perfect grip (even with summer tyres and uphill). In my humble opinion, front wheel drive is second best.

By the way, traction control is next to useless.

So when considering winter tyres, my advice would be to not bother. Always buy a vehicle with 4 wheel drive. The number of times it will be used may be small, but like insurance, it will give peace of mind.

Guest

Hello all, as you may have seen we have published full tests for winter tyres. The feedback you’ve given us here was one of the reasons why we tested them. You can find the winter tyre test results here.

You can also tell us what you think and vote in our new poll “Will you be buying winter tyres?” in our latest winter tyres Conversation. Thanks.

Guest
Tony Kenyon says:
16 December 2011

Any idea patrick why a bestbuy summer tyre wasn’t tested alongside the winter tyres and the comparitive results published?

Guest

John,
The new page mentioned by Patrick is worth looking-at.

Either your summer tyres are rather unusual – maybe they are
multi-purpose tread rather than ‘summer’, or your winter tyres are
hopeless. There are lots of comparisons on Youtube that make the
difference extremely clear, but I do not dispute your own experience
if that is what you have concluded.

I agree that 4 wheel drive will be better than FWD – if you fit winter tyres.

Last winter I daren’t venture into the borders in snow and ice,
(Langholm to Kelso area, not very far from you), without winter tyres
fitted. My friends in Kelso were very surprised at the roadholding
capabilities of winter tyres, they had parked-up their car because it
was sliding everywhere.

They make an absolutely huge difference on 2 wheel drive cars,
anything from my wife’s FWD Fiat Punto that is still moving on roads
and conditions where we only see 4WDs, to a friends sporty RWD BMW.

Last winter I challenged a friend who owns a Range Rover Sport fitted
with summer tyres (and of course 4WD and all the traction gadgets) to
a hill climb on ice and snow, pitched against an extremely mundane and
ordinary Punto with winter tyres. He refused!

Winter tyres are a much cheaper alternative to 4WD, but if you can
afford 4WD that’s great. In your case I realise you will need 4WD for
your work.

Guest
David says:
8 October 2012

I do hope that Mr Rob Hull, senior car researcher, did not receive any gratuity for his appalling ill informed article.

Guest
Phil says:
25 October 2012

October 25th 2012, dash-board thermometer reading 14 degrees C, though weather-forecasters predicting 7 degrees C by the weekend! Place your bets, mild or harsh winter?!!

I found this short video,produced by Auto Express and the RAC in conjunction with Continental Tyres, very helpful in my decision to fit Winter Tyres.

It was actually the second half of the video showing comparative braking distances on a wet road at +5 degrees C which I found most relevant to motoring in my corner of the UK where actual snow days per year are limited. Given that Continental tyres typically feature top 3 in most of the independent tyre tests across Europe, this video illustrates “the best” summer tyre against “the best” winter tyre. The additional 7m stopping distance required by the summer tyre at these temperatures on the wet surface
helps inform the debate from a road safety perspective.

http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=elP_34ltdWI&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DelP_34ltdWI&gl=GB

Interestingly however, if you look into the “detail” of the results of Winter tyre tests which include a Summer tyre for comparison, on wet braking performance below +7 degrees a top performing Summer Tyre will out perform a lower ranking “winter” tyre in the wet (though, not surprisingly, the summer will not perform well at all on snow). My interpretation of these results is that you could inadvertently compromise your wet braking on the numerous rainy days of winter when trying to split a limited budget across 2 sets of tyres instead of fitting the best set of Summer tyres. Rain is the norm in the UK so we aren’t as alert to the potential dangers as when our world turns white and we are forced to drive more cautiously. New tyre labelling introduced next month (NOVEMBER 2012) will make it easier for consumers to evaluate wet braking performance: ‘A’ rating being the best.

If budget is less of an issue, the Auto Express / Continental video highlights that a good quality winter tyre will enhance cold weather safety over a good quality summer tyre. What price you put on that added safety is a matter of personal choice, however, I think the financial equation can be made reasonably cost neutral if:

1. You plan to keep the car for enough seasons to get the mileage out of both sets of tyres.
2. You have a second set of wheels to avoid the twice yearly cost of tyre change & balance.
(or buy a set and then recover most of their cost by re-selling them when you no longer need them).
3. You have loft/shed space to store the unused set to keep the rubber in good condition and to avoid
storage costs.
4. You are able to change wheels yourself (though a 4 wheel swap rather than 4 tyre swap shouldn’t
be too expensive at a garage).

It’s generally recommended to drop a tyre width size for winter tyres so, for example, 205/55R16s winters replace 225/45R17s summers. These smaller tyres are cheaper to buy than the larger summer tyres they replace. Also, summer tyre rubber hardens and becomes more ‘brittle’ in cold conditions so actually wears more quickly than the “softer” winter rubber. So, you are prolonging the life of the more expensive summer tyres and maintaining their tread depth to dispell summer rain i.e. safer wet summer driving as well as safer wet winter driving! Covering the same mileage on a combination of summer & winter tyres actually costs less in terms of the rubber cost than sticking to larger summer tyres only over the same mileage.

Add to that the fact that water and frost damage causes a significant increase in pot-holes during winter months, to which larger wheels with lower profile tyres are more susceptible to alloy damage which is expensive to refurbish (not to mention rock salt damaging the alloy paint finish). The taller side-wall of the smaller wheeled tyre offers the wheel more protection and also a more comfortable ride when the UK’s roads are in their worst state.

In summary, I believe that balancing tread-wear between quality sets of summer and winter tyres will enhance wet weather driving safety in both summer & winter, as well as giving you enhanced snow/ice mobility/safety should those conditions occur. Total costs over time need not be any/significantly more, though will require a larger initial spend up-front. All costs can be reduced depending on how much effort you want to invest yourself (researching and shopping for best prices, swapping & storing wheels yourself, etc) and how much you delegate to a garage.

Guest

I bought a cheap tyre stand to store my winter wheels& tyres on , really does cut down the space required and makes a neat job.
Will change over to winter tomorrow given the temp forecast for the NE, asked my local franchised tyre outlet for a quote – “FREE of charge if just a swap ” – will certainly be contributing to their Xmas party fund if they have one – its not as if I purchased the tyres from them.