Should I buy winter tyres?
We investigate whether it's worth splashing out on some specialist rubber to improve your car’s traction and braking in adverse conditions...
If there’s one thing you can predict about British weather, it’s that it’s 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 the next winter turns out to be, well, wintery? Isn’t it better to play safe and fit the safest tyres for the likely weather and temperature?
And what about so-called 'all-weather' tyres? In theory these promise good performance across a broader range of temperatures than either summer or winter tyres. That could make them the answer to the winter tyres conundrum. Fit tyres that work well in both warm and cold weather and you’ll be able to end the inconvenience of changing tyres. Or is the all-weather tyre a year-round compromise that isn’t ideal in any conditions?
We’re going to examine the pros and cons of both winter and all-weather tyres, and look at how you can minimise the expense and inconvenience of swapping tyres to suit the changing seasons.
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, but, 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, which is 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.
Are winter tyres safer?
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 .
Why don’t more drivers switch to winter tyres?
Given that winter tyres are proven to be better than summer tyres in adverse conditions, you’d think that more drivers would make the switch each year. After all, the tyre industry generally recommends fitting winter tyres between October and March, when temperatures are often below the 7deg C tipping point.
In practice, though, tyre retailers report that demand for winter tyres tends to depend on the weather rather than the calendar.
"Demand has fluctuated quite a lot," explains Martin Barber, Halfords Autocentre’s product marketing manager. "After two years of snow, many suppliers brought lots of winter stock into the UK from Europe anticipating more snow, and there was some more demand. However, in the last three years when we’ve had virtually no snow, demand has fallen."
Halfords has also noticed a difference between rural and urban areas, with more demand from those living in remote locations. Townies, it seems, are more ready to cross their fingers and hope that council gritting lorries will keep the roads driveable in a cold snap.
"Very few drivers actively plan to put winter tyres on their car in November and December each year and then have them removed in the spring,” says Barber. “They tend to buy them as a reactive purchase when we get snow on the ground."
It’s understandable. A set of winter tyres can seem like an unnecessary expense during a mild winter. However, waiting until the roads turn white ignores the benefit of winter tyres in wet and cold conditions, and it means drivers could be without winter tyres when they most need them. Tyre fitters can also struggle to keep up with the surge in demand caused by a sudden spell of snowy weather.
"We always recommend that people buy early if they want winter tyres because they are much more likely to get some then, rather than once the snow has already started to fall," says Barber.
How much does it cost to buy and fit winter tyres?
It’s not only mild winters and worries over insurance that make consumers think twice about fitting winter tyres. There’s also the cost.
As with summer tyres, the price will vary depending on the brand, model and size of tyre. However, expect to pay £60 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.
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.
Adding to the hassle-factor is the need to find somewhere to store summer tyres (and possibly wheels, too) over the winter. Some tyre specialists and franchised dealers offer a ‘tyre hotel’ service.
The cost varies, but here are a few examples. Audi dealers charge £125 for the year for storing a set of summer or winter tyres. Of Ford’s network, 178 dealers offer a tyre hotel with prices averaging £80 per winter for four tyres; Vauxhall dealers charge £72 per season with a maximum ‘stay’ of eight months; and Volkswagen’s network charges £120 for a full year’s storage, including two tyre swaps.
Although the cost of fitting winter tyres may seem to be mounting, 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. You should also be able to save money on the cost of buying winter tyres by shopping around.
What are the pros and cons of all-season tyres?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could have the cold weather grip of winter tyres without the expense and inconvenience? To a degree, that’s what all-season tyres promise.
The first all-season tyres were based on winter tyres with modifications to give them a broader range of ability. However, in 2015 Michelin introduced the CrossClimate, an all-season tyre that it describes as “the very first summer tyre certified for use in winter”.
It uses a mixture of rubber compounds to maintain grip across a range of temperatures and weather conditions. The V-shaped tread pattern with sipes also gives strong performance in dry weather as well as in snow. And the CrossClimate is approved as a winter tyre, so it can be used in countries with a legal winter tyre requirement.
This type of tyre makes sense if you want to avoid swapping tyres. It is effective in a wide range of conditions. Although, it can’t quite match the winter tyres on snow.