Winter tyres: real world experiences

While magazine group tests and tyre launches can give you an excellent idea of how a tyre will perform on the road, sometimes they miss what the tyre is like to live with.

This has never been more true than with winter tyres. People now appreciate they give vastly superior grip in the snow, but what are they like during our more normal, wet winter, or on a freak warm dry winter's day?

Long time Tyre Reviews friend David Crick fitted winter tyres to two of the vehicles in his household in November 2010 and ran them through to March the following year. Below is his excellent and comprehensive real world experiences with his winter tyres during that time.

Background

I first became aware of winter tyres in 2006, and every year since then once the temperature started to dip towards 7 degrees C I entertained the thought of getting some. But mostly I subscribed to the view that they were unnecessary for the British climate and weather conditions.

Then came the winter of 2009/2010, and the heavy - and EXTENDED - period of snow. We live on an untreated side-road on a hill, which rapidly becomes an ice-rink due to the cars that do gingerly go down it - and even more so by those unsuccessfully trying to go UP it, who mostly get nowhere and only succeed in polishing the surface even further.

That winter I reduced my car usage to an absolute minimum. I am a careful and experienced driver, who knows that you should use higher gears and engage the clutch gradually, gently feeding in the power. But even when doing so, there are still occasions when physics simply takes over and there simply isn't enough friction between the smooth summer tyre and the slick road surface, and your tyre simply spins. When that happens up a hill you can quickly lose momentum.

After the experiences of 2009/2010 I finally decided I would buy winter tyres for the following winter. The hardest part was choosing the make and model to go for. As well as considering some winter-rated all-season tyres, I also considered some more dry-biased full winters. But in the end I plumped for a Central European snow-biased winter tyre - the Goodyear Ultragrip 7+. (This tyre has since been superseded by the Ultragrip 8.)

A second car in the house was also equipped with winters. Although initially considering the Dunlop Winter Sport 3D, the Continental TS 830P was eventually chosen.

Both the Ultragrip 7+ and the 830P were selected due to their exceptional snow performance. Coincidentally, the summer tyres they were replacing had similar tread patterns in the case of the directional and wide grooved Goodyear Eagle F1 GS-D2 and the asymmetric Bridgestone Turanza ER300 respectively.

The third car in the family remained on summer tyres, which provided a useful reference point during its limited running.

Naysayers

Winter tyres seem to create a very split opinion here in the UK. The two general arguments against seem to be:
  • Our weather isn't bad enough
  • You should be able to drive to the conditions
backed up by the general statement of "I'VE managed fine without them all these years."

Regarding the first point, the last two winters have shown that our weather can indeed become bad (and PROLONGED) enough to fully justify them. Further, the naysayers generally mis-categorise winter tyres as purely designed for snowy conditions, whereas in fact they are beneficial between roughly October/November and March/April, which our own experience last winter confirms, and I will report on below.

Point two is correct, BUT ONLY AS FAR AS THE LIMIT OF PHYSICS! Winter tyres can provide nearly three times the traction of summer tyres on snow, will be able to retain control (handle) twice as well, and - most importantly - will be able to stop SIX CAR LENGTHS SHORTER on snow even at low speeds. (Source: Auto Express cold weather tyre test, published 23 October 2010.)

Formula 1 drivers are generally considered the most skilled. Yet there are times when they out-brake themselves and they misjudge or exceed the distance they have and the limit of their tyres. And they also suffer from aquaplaning - when even the extreme wet tyres that they use cannot cope with the volume of water and the drivers become passengers.

If conditions can trip up Formula 1 drivers, then to say that you have coped OK without winter tyres up until now - particularly when you have the option of something that can grip three times the amount, be controlled twice as well, and stop in under half the amount of space - is disingenuous. It also fails to take into the account that YOUR car, the conditions YOU encounter, and your OWN driving experience are vastly different to that of everyone else's.

Motoring organisations, tyre manufacturers and the Highways Agency all agree on the benefits of fitting winter tyres. The Government even clarified their own stance on their usage, stating: "for those who can afford winter tyres ... they provide significant additional grip for motoring in such cold conditions." (Source: Hansard)

A final remark is that those who are against use of winter tyres have without exception NOT tried them themselves, whereas those that advocate them generally have. More than that, those who have used them - despite the initial cost, as well as the inconvenience of having to buy, store and swap a second set of tyres - have said they will never return to not running them.

While we doubt we will convert any hardcore "antis" with this article, we hope that by sharing our own experience of running winter tyres for the first time we will be able to persuade the more open-minded of you as to their benefits.

