/ 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

‘…£555 for a set of four Pirelli tyres’, ‘the technology isn’t cheap – or applicable for the UK climate.’ really! I paid about £70 each for excellent Michelin Alpin A4s online (same price as ‘summer’ tyres), but I suppose one pays for the ‘service’. I’ve used M+S tyres on a standard FWD diesel car (petrol RWDs lack control) all year round (no need for 2 sets) for the last 15 years. Great for wet and muddy country roads (most of the year) and when it snows. When snow compacts to ice, and on steeper hills, then chains provide the answer, takes a bit of effort though. Dry road grip is at least on a par with with budget and mid-range summer tyres, just drive within the capabilities of the tyres. None of this really matters of course when progress stops because drivers are not prepared, equipped and/or practiced for low-traction conditions. The correct tyres don’t help you here.

‘Are they worth buying? No, definitely not.’, well, this depends on your circumstances and priorities, I would not use anything else, but I don’t live in Stamford (there are other parts of the UK I believe).

Clogboy says:
2 December 2010

Excellent article, facts worth considering.
But I’m going to impose a bit of logic onto you that probably changes most of the facts, if not everything.

Assume for a second that a set of winter tyres and a set of summer tyres cost roughly the same as two sets of summer tyres.
Now keep in mind that winter tyres wear out quicker during the summer, and summer tyres quicker during the winter. So two sets of summer tyres wear out quicker than two sets of tyres appropriate for their own distinct conditions. And where I live (The Netherlands) it’s usually below 7 Celsius for four months in a row. Buying a cheap set of rimms for the winter tyres also spares your alloys from saltcorrosion and bumps due to ambitious snowdriving and saves service costs.

Now try and slam a pricetag on roadsafety, and then tell me again your conclusion still stands.

I agree with your assessment. The time I spent in Norway proved this with the vast majority of drivers having a set of winter ‘studs’ on steel rims whilst keeping their alloys for the summer variants.

If winter tyres become a need over here as they are elsewhere in Europe, then having two sets of wheels isn’t such a long-term expense. In fact, if having the ‘right’ tyres saves just a minor accident, they become a sensible investment.

When I mention to people that I have Winter tyres, the first response I get is that we don’t get enough snow (even though the last three years appear to debunk that). Snow is one aspect of Winter tyres. They remain soft below 7C – so each time someone drive with Summer tyres below 7C, they are technically driving an less safe vehicle than one with Winter tyres. Winter tyres also have a tread pattern designed for icy and wet roads, dispersing more water.

Now, I have a BMW 330d putting out massive amounts of torque through the rear wheels. The summer tyres are Continental Sport Contact 2, which have hardly any lateral tread. Last winter it would not move on even the thinnest covering of snow or ice. Now I have Pirelli SottoZero tyres fitted and have been driving around on the snow and ice without any problem. Oh, and since I had them fitted, it has rarely gone above 7C here where I live in the Chilterns. So they are the safest tyres to have fitted to my car.

In summary, they are not a waste of money for all cars.. And anyone planning to travel abroad in winter had better get some, as it is now law in countries like Germany to have them fitted between November and March (incl.)

Pete says:
5 December 2010

I also have a 330D and with the usual summer times it’s unusable on the smallest amount of snow. I spent 3 hours trying to get 7 miles home from work in a rural spot, pushing the car more much of the time. I had a similar experience when taking my daughter for an important hospital appointment. I think ths article understates the difference that winter or all-season tyres can make for some cars. We dont all drive small front wheel drive cars.

I have bought some michelin easgrip nylon ‘chains’ for 80 quid. They make my car pull like a tractor! I don’t know how long they will last, but they have proven invaluable for a couple of days of essential journeys only. Unlike snow chains, these are much easy to attach and can driven on tarmac, even though they will obviously wear more.

Highly recommended!

Phil says:
2 December 2010

A very poor article I thought.

Winter tyres aren’t just for snow and any Which? researcher ought to be cautious of manufacture’s “deals”. Take the advice Which? always gives and shop around. I’m sure there are many online retailers who will beat Ford’s price, a set of cheap steel rims (and shorter bolts if necessary) which you might even get from a local scrapyard, a few quid to a garage to fit them and away you go. As for the damage to rims come on, nobody is going swop tyres on and off the same rims twice a year.

Even at £1,000 a pop a set of winter tyres could pay for themselves in one season if they save you from having one accident.

If you drive in winter, get winter tyres.
£60 a piece for Nokians for mine + another £10 to fit.
Set of rims from ebay £15 for the four.
If the writer of this article thinks £1000 is the going rate, he needs to shop round more before writing the article.
My tyres usually last about 18 months for a front set. I’ll leave the winter tyres on from November to April, and reckon I’ll get at three years from them.
So eather one set of summer tyres for eighteen months, or two sets swopping over for three years, seems to be the same value for me. Better in fact, as the winter tyres are cheaper than the Michelins I normally use.
I suggest you buy yourself a set for a Christmas present.

