Winter’s on the way, and you’ve probably noticed several tyre makers, car manufacturers and fast-fit centres promoting winter tyres. So should you go out and buy some for your car?
During last December’s cold snap, we asked for your views about winter tyres. Many of you strongly disagreed with our suggestion that, for many in the UK, it is hard to justify their cost.
As the weather starts to turn cold again, we thought we’d return to the subject. We’ve had three spells of extreme cold weather (by UK standards) in the last two winters. So it’s no surprise that many Which? Conversation commenters are weighing up whether they need to invest in winter tyres.
The benefits of winter tyres
Having recently compared summer and winter tyres myself, there’s no doubt that the latter really do help in adverse conditions. We know from independent tests that they grip better on ice and snow – and actually, tyre makers’ data supports the fact that they grip better below 7˚C. This would prevent many motorists becoming stranded, or worse, crashing. And in severe wet conditions, the deeper tread grooves are often better at dispersing surface water.
So I completely understand why some people living in very rural areas are preparing their cars by fitting winter tyres. It makes good sense if there’s another bad winter and you don’t fancy being cut-off. If that sounds like your situation, and the weather turns, I suggest you go out and buy some winter tyres soon as UK outlets don’t have a never-ending supply.
But if you live in a town or city, should you switch to winter tyres before the weather turns bad?
Usually, this involves buying not just four new tyres, but also a spare set of steel rims to fit them to. You’ll need to swap onto your winter wheels in late October or November, and back onto standard summer rubber in March. It’s important to change back when the weather picks up, as winter tyres have inferior grip and handling to summer ones in normal, warmer UK conditions.
In terms of cost, four winter tyres and spare rims for a Mini start from £560, excluding assembly. If, like me, you’re a family-hatch driver, KwikFit quotes £490.40 for a set of four 205/60 R16 Goodyear Ultragrip8 winter tyres – rims are extra.
Those up-front costs may seem eye-watering, but overall costs aren’t actually as high as they sound. You’ll get wear from both sets of tyres, so once you’ve made the investment, the average time between replacements will be roughly doubled.
The importance of good driving techniques
However, I’m still not convinced UK drivers in towns and cities need winter tyres, for two reasons. First, while there has been some extreme weather in the past couple of years, UK winters tend to be far milder than countries where winter tyre use is mandatory.
Winter tyres would certainly help drivers get their cars off the drive when it’s icy or snowing, and would even be beneficial in freezing rain. But prolonged snow and ice are rare. Second, I believe good driving techniques are just as important as the tyres fitted.
My 33-year driving career includes extensive personal year-round driving in the UK and Europe. Plus, I also have professional driving experiences from being a car mechanic on breakdown duty during the 1980-81 cold-snap, through to my time as an engineer in the mid-90s, testing tyres on the frozen lakes of northern Sweden. I’ve also overseen Which?’s role in tyre testing over the last 10 years.
I’ve never been one to shy away from travel when the going gets tough, but I’ve never had to fit cold-weather tyres to my own cars as I’ve never found myself stranded due to ice or snow.
As a young mechanic, my employer wouldn’t have allowed me behind the wheel without showing me how to drive in slippery conditions – higher gears, gentle clutch, throttle and brake use, careful steering and above all, lower speeds. I’ve used these skills in every car I’ve driven, without getting stuck or crashing.
Improve tyre education
I also think more could be done to improve drivers’ awareness of the importance of keeping their tyres in check. Surveys (including our own) show that the vast majority of UK drivers don’t pay much attention to the condition of their tyres, regardless of what type they are – often running around on partially bald, damaged or under-inflated tyres.
That’s a bigger health risk to every driver on the roads than using summer tyres throughout winter. So why don’t garages offer free tyre health-checks as well as selling us winter rubber?
But I know this debate won’t fade away. As the industry markets winter tyres, many of you want to know more about their pros and cons.
We’ve already tested an alternative solution to this by looking at some all-season tyres (Which? members can see these on our main website) which are designed to offer an option that combines winter and summer tyre characteristics and that can be used all year round.
They won’t answer everyone’s needs, so here at Which?, we’re looking into historical weather data to independently establish whether there’s a case for more UK drivers to switch tyres twice yearly. In the meantime, if you live in a rural area, where winter or all-season tyres make driving your car safer in adverse weather conditions, we’d advise considering changing sooner rather than later.