As the temperature drops and thoughts turn to winter, many buyers will be wondering once again whether it’s worth investing in a set of winter tyres. Here’s our guide.
Winter tyres have been the source of plenty of debate in recent years. First, a series of bitterly cold winters in the UK caused the public to wake up to their existence and start asking whether they should buy a set.
But last year’s warm winter caused plenty of people to go back the other way, writing them off as a waste of money and wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.
Just what are the facts surrounding winter tyres, though, and is it worth owning a set here in the UK? Here’s our guide.
What is a winter tyre?
There are three main types of tyre one might consider using on the road in the UK. One is the summer tyre; this is what the majority of British drivers use and what you might think of as a “normal” tyre.
Summer tyres have a relatively hard compound, which means they soften off in milder temperatures to provide lots of grip – most of the time, reckoned to be above 7oC. That, however, makes them less useful when the temperature drops below that figure, when they’re too hard and can’t provide enough grip.
Winter tyres, more accurately called “cold weather” tyres, feature a snowflake symbol on the side, and are made from a softer compound. That means they’re still soft enough to provide the grip you need in temperatures below 7oC. They also have a different tread pattern, with fine grooves or “sipes” cut into each tread block that bite into the snow better.
Fitting winter tyres makes it much easier to get around if snow does fall
It’s worth pointing out that these tyres are different to studded tyres, which feature plastic or metal studs embedded in the rubber, a bit like a football boot. These are not legal for use on the road in the UK.
Between winter and summer tyres sits a third way: the all-season tyre. The aim of this tyre is to offer the best of both worlds; a softer compound than a winter tyre so that it can be used in both cold and mild temperatures, but still featuring sipes to help with grip in snow and slush. These tyres are reckoned to be useful down to -5oC.
Which is best for use in the UK?
On the face of it, the all-season tyre should be best-suited for use in the UK, as it is rated best for use in the sorts of temperatures we face throughout the vast majority of the year.
However, many experts consider there to be a “jack of all trades, master of none” aspect to the all-season tyre; while it’s better in cold temperatures than a summer tyre, and vice versa, it isn’t as good as keeping two specialist tyres and switching between them from season to season.
The question of whether we need to use winter tyres in the UK is the most hotly-debated. It all centres around how much of the season you think you’ll spend below 7oC. If you find yourself below that temperature for most of the winter, then buying a separate set of winter tyres and changing them over every October and March is the optimum solution.
Winter tyres perform better than summer ones even when the road surface itself is clear
Otherwise, sticking with your summer tyres, or alternatively, buying a set of all-season tyres to run throughout the year, might be a better bet.
So winter tyres aren’t just good for snow and ice?
No. In fact, current research suggests winter tyres are better than summer tyres any time the temperature drops below 7oC. That means a car fitted with winter tyres should stop more quickly and be less prone to skidding in any weather conditions if the temperature drops below this mark.
But buying an extra set of tyres is expensive, isn’t it?
Yes. Winter tyres are often slightly more expensive than summer tyres to buy, but having an extra set is quite a significant expense – especially if you team them with an extra set of wheels to make switching over even easier, just like they do in some European countries.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that although you have to pay for two sets of tyres, they also last twice as long; in other words, much of the extra cost of the winter set is mitigated by the fact that they take the load off your summer set for half the year.
And as for the spare set of wheels, you can always sell them on when the time comes to part ways with your car, and recoup a chunk of your outlay.
But do winter tyres really work?
Yes. Not only do winter tyres reduce stopping distances in snow and ice, but also in wet weather below 7oC. What’s more, they help with cornering performance, enabling you to turn the car in circumstances where you might otherwise skid straight on.
Four-wheel-drive cars benefit from winter tyres too
But I’ve got a four-wheel drive – I don’t need winter tyres, do I?
It’s certainly true that four-wheel drive gives better traction in snow and ice, meaning you can move off more easily. However, it only supplies a limited amount of extra help when you’re negotiating a corner, and none at all when you’re stopping.
If you have a 4x4, though, and fit it with winter tyres, you’re giving yourself the best chance of coping with whatever the winter weather throws at you.
Can’t I just buy a set of winter tyres and leave them on all year?
Yes, you can, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Above 7oC, the softer compound gives the same effect as running summer tyres in winter conditions – that is to say, longer stopping distances and a heightened proclivity for skidding in corners.
What’s more, winter tyres wear down more quickly in higher temperatures, which means you’ll end up having to replace your tyres more frequently
Do I have to tell my insurance company if I fit winter tyres?
It varies from insurer to insurer, but nowadays most insurance companies won’t charge you any extra for fitting winter tyres, just as long as the tyre size is the same as that originally fitted to the car by the manufacturer. It’s always worth checking with your insurer first, though, as some insurers still need you to tell them about the change, even if they won’t add anything to your premium
Snow socks are a cheaper alternative to winter tyres - but they're only temporary, and aren't as effective
Can’t I just fit winter tyres to the two driving wheels of my car?
No. On a front-wheel-drive car, you’ll find that the rear wheels are more likely to skid, which could cause you to enter a spin when you’re braking or driving down a hill, while on a rear-wheel-drive car, this course of action could result in your car skidding straight on in corners or failing to stop in time. If you’re going to fit winter tyres, you need to fit them to all four wheels.
Are there any cheaper alternatives to winter tyres?
You can buy snow socks, which are large blankets that fit around your normal tyres and give extra grip in snowy conditions. The good thing about these is that they cost a lot less than winter tyres, and can be installed quickly and easily when the snow falls, unlike winter tyres which have to be fitted for most of the winter or in advance of any snow fall.
However, the downside is that they aren’t as effective as winter tyres, and won’t provide as much grip or traction as a result. What’s more, they are only a temporary measure – you can’t leave them on for the whole winter, and they won’t give any extra benefit when the weather isn’t snowy.
The same goes for snow chains, although the circumstances in which you can use these are even rarer – the road must be completely covered and protected by a layer of snow and ice, as otherwise they damage the road surface. Otherwise, you could be liable for a fine.
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Is it a legal requirement to fit winter tyres?
In Britain, there is no legal requirement to use winter tyres, and there are currently no plans to introduce such legislation. However, in some countries with harsher winters than ours, that’s not the case.
Austria, for example, requires all drivers to equip their cars with winter tyres with a minimum tread depth of 4mm between the months of November and April, while Germany requires all vehicles to be fitted with winter tyres when the weather is wintry. Punishments for non-compliance can be severe, and can include fines of up to €5,000 and insurance being declared void.
If you regularly drive to or through one of these countries, therefore, it might make the case for buying winter tyres a no-brainer.
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