24Seven says:
2 December 2010

Agree with all the other commenters – the figure of £1000 is ludicrous…
I paid £240 for my 4 excellent Sava (a Goodyear brand) Eskimo tyres a fortnight ago and had them fitted to my rear-wheel drive mercedes C class last week at a cost of £12/wheel inc valve and balance – so job done for less than £300. And as other commenters have pointed out, for all the time you are using the winter tyres, you are prolonging the life of your regular tyres, thereby saving money further down the road (excuse the pun!)
I felt my investment was totally justified today when I was able to get my car off the snowy driveway first try – couldn’t even manage that on the summer tyres! Then driving easily down an icy country road on the way to work, passing a summer-tyred Range Rover being towed out of a ditch was the icing on the cake!
If the winter tyres save you from having just one accident caused by a skid, the cost is totally worth it.

Sorry find this article unfair – the number of snowy days in the south-east is tiny – the vast majority of people live in the South-east. The last true snow-in I can remember was in 1963 – before then 1947 – two snow ins in 60 years is infinitesimal – and can be ignored. As can price of special tyres.

You softies in the South East are just like Americans (who don’t know any geography).

Look at the following article to see the population spread in the UK. The vast majority do NOT live in the South East.

http://bbc.in/hyNdYk

John says:
3 December 2010

The vast majority of people live in the SE?? There’s a strong claim:) London and the SE contain approx 16 million. The rest of the UK? About 45 million. https://almanac09.ukces.org.uk/context/A5/Forms/AllItems.aspx

Gareth Davies says:
4 December 2010

The point isn’t the number of snowy days, the important factor is the temperature. The BBC website shows the long-term average maximum temperature in London during December, January and February is 7C, that being the temperature at which cold weather tyres provide safety benefits. More to the point, many people drive in the early morning or late evening, travelling to and from work, and at those times the temperatures are normally lower. Add to that the incidence of frosty mornings when the roads are very slippery, and the safety benefits should be obvious.

Sorry people – As far as I’m concerned – the number of days lost by me in say the last twenty years is four – certainly not enough to buy special tyres – I do drive in the early morning.- every morning. The number of accidents I’ve suffered is zero in all weathers in many years.

Mind you – I’ve seen a good number of accidents in that time – caused by bad driving – I wonder if they were relying on their all weather tyres too much.?

I’m just wondering, if winter tyres are a waste of money in UK, why are there so many 4x4s?

Excellent point – Status symbols forever

@ Richard: you may as well ask why so many iPads are sold in the UK.

@Terry = I know why people buy iPads – To boast to their friends that they have an iPad – it was ever thus.

Gary says:
3 December 2010

I’d say most British drivers are not aware of Winter tyres, more advertising would help, and to point out they are not just for snow. Big problem seems to be supply, i’ve tried quite a few tyre suppliers and cannot find any for my light commerical van.

Phil says:
3 December 2010

Yes my local tyre centre said they’d sold out and couldn’t get any more supplies. There seem to be plenty available online though.

Big problem with 4x4s at this time of year is over-confident drivers, they think they can drive as normal but with the wrong tyres they’re worse off than a 2wd car with the right ones.

The tyres that are supplied on new cars, and that are available as replacement tyres, are simply not designed for year round use. They are a safety hazard and simply shouldn’t be allowed in the UK. If winter tyres are a step too far, “All Season” tyres are a decent compromise. We have Michelin Alpin winter tyres on our Astra as we simply couldn’t get out of our drive with the comedy summer tyres that came with it. We also have Hankook Optimo 4S all season tyres on our Panda. Our two cars are regularly the only ones to be able to get up our street if the snow plough hasn’t been round. The other cars, including some 4x4s can really struggle, due to the useless fair weather rubber they are fitted with. From this experience, any tyre I buy will be at least an all season tyre, as they make a huge difference when you really do need to have a bit of grip.

John says:
3 December 2010

Anchoring the article to the presence or absence of snow is missing the point. I’m not sure the author has actually researched this subject very thoroughly. Winter tyres for the UK (I believe there are several types made) are useable for 4 to 5 months of the year. When temperatures rarely exceed 7C. Cold wet roads mean summer tyres lose grip: there are plenty of comparitive tests. Suggest Rod Hull visits Michelin, Continental, Nokian et al to get a deeper insight.

Roger says:
3 December 2010

I lived in Belgium (which often has snow in the Ardennes) and Switzerland (living in Geneva, but I skied at weekends) in the 1980s, driving a VW Kombi/camper (RWD). After a few times getting stuck in snow and using chains, I invested in 4 rims and winter tyres and used them from about November-March. I rarely had to use the chains again and never got stuck even in the mountains. I found that winter tyres on my RWD worked better than regular tyres on a 4WD. The high ground clearance of the Kombi helped of course – I have driven small cars with winter tyres which simply could not push through deep snow. The tyres were a bit noisier than summer tyres and probably not as good at speed, but that was not really an issue in winter. I have also used winter tyres in the USA and Canada and could drive in pretty deep snow.
I now live in London and am think about getting winter wheels for my Polo, just with basic steel rims. I haven’t used my car in the recent snow because of quite steep hills in my area. The cost will be partly (largely?) offset by less wear on the summer tyres.

