Why winter tyres?
It’s a sad fact that even a small amount of snow can bring the UK road network to a standstill. Although the majority of us rarely experience much in the way of snowfall, we do have a cold season that impacts our driving. Many of our neighbours on the Continent have to fit winter tyres from around October to Easter – is there any benefit in us doing the same?
The short answer is yes. Winter tyres aren't just for snow. They offer distinct benefits when driving in ambient temperatures of less than about 7°C. Thanks to the tyre compound's high silica content, winter tyres stay soft even when the temperatures drop below freezing, offering much more grip than summer tyres.
How to identify winter tyres
As well as being made from a softer rubber compound, a winter tyre’s tread pattern has more grooves that are deeper, and these offer better traction on snow. A side effect of the increased number of grooves is that the tyre displaces more surface water, so winter tyres grip better in the rain.
Don't confuse winter rubber with studded tyres (aka ice tyres), though – the latter are designed to be used in countries with severe winters and definitely aren't needed in a typical UK winter.
Changing to winter rubber when temperatures drop below 7°C means better grip, traction and stability in the rain and snow. As well as keeping you moving when everyone else is floundering in the snow, winter tyres do a good job of reducing your braking distance compared to a regular tyre.
But what are the drawbacks of winter tyres?
How much do winter tyres cost?
Obviously, there is an upfront cost involved when getting winter tyres. Although they're actually similar in price to regular summer tyres, you're having to fork out for a second set. And when I say 'set' I mean four tyres (more on that in a minute).
There's a potential ongoing cost, too, if you have the winter tyres fitted to the same wheels as your current tyres. That will involve you taking them to your favourite tyre dealer to have the current rubber removed, the winter rubber fitted and then the wheels balanced. They won't do that for free. And then you'll have to do the same again when you make the switch back to your summer tyres.
It's more cost-effective in the long run to buy a second set of wheels, so that when winter or spring comes, it’s a simple task to change all four wheels – and you can do this yourself at home, for free!
The winter wheels don't have to be the same sort of fancy alloys that your regular tyres sit on; steel wheels aren't as smart but they're more than good enough and are much cheaper to buy than alloys.
Just bear in mind that your winter tyres are likely to have a higher profile than your regular tyres, which means that the steel wheels will need to be a smaller diameter if you're to maintain speedo accuracy. Don't worry, there are plenty of websites that will guide you through the process.
Where do I put my winter tyres in summer?
If you're lucky you'll have room in the garage or garden shed. If not, and your other half isn't keen on the idea of using a stack of tyres as an impromptu coffee table in the living room, some tyre fitting centres offer storage facilities for around £15 per wheel, per season.
So, they're brilliant in the colder months, even if we don't get any snow, but winter tyres aren't so good when temperatures rise above 7°C. The tyre compound will begin to overheat, reducing grip, and the tyre will wear quickly, so swap them for the regular tyres when the long-range weather forecast suggests spring is on the way.
It's also worth noting that most winter tyres tend to generate more road noise than the summer equivalent because of the tread design. It's something to consider if you cover a lot of motorway miles, because the high-speed droning may get on your nerves.
Conclusion: should you fit winter tyres?
If you can afford it, and you drive predominantly in ambient temperatures of less than 7°C then yes, you should.
What are the alternatives to winter tyres?
If you don't have the time or money to get winter tyres but want to stay mobile if winter shows its true colours, there are some alternatives:
1 All-season tyres
These tyres can be used on the vehicle all year round, but they are a bit of a compromise. They have more silica in the compound and more grooves than summer tyres, but fewer than winter tyres. So they won’t perform as well as winter tyres in the cold, or as well as summer tyres when it’s warm. But, at least you only need one set of wheels or tyres.
2 Snow chains or snow socks
As the name implies, these are only intended for use on snow. The chains or socks must be fitted to the wheels before you drive onto the snow and they must be removed as soon as you reach clean asphalt.
Without doubt, they greatly increase grip, but the chains can be noisy and the socks wear fast. They can be awkward to fit, although with practice it can be achieved in around 15 seconds per wheel. However, if you really want to drive on roads with a high level of snow, they’re pretty much essential (some European ski resorts enforce them).
How much do snow chains cost? Expect to pay from around £70 a pair for a decent set of chains and about £45 for socks.
3 Fit winter tyres to the driven wheels
It sounds like an attractive option, just putting winter tyres on the powered wheels (eg. on the front wheels of front-wheel-drive vehicles), but the difference between the grip levels generated by the different tyres on different axles could make the vehicle quite unstable when braking or cornering, so it’s not recommended.
4 Slow down
Regardless of the time of year, you should always drive appropriately for the conditions encountered. In snowy or icy conditions, vehicle speeds should be greatly reduced. Obviously this won’t stop you losing traction or sliding, but at least any possible impact will be minor.
Martynn Randall is technical editor at Haynes and has been with us for 27 years. He's written more than 60 Haynes publications and has owned more than 85 cars and 60 motorbikes... so far!