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tyres on a snowy country road

Winter tyres

If there are two things that don’t mix, it’s conventional summer tyres and icy roads. They’re the motoring equivalent of strawberries and mustard, or lamb chops with clotted cream. You just don’t want to go there. But if you’re reliant on your car to transport you whatever the weather, what can you do to keep moving when the temperatures plummet? Investing a few hundred quid in a set of winter tyres is the simple answer.

When the temperature drops below seven degrees centigrade, the rubber in conventional tyres hardens and grip is reduced. Winter tyres feature a compound which stays soft even when the mercury drops below zero, so getting going is easier, while braking distances are reduced too – from 30mph, you could stop in just 35 metres compared with the more usual 43 metres. As a result, you can get going more easily, stop more quickly, and when you corner your car will feel much more stable.

For years, some drivers in mainland Europe have been compelled to fit winter rubber in low temperatures. It’s one of the reasons why Scandinavian countries don’t grind to a halt when the snow hits; they just fit their winter tyres and keep driving. Recent harsh winters in the UK and lots of publicity has led to an increasing number of drivers here adopting European practice, but many drivers remain unconvinced.

If you’re sceptical, this Tyresafe video that shows the difference between summer and winter tyres when driving on ice  will be a real eye opener. And just because your car has four-wheel drive, don’t assume you’re fine on summer tyres all year round, as this Autocar video clearly demonstrates. Auto Express tried something similar, with much the same results.

According to Kwik Fit, most of the UK has an average temperature of less than seven degrees for the December to February winter period. Met Office figures show that most of the country has a minimum temperature below 3˚C, and also that most of the country has ground frost for 40 out of the 90 days of winter. From the Midlands northwards, snow typically falls for more than 10 days during the winter period, so there’s a good chance that in the coming months you could fall foul of the wintry conditions.

If you’re tempted, bear in mind that winter tyres typically carry a price premium of 5-10% and that as with any tyres they’re rated for the maximum amount of speed and weight they can carry. Typically, winter rubber has a lower speed rating than the summer tyre for your car. However, even an H-rated tyre has a maximum speed of 131mph, so in winter conditions this shouldn’t compromise your driving.

What matters just as much is that you have either summer or winter tyres at each corner – but not a mixture of the two. That’s because grip levels differ significantly between the two types; any decent tyre fitter will refuse to fit anything less than a complete set at a time.

If your car is in need of some fresh rubber right now, the obvious thing to do would be to fit winter tyres and keep them on there. However, there are safety and fiscal reasons to avoid doing this; not only do winter tyres wear out faster once the temperatures rise, but they can overheat because of the way the rubber compound is manufactured.

As a result, unless you do a huge mileage and you’re likely to get through a set of tyres in just three or four months, you’ll need either a second set of wheels onto which you can fit your winter rubber, or you’ll need to get the tyres changed over when the temperatures start to rise. Whichever route you take you’ll need to either store the winter wheels and tyres, or just the tyres, during the summer months. Some tyre outlets offer a storage service so you don’t have to find the space; expect to pay around a tenner to have your rubber housed.

It’s undeniable that winter tyres are an expense and also potentially a faff – especially if you don’t do a lot of miles. If you don’t want to invest in a set of winter tyres for your car, but you need to keep moving when it gets icy, a set of chains is one alternative, but fitting them can be a real pain. That’s why snow socks have become more popular in recent years.

You can fit snow socks in a couple of minutes, they give up to 98% of the grip available from chains and they work just as well on fresh snow as on compacted ice. Suitable for speeds of up to 25mph, they coul be just the job to get you going and help you shed speed in tricky conditions, at a fraction of the cost of winter tyres – but use them on Tarmac and they’ll be wrecked.

If you’re now converted and you think you’d better invest in some winter tyres for your car, you’d better get shopping quickly. Because the demand for winter tyres is seasonal, you need to plan ahead. It’s no good waiting for the first snow of the year to fall because by then your local tyre centre will probably have sold out of the size you need.

Key points:

  • Winter tyres aren’t studded; they’re just made of a different rubber compound so they stay more flexible when the temperatures drop.
  • You need to invest in five winter tyres, not four – don’t forget to put a winter tyre on your spare wheel too.
  • Winter tyres tend to be marginally more expensive than conventional tyres, but if you fit them only for the coldest winter months you’ll get several years’ use out of them.
  • The amount of tread on your regular tyres makes all the difference; their performance will never match a set of decent winter tyres when it’s icy, but more tread will help.
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