Should I buy winter tyres?

With winter on the way, we investigate whether it's worth splashing out on some specialist rubber to improve your car’s traction and braking in adverse conditions...

10 tips for safer winter driving

If there’s one thing you can predict about British weather, it’s that it is unpredictable. One winter can be harsh enough to make an Eskimo stay indoors, the next can be so mild it seems as if autumn has lasted until spring.

That makes it hard to decide whether winter tyres are worth the expense and the hassle. Is it really necessary to buy four tyres (and possibly another set of wheels to put them on) if the winter turns out to be a mild one?

However, what if this winter turns out to be, well, wintry? Isn’t it better to play safe and fit the safest tyres for the likely weather and temperature?

We’re going to examine the pros and cons of winter tyres, and look at how you can minimise the expense and inconvenience of swapping tyres to suit the changing seasons.

We’ll also consider alternatives to winter tyres, including all-season tyres, which, in theory, promise good performance across a broader range of temperatures than either summer or winter tyres.

Should I buy winter tyres?

What are winter tyres?

The clue is in the name – winter tyres are specifically designed for use in cold weather. It’s a common misconception that they’re only really effective when there’s snow or ice on the ground. In fact, they are designed for cold weather conditions in general.

How cold is cold? Well, winter tyres are designed to give good grip at temperatures below 7deg C.

Winter tyres have a different construction to summer tyres and are made with higher levels of silica and natural rubber. This means they don’t harden as the temperature drops in the way summer tyres do; that's one of the reasons summer tyres grip less well in cold weather.

It’s not just their construction that is different. Winter tyres have a different tread pattern, too, with extra sipes (grooves) and a more open tread pattern. This allows a winter tyre to lift water from the road surface better than a summer tyre, and it reduces the risk of aquaplaning (when the tyres can’t clear water from the road fast enough, allowing a layer of water to get between the tyres and Tarmac and the tyres to lose grip). The sipes and open tread also help winter tyres grip better on snow.

Should I buy winter tyres?

Should I buy winter tyres?

If you want your car to have the best grip when the temperature drops below 7deg C, then it’s worth investing in a set of winter tyres. 

What Car? has tested a selection of winter tyres to discover how effective they are compared with summer tyres in a variety of conditions. The tests were done using winter and summer tyres from four different brands, two 'premium' names and two 'budget'.

The dry braking test took place from 62mph at a temperature of 5.5deg C. On average, summer tyres needed 5.8 metres less to pull up than the winter tyres. However, this was the only test in which the summer tyres came out on top.

In wet weather, braking from 50mph at 4deg C, the premium brand winter tyres stopped an average of 4.0 metres sooner than the premium brand summer tyres. When weighing up the dry and wet weather results, it’s worth bearing in mind that collisions are more common in the wet than the dry.

While the differences so far are fairly small, when the test car attempted to brake on snow from 25mph, we found a gulf in performance between the two types of tyre. Even the worst winter tyre stopped a massive 11.0 metres shorter than the best summer rubber. That’s roughly two-and-a-half car lengths. When stopping on ice from 12mph, the average difference in stopping distance was also 6.5 metres.

So, in all conditions aside from warm, dry weather, the winter tyres beat their summer counterparts, and as the surface conditions got worse, the winter tyres outclassed the summer rubber more.

What’s the best all-round tyre of 2017?

Where to buy winter tyres

All the major high street retailers, such as ATS Euromaster, Halfords and Kwik Fit, sell a range of winter tyres, and so do online retailers, such as Blackcircles and MyTyres.  You can shop around online first to see who has the best deals. 

It’s also worth speaking to a local franchised dealer for your car brand, because many will price-match winter tyres. 

Some franchises, including Audi and Ford, and tyre fitting specialists, such as ATS Euromaster, also offer a ‘tyre hotel’ service. For a small annual fee, they will store the wheels and tyres you’re not using for you, saving you the hassle of keeping them at your home and taking them to the garage when it’s time to swap them over. 

Should I buy winter tyres?

Cheap winter tyres: how much do winter tyres cost?

As with summer tyres, prices vary depending on the brand, model and size of tyre. As a general guide, expect to pay £70 or more for each small car tyre, or around £175 per tyre for a large SUV. That could mean a total of up to £700 to swap to winter rubber on all four corners. However, you should be able to save money on the cost of buying winter tyres by shopping around.

