► CAR's guide to snow and winter tyres
► Full independent tests to name the best
► Should you buy winter tyres for your car?
Interested in upgrading to winter tyres to keep your car going when the mercury plummets? It can be hard to know which tyres will work best at sub-zero temperatures - you’re often left perusing the EU labels in a jungle of undecipherable jargon.
Our sister magazine Auto Zeitung in Germany relies on neither official diagrams nor manufacturer labels. Instead it bought the latest crop of winter tyres anonymously at independent suppliers to complete the latest 2020 winter tyre test. It’s a very Germanic, thorough and complex industrial test standard that goes far beyond the label requirements.
These independent tests used the latest measurement technology and Arctic test facilities in Finland to find out which winter tyre deserves your cash. Read on for the full results.
Winter tyres: what we’re looking for
The official labels categorise tyres on efficiency, wet grip for braking and rolling noise - and classify each property with letters. To this we tested a range of parameters including deceleration, traction, steering precision and driving stability on various surfaces and under the same parallel conditions. We also rated comfort and resistance to aquaplaning (when the tyre floats up on standing water, losing grip).
Designing a winter tyre that can excel in every discipline is difficult. Tyre makers juggle compound, tread design and carcass construction to find the elusive sweet spot where the rubber can cut through ice and slush, find grip in all conditions - whether slippery or dry - and serve up ride comfort, peace and quiet for drivers. Oh, and tyres must also last a long time and not disintegrate when the temperature climbs. It’s a tough gig.
These are often conflicting goals; if you improve a tyre’s efficiency, for example, grip in wet conditions decreases - and vice versa. If you reduce the profile depth for more steering precision, the tyre will float faster. If you design more slats - or sipes - in the profile to improve grip on snow, dry grip becomes worse. In short: all-rounders are the exception.
How we tested the best winter tyres 2020
The Auto Zeitung tyre test is run annually with stringent rules so you can trust the results:
- All tyres are bought independently: a mix of 2018 and 2019 products (NB these are German market tyres, many of which are available in the UK too)
- Tests are independent with no manufacturer help. Each tyre is examined using reproducible driving manoeuvres at the limit on snow, wet and dry surfaces - with and without ESP stability control engaged. This is the only way we can say whether a tyre offers security during a spontaneous evasive manoeuvre. We also subjectively evaluate the comfort properties
- Each tyre has its rolling resistance tested on two different test stands, to see if it meets the EU label criteria
Only after these exhaustive tests are completed can we anoint the best winter tyres for your car.
Best winter tyres 2020: which ones should you buy?
Remember these conflicting goals. In our winter tyre test there were hardly any all-rounders. Most winter tyres are good at one thing, but struggle to top each of our individual tests.
Our test winner this year is the Goodyear UltraGrip Performance Gen-1. We tested it in a V-spec and it offers high safety reserves on snow and in dry conditions, and is particularly easy to grip on wet asphalt. Despite its overall strong performance, it failed to come first in any one discipline.
In heavy snow conditions, the Chinese-made Austone SP 901 gripped the best. However, the amount of silica in the rubber compound (essential for good wet grip) is so low that the tyre completely fails when the road is wet. It aquaplaned from 64kph (the Falken and Michelin reached around 80kph) and when braking from 62mph the SP 901 was still travelling at almost 54kph when the Michelin Alpin 5 had pulled to a standstill. Austone revised the asymmetrical profile since our test and claims better results.
The Michelin Alpin 5 has now been replaced by the 6, but even the outgoing tyre did particularly well in wet conditions and only just missed the test victory. It came second overall in our winter tyre test 2020.
Likewise, the Vredestein Wintrac Pro (third place) is a rain professional, but also offers very high driving safety on dry roads, just like the Nokian WR A4 in sixth place and Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 in fifth place. However, both tyres lost points in the tests on snow-covered roads. The fact that the Finn receives no recommendation from us - like the Continental TS 850 P in seventh place overall - is due to the long braking distances in the wet; it was still travelling at around 30kph when the Michelin was stationary.
