I’m not a natural when it comes to spending money. I’ll quite happily wait until something’s on offer rather than buy it at full price. Downgrading to supermarket brands isn’t an issue when I look at the savings on the till receipt. Big purchases can take weeks of research and agonising before I finally commit to spending any money. Some would call me a cheapskate. I’d prefer to think of myself as thrifty.
There is, however, one area where I refuse to cut costs and that’s when it comes to keeping my car on the road. It gets serviced on time and any tweaks or repairs are done immediately. Keeping the service history up to date is one thing but another area where I’m particularly fussy is in the choice of tyres.
Tyres are one of those areas where it’s easy and very tempting to cut costs. After all, they’re just four circles of black rubber; they must all be the same. Why spend £100 for a tyre when you can get one for £50?
What you don’t see when you compare tyres is the years of research that may (or may not) have gone into their making. You might notice a difference in the tread pattern but otherwise you’re looking at two round lumps of rubber. What you can’t see are the chemical mixtures and processes that decide how well the rubber compound works and that’s what separates a good tyre from a bad one.
What you have to remember is your tyres are the only thing that keep your car on the road. They determine how quickly it can accelerate, how fast it’ll go around a corner and how far you’ll travel after you’ve stomped on the brake pedal.
Having been invited to sample the difference between premium and budget tyres at Continental’s tyre testing facility in Germany, I walked away with an appreciation of the huge amount of research and testing that goes into tyres. I also learnt that when it comes to tyres, penny pinching is a completely false economy.
So how did I come to that conclusion? By trying the different tyres for myself, back to back, on a track. It was an eye-opening experience.
Oversteering Around The Skid Pan
The first test of the day set the tone for what was to follow. Fit a MINI Cooper with half worn premium tyres on the front and a set of brand new, but lightly scrubbed, budget tyres on the back. Head out onto a circular water-logged skidpan and what do you get? Oversteer. Lots and lots of oversteer from a little hatchback that would usually understeer in a wet corner.
At anything over 35mph the back end of the MINI would break loose and you’d have to correct the skid. Lift off the throttle and, again, the back end wanted to drift round. What the hell were these budget tyres coated in?
Swap the tyres around, with new budgets on the front and half worn premiums on the back, and things are even worse. Above 30mph the front is pulled to the outside of the circle as if there’s a giant magnet trying to drag it wide. Lifting off the throttle achieves very little to correct the skid, it’s just a case of hang onto the wheel and hope the tyres find some grip before they find the grass.
Shocking stuff, but if you’re wondering how it relates to the real world picture yourself pulling off a motorway at speed onto a rain-soaked slip road. With a set of cheap tyres the skid-pan scenario could suddenly seem very, very real.
Out On The Handling Course
The next test was in a pair of identical rear wheel drive 1-series BMWs. One was fitted with a full set of new budgets, the other with a set of new premiums. The ContiDrome has a small handling circuit, very compact, very technical with tight corners and lined with water sprinklers. Our mission was to lap this circuit as quickly as the wet conditions would allow.
The first few laps were on the budget tyres. As soon as I set off it I could sense the steering was unnaturally light and that was backed up alarming understeer into the first corner. Narrowly avoiding the kerb I was then treated to a dose of oversteer as I accelerated away. That was to be the pattern for the three laps. Understeer, oversteer, any kind of steer except what I really wanted, all the time accompanied by the flashing light of the overworked ESP system.
On the premium tyres the experience was completely different. Front end grip was dramatically improved and you could sense how much grip was available through the steering wheel. The rear wheels felt like they were glued to the track and it took a good dollop of throttle to provoke the rear into letting go.
The difference in grip was such that we completed three laps on the premium tyres in the time it took the budgets to do two laps. We were stood drinking coffee before the other team returned.
The message here is that the handling of your car, particularly in the wet, can vary dramatically depending on the rubber you’ve fitted. On premium tyres the limits of grip are far higher and the car’s handling much more predictable. On budget tyres the car is nervous, unpredictable, and much, much slower.
Will You Stop In Time?
In an emergency you need to stop quickly. The simple rule is that the shorter the distance in which you come to a complete stop the better. Yet again, the budget tyres proved frighteningly bad.
For this test we were inside Continental’s all-new and high-tech AIBA testing facility. Here two identical Golfs were flung down a long straight track by a powerful mag-rail system (similar to that used to power the Shanghai TransRapid train). It can propel a Golf to 60mph in just 3 seconds – quite a bit quicker than a GTI can manage!
As the Golf hits a strip of tarmac a robotic arm applies the brake to recreate a full emergency stop. With hazard lights flashing and the ABS preventing any locking of the front wheels the Golf came to a halt directly opposite my vantage point on the observation deck. This was the car fitted with premium tyres.
A minute later the second Golf, wearing a set of budget boots, was flung down the track at identical speed, braking at exactly the same sport with exactly the same force thanks to the precision of its computer controlled operator. It flew past me, the ABS clearly working harder to prevent the wheels from locking up, before coming to a stop some eighteen metres further down the track.
That’s six car lengths. A big gap. The difference between a close shave and a serious accident.
It Doesn’t Cost That Much
A lot of people worry about how much it costs to fit premium tyres but when it comes to running a car they’re relatively inexpensive. A set of new front tyres should easily last you 20,000 miles, rear tyres twice that distance. That’s roughly two years of use from the front tyres for the average motorist and four years for the rear.
For a typical family car you should be able to pick up a premium tyre for £100. That works out at £200 over 2 years on the front axle and £200 over 4 years on the rear, or £150 a year for all four corners. For our budget tyres the equivalent cost is £75 a year (assuming they last as long as the premium tyres, and most don’t).
So the difference between our premium and budget tyres is just £75 a year. That’s less than the cost of a tax disc for most cars. It works out at just over £1 a week, much less than the cost of a frothy coffee or a Sunday pint and a lot less than a packet of fags.
Are you sure you can’t stretch to a set of better tyres when the advantages are so obvious?
Don’t Be A Cynic
The more cynical amongst you would dismiss this event as nothing more than a marketing ploy from a tyre manufacturer feeling the heat from cheaper competitors. Don’t be a cynic. Believe me when I say the difference between a good set of tyres from a premium manufacturer and a set from a cheap brand is like night and day.
This isn’t like comparing cornflakes from the leading brand against a supermarket’s budget variety. Tyres are one of the most important parts of your car and can literally mean the difference between life and death in an emergency. Do you really want to take the risk just to save a few quid?
I can now categorically say that I will never, ever fit budget tyres to my car. My family’s safety is too valuable to be left to the vague clutches of a set of cheap tyres. I implore you to do the same. I hope you don’t have to but one day you might thank me for that advice.