We are increasingly seeing tyre manufacturers and fitters trying to sell us winter tyres as soon as the slightest hint of a frost hits the ground, but what are these tyres good for and realistically do you consider getting them?
What are winter tyres?
Let's start this guide by getting to the bottom of what winter tyres are and how they differ to normal tyres. Winter tyres are designed to remain supple during colder temperatures, therefore maximising traction, whereas summer tyres can get harder or freeze, if you will, as the weather gets chillier.
Winter tyres use a softer rubber compound and usually include more natural rubber in the mix. The whole surface is covered in little jagged slits also know as sipes in order to increase traction in icy conditions. And as would make sense, they generally have a deeper tread than your usual summer tyres.
Why are winter tyres recommended?
Winter tyres are good at gripping the road in cold conditions, under 7 degrees centigrade, and can improve traction on slippery surfaces. The sipes we mentioned earlier are key to this grip as they not only improve traction due to their edges but they allow for localised movement of the rubber as the softer compound these tyres are made of clings to the road. Summer tyres would effectively stay rigid in these conditions and be unable to maintain their grip as effectively.
These tyres are also designed to be able to collect snow in their deeper grooves, as interestingly nothing grips better on snow than snow itself. These deeper grooves are also able to help get you out of a sticky aquaplaning situation as the extra-deep tread helps disperse surface water, helping the tyre to pass through the water rather than on top of it.
What can't winter tyres do?
This one might sound obvious but winter tyres aren't very good at doing anything when the temperatures are over 7 degrees. If you forget to change them back as the temperatures get warmer you could see longer braking distances and less grip when driving into bends. The softer rubber means you'll see an increased wear rate if winter tyres are regularly used in warmer conditions.
When should I use winter tyres?
Winter tyres aren't just designed for snow and ice, they are designed to be used in all winter conditions so long as the temperature is under 7 degrees.
You should fit them as soon as it is predicted the weather is about to turn and obviously not when it has already started snowing as this is a little bit too late, as you will still have to drive in the snow to the fitter which very much defeats the object of having winter tyres.
It is also suggested that you get a second pair of rims especially for these tyres, steel is recommended as these are less likely to corrode when exposed to grit, and they are also less expensive to repair or replace if you accidentally hit a kerb. Also it might seem obvious but make sure you have a winter spare - using a summer tyre with three winter ones will make handling more unpredictable with three different grip variations on each corner.
Don't forget to take your winter tyres back off again once the weather gets warmer. It is recommended you store them in a garage or shed, but if you don't have one of these then several fast-fit centres, car dealerships and storage companies offer a storage service but you will have to check them out for prices as they vary.
What alternatives do you have?
There are now all-season tyres making their way into the market more and more, they can be left on your car all year round, but in general don't perform as well as summer tyres in summer or winter tyres in winter. There is also a new class of tyre entering the market that is essentially a summer tyre with the needed grip of a winter tyre. This means that they can legally be used all year round in countries that enforce the use of winter tyres.
There are also things called tyre socks which work exactly what you'd imagine, and are a quick fix to get you off a snowy drive or ungritted side road. They wrap around your tyre much like a sock wraps around your foot and come in at around £50 a pair.
You can also use tyre chains for when it is particularly snowy outside.
Winter tyre verdict?
If you live in an urban area where the roads are well gritted and there is less need for your tyres to have extra grip, then it is your decision if you invest in winter tyres but you probably won't need them. If you live down a country lane or rural where the gritter won't get to you and it is a while to a main road, winter tyres are recommended as you would be more susceptible to ice and snow.
If you decide not to fit winter tyres check that your tyres have at least 3mm of tread left across 75% of the tyre (here's how). You should also check for any signs of damage to the tread or sidewalls as this could cause sudden tyre failure, which will make your car harder to control in poor conditions. About 20% off all breakdowns happen because of tyres so make sure you check yours.