Firstly let’s clarify what a “winter tyre” is….
These tyres are designed to operate at low temperatures (specifically below 7 c due to the very soft compound used) and have a more open tread pattern with larger tread blocks with each tread block having “sipes” (small jagged edges) on its surface, these tread blocks are designed to move considerably more than on “summer” tyres therefore creating heat and helping the soft compound of the tyre create grip on cold wet roads etc.
There is a huge amount of debate surrounding the use of winter tyres, in Germany for instance they are a legal requirement from November to February, but Germany suffers from considerably harsher winters than the UK. The Scottish Parliament are putting together a working group to investigate the issue of tyre safety during the winter months (I for one await with interest) although the English government have no plans to do anything similar.
Ok, let’s get a few facts and myths out of the way now
The companies who make these tyres claim all sorts of things for them, increased grip in the cold and wet, improved stopping distances in the same conditions and, now this is the one I have an issue with, they enable you to stop on ice in control, I’m sorry guys, they just don’t! Unless your tyres are chained or have studs in them nothing grips ice, certainly nothing made of rubber.
Technically speaking, yes, they do provide more grip in cold wet conditions due to the aforementioned compound and specific tread block design including the better tread clearing channels (the grooves between the tread on the tyre) and drivers who use them do report increased confidence, better braking and less tendancy for the tyre to slide or skip sideways going over a bad road surface. So from a safety stand point, yes winter tyres are worth it.
A Technical downside that I cant find any reference to but seems blatantly obvious to me from my time in motorsport is, due to the extra tread movement of these tyres an excessive level of vibration must be originated from the tyre, vibration the suspension and drivetrain was never designed to cope with yet it still absorbs, this must accelerate wear to components like ball joints, suspension bushes and CV/UJ joints, thus increasing servicing/mot preparation labour.
Let’s move away from the technical and move onto a subject most of us who aren’t paying 50% income tax are concerned about, cost.
This is where the argument for winter tyres starts to wobble more than a little.
In May, I had a set of Toyo Proxes T1R’s fitted to my car at the cost of £90 a corner, I chose these tyres as they grip brilliantly last more than 5 minutes and give the best braking stability I can find. Now if I was German I would be forced to spend another £400 for a set of winter tyres by law, to me if that happened in this country it would be ridiculous, leading to drivers/owners cutting back on other expenses for the car such as maintenance servicing etc., because lets face who has a spare £400 to spend on another set of tyres even though your “rest of the year” tyres are perfectly good. Plus of course, if like me you don’t have a garage, where do you store your winter tyres for the other 8 months a year? Kwik-fit told me they would store them for me for £60 for the 8 months, so that’s yet another expense that most people can’t afford.
My biggest issue with winter tyres is what happens once the weather gets warmer and dryer and you still have them fitted. Above 7 c and on dry roads they are scarily bad, I have driven an Audi A4 1.8T Quattro on winter tyres at Easter time and it just slid all over the pace and the ABS was kicking in before I was really slowing down, the best way to describe it is its like driving on tyres made of chewing gum, one could argue that this is more dangerous than driving on snow with normal tyres as everyone is travelling a lot faster! Change them to your other tyres you say, that’s all well and good, but you shouldn’t have to!
And that’s my point really, if you have a sports car you need to be able to afford to keep it, and yes that will probably mean running different tyres in the winter, I run Proxes T1R’s on my car and they are useless in the snow so I drive accordingly or walk. If your car is a family wagon or your just not interested in cars apart from transport get a good set of “all season” tyres from a good maker and pay decent money for them, these will do you fine in any weather, just slow down abit in the snow.