I hadn’t considered winter tyres until last week but having done a fair amount of research I now realise that good quality winter tyres have much better performance in wet conditions than standard summer tyres so it makes sense to fit them for about 5 months each year (nov-march). I’m due to change my car soon and part of my price negotiation for my new car will be the inclusion of an extra set of rims. That is unless the new Kleber Quadraxer all-year-tyre proves to be as good as the markting hype, in which case I’ll just get four of those.
How soon will Which? be testing some?

These Klebers are excellent in snow. I put them on my Volvo this year, after being stuck at home last year (I live in the North Downs). Unbelievable difference! Goes up steep hills easily in snow and compacted ice. No slipping.

As you note they’re an all year tyre, it will be interesting to see how they go in summer.

Russell says:
3 December 2010

I’ve used winter tyres for years and now wouldn’t dream of not fitting them for the winter months. The cost is negligible, since you’re saving the wear on your summer tyres, so all you have to pay for is cost of changing twice a year. You don’t need spare rims. If you’ve never driven a car with winter tyres – it’s a revelation. Go up a hill – no problem. Go down a steep hill – brake – and stop. Completely. Meet a car coming the other way out of control – take to the snow covered verge – drive off again. Stuck in the school car park? I had to rescue our neighbour, plus children, twice last year – guess what, she and both our other neighbours now have winter tyres.

Winter tyres take out all the hassle, and heart stopping moments, of driving in winter. Everyone I know who has fitted them has the same reaction – why on earth didn’t we do it sooner. In short – for the true small cost, never mind the potential saving on an insurance claim, they’re a no brainer. Ask my wife, who now refuses to drive her A3 without winter tyres.

John Moore says:
3 December 2010

The elasticity of summer tyres starts to seriously diminish under 7°C, thus worsening road contact and therefore lengthening the time it takes to brake – winter tyres consist of a special rubber compound with high levels of silicon or natural rubber that hold their elasticity under cold conditions. Especially on wet or icy roads, winter tyres give much better adherence due to their deeper tread which contains many more sipes and they will always out-perform summer tyres when it comes to braking, steering and accelerating. Furthermore the consequences of driving with summer tyres in wintery conditions should not be underestimated. If an accident occurs where you are at fault, there may be insurance issues that have to be resolved by you not having the correct tyres fitted. Notwithstanding all that !! if drivers appreciate the limitations of their tyres and drive sensibly with regard to road conditions there should be no problem. Unfortunately the problem is really with the drivers not the tyres.

I don’t think winter tyres have a deeper tread, but the recommended minimum for retention of grip is 4 mm rather than the 2 mm for summer use. Sipes and other tread features, as well as the compound, help winter tyres to grip cold dry tarmac, clear thin films of water, cut through slush (which is non-Newtonian) and grip better on mud, slush and snow too thick to clear. Ice is really the domain of studs and chains.

The tread blocks of winter tyres tend to be more flexible then those of summer tyres, so grip on hot dry tarmac is not quite so good. Compare the large areas of flat rubber and often minimal lateral pattern on a summer tyre to the network of sipes and multidirectional patterns on a winter tyre. Where I live the roads are often wet and muddy, and snow comes along once in a while. I’ve chosen to use winter tyres year round and not found any disadvantages. Keep at least 4 mm tread depth on the drive wheels when it snows by swapping front to back as needed.

I think Rob Hull’s comment ‘And although I don’t doubt for a second that they work’ suggests that he has very little experience here; however, his article has prompted some very useful discussion.

Ian Brown says:
3 December 2010

Living in the Highlands I normally drive with 4 winter tyres from Novembet to March, but last year having bought a new Meriva I thought I would experiment with using a car on summer tyres but with a deep tread depth. Never again; the car weaved all over the place in snow so I quickly had to buy a set of winter tyres and immediately regained stability and the ability to haul myself out of deep snow. The tyres cost about £70 feach or Vredestein Sno-tracs and are an excellent investment for safety and mobility.

Ronnie Wood says:
3 December 2010

This is the second winter I’ve had winter tyres on and the security and sure footed feel to the car will make sure it’s something I do every year. The term ‘snow’ tyres is a red herring as most of those on offer are cold weather tyres for 7 deg C and below when they far outperform summer tyres. As some others have said your price estimate is wildly over the top and what price safety and an accident!
Usually respect your opinions but you’re irresponsibly wrong in this case!

JO'Flaherty says:
3 December 2010

I tead about snow socks in The Sunday Times last year. I was a little doutful about the legality of using these to cover the legal tread when the driving on non-snow covered sections of road. I e-mailed the local police (PSNI) who responded that they had no idea whatsoever, but would pass my enquiry on to the relevant local agency who would investigate. I presume they are still investigating!

Peter Scott says:
23 December 2010

The snow socks instructions make it very clear that they must be removed as soon as the roads are clear. They are an emergency device to get you going on snow covered roads.

JO'Flaherty says:
3 December 2010

Forget snow tyres – think cold weather tyres. About £120 each, but negotiate with your supplier about fitting in early November and removing in March (they work best <7C) as part of the package. They are better in the wet too.