The expense doesn’t necessarily end there, either. It’s not always easy to find winter tyres for cars with very large alloys. What’s more, narrower tyres on smaller rims are more effective in bad weather because the slimmer tyre cuts through snow better. So as well as switching tyres, it may be wise to change your car’s wheels. This expense can be reduced by running steel wheels rather than alloys with the winter tyres, although not everyone will be happy with the look of steel rims.

Some franchised dealers sell packages that combine a set of four wheels and tyres, so check with your local dealer or online to see what's on offer for your car.

Although the cost of fitting winter tyres may seem daunting, it’s worth remembering that you’re saving wear on your summer tyres while your winter tyres are in use, and vice versa. So, in effect, your winter and summer tyre sets should last twice as long as a single set of tyres used all year. 

Should I buy winter tyres?

Winter tyres: the law

Winter tyres aren’t mandatory in the UK, but it is legal to fit them to your car if you want to. 

They are legally required in some European countries, such as Austria and Finland, though, and either winter tyres or snow chains are recommended in many other countries, especially those with mountainous regions, so it’s advisable to check the law in advance for any country you’re planning on visiting. 

In general, there is no need to tell your car insurance company if you’re fitting winter tyres to your car as long as they are roadworthy, have been fitted in line with manufacturer’s instructions, and you’re not planning on changing the wheels. It is best to inform the insurer if you are fitting different wheels as well as tyres, although there is usually no additional charge on your premium for this. 

Some insurers do require you to tell them if you’re fitting winter tyres, and you can check if yours is one of them on the ABI’s online guide

Which are the best winter tyres? 

In independent tyre tests the top scoring brands are usually premium ones such as Bridgestone and Continental, with other top quality makes, such as Michelin and Pirelli, also appearing in top 10s. And these brands are usually the best performers for grip and braking in wet, icy and snowy conditions. Other brands that score well in tests include Hankook, Kleber, Semperit and Vredestein. 

If you want to assess the performance of a specific tyre, you can read its tyre label. These are in a standard format for all tyres, enabling consumers to compare the vital statistics of all tyres. Every tyre label contains information on three key areas: fuel efficiency, wet grip and external noise, with ratings ranging from A for the best, to E for the poorest. For winter tyres the wet grip is the most important factor, so look for tyres with an A rating in this area. 

Winter tyres: frequently asked questions

Can winter tyres be used in the summer?

The general advice is that winter tyres should only be used in the UK between October and March when temperatures are often below the 7deg C tipping point. However, there is no legal requirement to switch to summer tyres in the spring, it’s just what is advised. If you live in a mountainous region where the weather remains cold throughout much of the year, you may want to keep winter tyres on your car all year. 

The reason for switching away from winter tyres in the spring is that they have a softer compound that wears out much more quickly in warm weather. This reduces the lifespan of the tyres, and it means your motoring costs will rise in the long run.

Can I use summer tyres in the winter?

It is perfectly acceptable to use summer tyres in the winter. They are more hard-wearing than winter tyres, so are a good option for use all year, especially when we experience milder winters. They generally grip the road well in wet and dry conditions, and will have shorter braking distances than winter tyres in mild, warm and high temperatures. They also have lower rolling resistance, so they use up less energy as they’re being driven, and that means you’ll use less fuel. 

What are the alternatives to winter tyres? 

Car with all-season tyre

The main alternative to winter tyres is all-season tyres. These are the best all-round option because they offer a good level of grip in all weather conditions. They are engineered with a different tread pattern and softer compound than summer tyres, so they outperform summer tyres below 7deg C, but they match them pretty well in warmer weather. 

The main advantage of all-season tyres is that they save you money because you don’t have the expense of buying an additional set of tyres and wheels for use in the winter. They are often approved as winter tyres, so they can be used in countries with a legal winter tyre requirement.

What are snow socks?

Another option if you simply want some extra grip in an emergency situation is snow socks. As the name suggests, these are high-grip covers that you can fit to the driven wheels of a car to give it enough traction to drive on snow or ice. They will shred if they’re used on Tarmac, but they’re a good option if you need to get from your driveway or an ungritted side road to a gritted main road after it’s been snowing. 

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