Winter Tyres – Believe The Hype

I have to admit to being slightly sceptical about winter tyres. The idea of forking out several hundred pounds on a second set of tyres seemed like an indulgence more than a necessity. After all, we don’t get that much snow in the UK, do we? That was before I was given the opportunity to directly compare winter tyres with normal tyres. My eyes have been opened and my opinions changed. Let me explain why.

Michelin Alpin Winter Tyres On Snow

Winter tyres are designed to work on snow, ice, slush and cold, wet roads.

Winter Tyres – The Theory

The name ‘winter tyres’ is slightly misleading and conjures up images of battling through snow drifts. They should really be called ‘cold weather tyres’ as they are designed to work in colder environments and that means they work in more than just snowy conditions.

Cold weather tyres use a special rubber compound that is most effective at temperatures below 7c. It may surprise you to hear that average temperatures in the UK fall below 7c for about five months of the year, usually from November through to March. So you see why calling them winter tyres sells them short.

At this temperature the rubber compound in normal tyres starts to lose its elasticity. As the rubber starts to stiffen the surface of the tyre finds it harder to hold onto the road. Cold weather tyres stay softer and find it easier to mould themselves to the road surface and find more grip.

This applies to cold or water-logged tarmac as well as icy, slushy or snow-covered roads. In these conditions the cold weather tyre will find more traction when accelerating, more grip when cornering and will help you to stop in a much shorter distance.

Winter Tyres Could Save Your Skin

This theory was put to the test at the Porsche Experience Centre at Silverstone. Their specially designed proving ground recreates a number of slippery surfaces and is the ideal place to replicate some of the scary incidents you could encounter out on the road.

Take the kick plate, for example. Here I drove a standard BMW 320d onto a flooded skid pan while a sliding plate flicked the rear wheels randomly left or right, pitching the car into a spin. It’s a bit like hitting a patch of black ice on a real road and you suddenly find your car heading in a direction you don’t really want it to.

All I had to do was keep the power on, apply opposite lock and try to correct the car. With normal tyres this was difficult but not impossible, although on one occasion I did find myself heading backwards! With winter tyres this test was so much easier. The wheels regained grip more quickly and it was easier to catch the back end before the car spun around.

Winter Tyres Kick Plate

The kick plate was a great test of grip … and driver reactions!

On the same surface we tried straight line braking. With normal tyres the wheels locked up immediately, the ABS was constantly trying to release the brakes and I was helpless as the car (literally) sailed onwards across the tarmac, eventually slithering to a stop. When I tried the same test in the car with cold weather tyres we came to a halt much more quickly and much more safely. From speeds of under 30mph we stopped about 3 or 4 car lengths shorter than with normal tyres. That’s a huge difference at such low speeds.

Then there was the ice hill, a cascade of water running down a slippery section of tarmac. Either braking or swerving down the hill triggered understeer and sliding on the car with normal tyres. With the winter tyres understter was barely noticeable while the car came to a stop in a much shorter distance, just like we saw on the skid pan.

Winter Tyres Ice Hill

The ice hill showed just how well winter tyres work when braking and turning downhill

Winter Tyres Do Work On Performance Cars

There are those who say that the softer compound of a winter tyre is no good on a performance car and will ruin the handling. Well, I can safely say that’s not the case after a number of laps of Porsche’s handling circuit.

This time I was driving a pair of Porsche 911s and with 350bhp being squeezed through the rear wheels that should be a good enough test for any set of tyres.  I went out on the normal tyres first and, after a few exploratory laps, I started to push the 911 harder and harder. The 911 is a delight to drive on a circuit like this with plenty of feedback through the steering telling you how much grip is left, while the rear squirms gently as you squeeze the throttle pedal. This delicate feedback is one of the defining characteristics of the 911 but would a set of winter tyres mask those signals?

Switching to the winter tyres I was amazed to discover just how close they were in terms of performance. Not once did I feel like they were slowing me down and, if anything, they gave more feedback as the softer blocks allowed the rear to move around a little bit more. I think I actually preferred the winter tyres as the car felt a little bit looser and more communicative.

In terms of outright lap times I’m sure they wouldn’t be the equal of the normal tyres but they wouldn’t be that far off either. So it’s safe to say that a set of winter tyres won’t ruin the handling of your car on the road.

Winter Tyres Handling Circuit

Porsche 911s and Lotus Evoras were used to test the abilities of winter tyres on track

 

Winter Tyres Don’t Cost A Fortune

A complete set of tyres is expensive, right? We can’t all afford to go out and buy a complete set of tyres when we’ve already got a perfectly good set fitted to our cars.

It’s a valid point that can’t be ignored but have you taken a look at your insurance excess recently? How much is it? £100? £250? Maybe more?

Now picture yourself having a minor accident because you skidded on a patch of ice and slid into a stationary car in front. Suddenly you’re tangled up in a messy case of car accident litigation and stand to lose your excess to the insurance company. A set of cold winter tyres might have stopped you from having the accident in the first place and possibly paid for themselves in the process. Of course, that hypothetical shunt could so easily be more serious …

Don’t forget that while you’re using your cold weather tyres you won’t be using your summer tyres so they’ll last longer. Anecdotal evidence suggests you could even run your winter tyres all year round if you wanted to and not have them disentegrate in the hot summer weather. I was told by one of Porsche’s instructors that they were still running their tyres from last winter and had covered over 30,000 miles with plenty of life left in the tread.

Winter Tyres

Wouldn’t you rather have enough grip to cope with conditions like this?

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

There’s not much point in me telling you how good winter tyres are if I’m not prepared to put my hands in my own pocket, so that’s what I’ve decided to do. There’s a set of winter tyres heading my way that will soon be fitted onto the family runabout. The summer tyres can go in the garage and I can rest a little more easily knowing that my family is a bit safer on the roads. I’ll report back when they’re fitted and let you know how we’re getting on.

So don’t just do as I say, do as I do. You never know when you might need that extra grip.

A big thanks to the SMMT, Porsche GB, and Michelin for the invitation and the kind use of their images from the day.

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Author: Chris Auty

Voted the Breakthrough Blogger of 2013 by SEAT and the Guild of Motoring Writers , Chris has lived and breathed cars since he was old enough to say 'faster'. With a penchant for hot hatches and an allergy to public transport, he would much prefer to drive a bad car than never drive at all. Fortunately his family has learned to put up with this obsession and the internet has provided a channel for his ramblings.

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