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Updated! Do we really need winter tyres in the UK?
Stuff We've Done
06 February 2012 08:55
Should you fit winter tyres? After several hard winters [global readers note; harsh in the moderate British sense], we thought it prudent to try out some of the winter tyre programmes offered by car manufacturers here in the UK.
So CAR fitted winter tyres to a selection of our long-term test vehicles: the BMW M5, Audi A1 and Infiniti M35h to name but three. Problem was, it didn't snow until the first week of February.
As every mild, grey - but not white - day of spring passed, we realised that winter tyres acted as a hedge bet. We wagered there'd be a cold snap. And we hoped they'd stop us spinning into a hedge.
Now we've had significant snow across much of Britain, we've all had a chance to try out our winter tyres in, like, actual snow. Have our views changed?
The arguments for winter tyres
It might not have snowed for most of winter 2011-12 in the east midlands, home to CAR HQ, but these are winter tyres, remember. With their different tread compound and pattern, they're designed to work in all winter weather, not just snow. So they should be boosting traction and safety in all temperatures below 8deg C, not just in the white stuff.
I've noticed superior grip on the Continental ContiWinterContacts on our Infiniti M when driving on frost-bitten bitumen early in the morning. Prod the brake pedal and where you might expect to slither, you feel the winter tyres bite. It's impressive stuff. That's before the snow. Now we've had a proper dump at the weekend, the M drove without so much as a rear-wheel drive slither on the school run this morning. That chunky tread pattern grips the snow impressively, especially when the Drive selector is turned around to its Snow seting to ease throttle response.
There's also the argument that you're saving the wear on your summer tyres by fitting winter tyres. Pit-stopping for seasonal rubber should in theory split the wear evenly between winter and summer tyres, so we could actually be extending their life (albeit paying for two sets of boots).
And let's not forget snow tyres mean that we haven't had to go and splash out on a 4x4 in addition to our M5, A1 and M35h. Now it has snowed in winter 2012, I reckon we'll all be converts. I guarantee it.
The arguments against winter tyres
Infiniti would charge £1440 for a set of winter Contis, including the fitting and storage. That's an awful lot to pay for what is essentially a bet. Shopping around will trim that bill south somewhat, but remember supply of winter tyres in the UK is patchy at best. We idly shopped around for winter tyres on my wife's Qashqai and couldn't find any snow boots the right size.
But what is more alarming is winter tyres' effects on the handling of our cars when it's not snowed. Our M5 long-termer has become notoriously unruly on its winter boots. Road test ed Ben Pulman came in wide-eyed the other day reporting wheelspin in fourth on a greasy road.
You see, that seasonal rubber compound and chunkier tread complete with sypes (grooves to channel blocks of snow) mean they don't behave as they should if it's really mild and above the optimum operating range. We've driven numerous cars shod with winter tyres that have a chunkier ride quality, woollier steering and slippier handling in certain conditions.
It's a complicated argument. Over to my peers...
CAR's road testers' opinion on winter tyres
'The question for UK drivers is does it make sense to make your car much safer for a few days of very severe weather when the pay-off is making it much more dangerous for 90% of the time? In cold countries it's a no-brainer, but here it's less clear. After last winter everybody seemed to decide that the next ice age had come, but this year we've barely had a frost. It's a gamble either way, but winter tyres aren't cheap. Who can afford that gamble?'
Greg Fountain, CAR managing editor
'Fitting winter tyres to your car in the UK is a bit like taking out car insurance: you'd rather not bother with the expense but the benefit when the bad thing happens (be that snow in the case of tyres, or a crash for insurance) is just a huge warm blanket of relief wrapping around you. I'm a bit annoyed that my longterm M5 is on winters at the moment, because they absolutely ruin it in these unseasonably warm conditions: traction is hopeless, and the precision with which you can balance the car on the edge of adhesion on the standard-fit Michelin Pilot Super Sports is gone. But every time I hear a rumour of incoming snow, I breathe a sigh of relief because I've driven on winters in places with proper snow – Finland, Sweden and southern Germany – enough to know how well they perform and what a difference they make. I also remember sliding hopelessly down a Cumbrian hillside at 2mph in my summer-tyre-wearing Merc E63 AMG estate last winter. All I could do was steer and, frankly, it was something of a miracle that I didn't ricochet off the dry-stone walls or pinball into the collection of crashed cars already waiting at the bottom of the hill. I'd have done anything to have been on winters right then. For me, it's a question of balancing the odds, and it all reminds me of our government's dilemma of how well to grit the roads: to prepare for a really terrible winter, they need to invest very heavily in something that probably won't be required, but if they don't invest enough and it does snow, the entire nation will moan endlessly at them (yes, the same nation that could also fit winter tyres if it was that bothered about getting stuck). Personally, I'm happy on summer tyres so long as it doesn't snow (ie I'm not particularly bothered that winter tyres offer an advantage in very cold conditions too, not just snowy ones). I'm also fortunate to live somewhere that's pretty well connected by some fairly major roads. So I'd take the risk and stick with summer tyres, even if it meant the M5 would be next to useless for a few days every year.'
Ben Barry, CAR deputy editor (features)
'Our Audi A1 feels like it's on stilts a bit with its winter tyres - and the steering is definitely a bit lighter. To be honest, it's not been frosty enough this winter to really notice the difference. But I'm very glad they're fitted - just in case it does snow. Winter tyres may cost a lot, but they're a useful safety net!'
Sarah-Jayne Harrison, CAR web producer
'Now it has snowed, our M hybrid behaved impeccably on its winter Continental tyres. On summer rubber, it can be a bit lively - even in the dry. With its electric motor boosting torque at low speeds, it's very powerful and can slither around pulling out of junctions. But driving sensibly in the 2012 snow, it's proved very grippy. Even driving on ungritted small side roads and driveways, the Contis have found purchase, with only a few wheelspins in deeper snow when parking. I'm pretty amazed by how well the M has driven in the snow on winter tyres. I now see what all the fuss is about.'
Tim Pollard, CAR associate editor