A tyre design is a compromise of providing grip, reducing rolling resistance and reducing noise output. For instance tyres suited to getting the best mpg out of your diesel econobox might not be as good at getting grip as the tyres on your track car. The compound and design of the tyre carcass along with the tread pattern play an important part of how that tyre will work.
Car manufacturers, and to an extent owners, have to choose tyres for their cars carefully, based on these factors and what the likely use for that vehicle will be. In the most part here in the UK we get some very good, and very flexible tyres that work well in a vast majority of situations. From cold days popping to the shops, to doing a long run on the few blisteringly hot days of the year we do actually get.
However there is a weather condition that is increasingly becoming a problem for the compounds used in modern tyres. When temperatures get below 10°C tyres struggle to warm up and they become less effective. Hopefully we all take this into account by giving more room for braking, being less aggressive in changes of direction and generally increasing awareness of the conditions.
In parts of the world it is recommended, in some places even a legal requirement to swap your tyres for ones designed specifically for sub 10°C conditions. Usually referred to as Winter Tyres, these have a softer compound with more natural rubber and smaller blocks formed by sipes so that they can generate the heat and grip in conditions that would render your normal tyres useless as well as drastically improve grip and braking performance in poor conditions.
One of the more obvious conditions in winter when cars start to struggle is snow. Once upon a time car wheels were little wider than a pencil, cars weren’t that powerful, speeds were relatively slow and you weren’t so removed from the process of driving. Your tyres would usually make contact with the road, you probably wouldn’t be trying to put down several hundred BHP, and you had a better feeling for when the grip was there or not.
Skip forward a few years and most cars have big, wide tyres (great for grip in the dry), at least a hundred horses and all manner of systems (and padding) to keep you from the worst parts of the experience of driving. So now in your warm and dry cocoon, it’s much harder to feel as your summer tyres are trying to grip a surface of sludge and you’re going nowhere.
Winter tyres whilst not the ultimate answer would work towards bringing some normality to the situation, you are more likely to have enough grip to move and stop again, you also stand a better chance at actually being able to use your vehicle when it gets bad out there.
Like with most things there is a cost to consider. A spare set of tyres you only use for a few months a year can be prohibitive to a lot of drivers, but you have to put the increased safety factor and the ability to use your car (when your neighbours are still stuck!) into the equation. If you get them via a certain well known tyre website, or a local mobile tyre fitter they might not cost as much as you think they do.
There are other options, if you’re in a pickle and find yourself in a snow drift and need a bit of help to get you back to something resembling a road, then snow chains could be used. But these would require you to get out of your car and fumble around putting them on, and be prepared to have to take them off again in about 30metres when the clanging and bumping around gets too much. Snow socks work in a similar fashion but can easily disintegrate if you leave them on when your tyre finds the road again.
Are winter tyres worth it? Well we think so yes. Anything that improves the driving experience and above all the safety of driving should be worth it, but remember to take them off again in when the weather improves!
Carwitter Feature Writer – Pete Flint-Murray