Winter tyre test results in detail
||Winter tyre tested
|Goodyear UltraGrip Performance Gen-1
||The Goodyear achieved its test victory with very safe driving characteristics under all test conditions
||Michelin Alpin 5
||Outstanding in the wet and dry without problems - and with the best traction on snow
||Vredestein Wintrac Pro
||With the Wintrac Pro, Vredestein has created a balanced winter tire that fits all round
||Dunlop Winter Sport 5
||Very good performance on all surfaces. Brilliantly safe in adverse conditions
||Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3
||Whether on wet or dry road - the Pirelli is great. Somewhat inharmonious in the snow
||Nokian WR A4
||Best tyre on dry road, good in the snow, but the wet braking distances are disappointing
||Continental WinterContact TS 850 P
||The Conti reveals little wet grip. Best value in rolling resistance test, solid snow grip
||Nexen Winguard Sport 2
||The Nexen offers balanced services under all conditions - and at very fair prices
||Falken Eurowinter HS01
||Moderate in wet brake test and highest roll resistance, but best tyre in aquaplaning
||Maxxis Arctictrekker WP05
||Poor wet results cost the Maxxis many points. The new-gen WP06 should be better
||Fortuna Winter UHP
||Does well in the snow, but shows weaknesses in the brake test on wet and dry roads
||Austone SP 901
||Very good grip on snow, but a total failure when wet and therefore not recommended
||Ice and snow cause problems for the Goodride. Unsuitable as winter tyres
Do you need special tyres in British conditions?
British winters are typically not as harsh as those in mainland Europe, but we have our fair share of cold nights, black ice and - maybe a few times a year - proper snow. And if you live in northern or hilly conditions, you'll experience extremes of weather more frequently - it's no wonder many drivers are asking ‘Should I buy winter tyres?’
It’s a question more and more of us Brits are asking every year, so in this article we’ll guide you through the key issues; are snow tyres worth it, how much do they cost, and how do they even work?
What are winter tyres or cold weather tyres?
Firstly: ‘winter tyres’ or 'snow tyres' as we’re accustomed to calling them, is actually a misleading title. These aren’t massive chunky mud-plugging boots with knobbly, noisy treadblocks and spiked studs. They're cold-weather tyres, designed to work in lower temperatures, on wet and dry roads, as well as giving better performance on snow and ice – which, given the inconsistent gritting on our nation’s road network, is just as well. We need a do-it-all tyre.
How do winter tyres work?
Winter/cold-weather tyres contain more natural rubber than regular tyres, and are constructed from a softer compound. This allows them to stay supple as temperatures drop below 7 degrees C in conditions where a normal tyre becomes hard and less keyed-in to the asphalt. The result? Higher grip levels on the road, even when the tarmac isn't covered in white.
It’s not just all chemistry, though: look at a winter tyre up close, and you'll see the tread is different to a more conventional tyre. The contact patch of a winter tyre is more rugged: it's covered in thousands of ‘sipes’ – tiny channels or grooves cut into the rubber which help warm them up – while also displacing water and slush at a faster rate. Winter tyres can have up to 10 times more ‘sipes' than your average tyres.
On snow, these little crevices work together with a larger tread. If you were to use a regular tyre, its channels would quickly become clogged with compacted snow – making for less-than-confident handling. On the down-side, wobbly treadblocks mean cold-weather tyred cars are less responsive in milder conditions.
How much do they cost?
As you’d expect, they aren’t cheap. If we were to fit four winter wheels to our Ford Fiesta ST long-termer, we’d be looking at spending something around the £400 mark, and doing the same for our outgoing Volkswagen Arteon would cost us closer to £600.
Throw in the cost of another set of wheels to fit them on – which most people do – and it gets even pricier. Still, you can’t put a price on safety and peace of mind. And yes, you do have to get four, not two winter tyres; settling for just a pair for the driven wheels will do more harm than good, as this unbalances the whole vehicle.
Should I buy winter tyres?
In the snow, winter tyres are an obvious option. They make for safer, more confident driving, and they improve grip significantly – but they’re also a gamble. Sure, we often have a cold snap in a typical British winter – but you can't bank on it. It takes just one mild winter (like 2020's) for you to question the extra expense of buying an additional set of rubber.
Cars can become notoriously unruly on winter boots, with vehicles closer to the performance end of things – like a DB11 AMR, for example – spinning the wheels in fourth.
In snow and cold weather, a seasonal rubber compound, chunkier tread and sypes work well – but 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 and one that comes down to your budget, and the predicted weather for the next few months. In colder countries, getting winter tyres is an easy decision, but in our more temperate British climate, we can’t even rely on a cold snap.
That said, if you can afford a set of winter tyres, they'll do far more to keep you mobile than picking an all-wheel drive car. If you want added peace of mind, have somewhere to store an extra set of rims (some garages will do this for you, at a price...) and need to keep mobile this winter, just do it.