Buying and fitting

Availability of winter tyres in the UK has historically been poor, to say the least, with even garages parroting the same long-held misconceptions about them. But after the winter of 2009/2010 more people become clued-in on them, and even major retailers, web sites and garages started to offer them. Demand very quickly outstripped supply in 2010/2011, so our advice is to buy early.

European-based web tyre suppliers generally have the widest range of stock. However, once imported we found that some mainstream garages would refuse to fit them if you hadn't purchased the tyre from the garage themselves. Small independent specialist tyre places are your best bet for fitting, and indeed some web sites offer a "fitted" price and a choice of local (or even mobile) fitters near to you.

If you do buy tyres from a mainstream retailer or garage then you will be limited to the stock they have available. Even more so than with summer tyres, there can be a BIG difference in performance and operating windows between budget and premium winter tyres. Considering ONLY snow, ANY winter tyre will outperform a summer tyre. However, this may very well come at the cost of wet or dry performance. With winter tyres - as with summer tyres - our advice remains that you really do get what you pay for.

We ordered both of our sets of winter tyres from Europe over the Internet. Both sets arrived in three working days (i.e. discounting weekends), and we were able to fully track their delivery progress online. We had them fitted at a local independent tyre company.

When to fit, and when to remove

We confirmed that below 7 degrees C is when winter tyres start to become usable, and 3 degrees was when they had a noticeable benefit over the summer-shod car. You'll want to take your own local conditions into account as well as the times of day that you generally travel, since you will encounter colder conditions when the sun is set, and particularly early in the morning.

Not so widely published is the temperature recommended for switching back to summer tyres. We found that at 11 degrees and above the winter tyres performed noticeably poorer. (More details are given in the experiences section below.)

For OUR AREA, under OUR RUNNING CONDITIONS, we found that in hindsight the OPTIMUM window for running winter tyres for the winter of 2010/2011 was mid-November to mid-March.

However, rules of thumb such as October-April, October to Easter, or when the clocks go back and forward are all good general - if quite wide - guidelines as to when to switch your tyres over.

We've noticed the occasional car from time to time still fitted with winter tyres throughout the entire year. This is actually the recommended way of doing it if you can only afford one set of tyres, since the safety and performance benefit of running winter tyres in winter outweighs the performance disadvantages of running winters in summer. (Or to put it another way: you compromise yourself more by running summer tyres in winter.) However, this is a rather expensive way of doing things - one car we spotted had used up nearly its entire tread depth in just one year of (continuous) running!

Overall it is actually economically more beneficial to run two sets of tyres (full winters and summers), since you're spreading the wear across two sets and are also running each in their optimum operating conditions. The initial outlay of purchasing winter tyres should also be weighed against the fact that they'll last you for several winters - as well as reducing wear and tear on your summer tyres.

Initial experience

Driving away from the garage with the Ultragrip 7+ fitted all round, the first - and expected - thing to notice was that dry braking took longer. This is due to a number of factors compared to summer tyres: taller, multiple, separated treadblocks, wider tread spacing, the tyre compound, and presence of the wiggly "sipes" cut into the tread. All these reduce either tread stiffness or tyre road contact patch area. Due to this I found that the Ultragrips required a little bit of extra brake pedal pressure for the last (approx.) 0.4 metres or so to stop in the dry.

The Ultragrips also felt VERY "floaty" for the first 50 miles - disconnected from the road, and unsettled over bumps, small potholes and road camber changes.

Once that bedding in period had passed, I was left with just the slight delay in braking and a slight delay in steering input - you needed to steer and then pause; almost like "setting the car up before the corner." To begin with I had continued to add steering input, which meant that once the car DID begin to turn there was too much lock applied, and you were then steering too much. However, once accustomed to "pre-steering," it became second nature, and indeed once IN the corner the winters even seemed to offer a bit more bite, probably due to the sipes.

In comparison, the other car fitted with the 830Ps required NO "bedding in" period - they were good from the go, and steering and braking felt little changed from the summer tyres they replaced.

Both sets of winter tyres were SIGNIFICANTLY quieter than our summer tyres, and also rode MUCH more smoothly. MPG was monitored with the Ultragrips, and they gave equal or better fuel economy than the summer tyres - and maintained that throughout the coldest periods. The lower rolling resistance of the Ultragrips did mean that lifting off to slow down a little wasn't as effective as with the higher friction summer tyres. Braking when going into a slower speed limit area also required harder braking to slow the car down.

Cold running

Once temperatures dipped to 3 degrees C - when most cars display their "ice warning" message - there was a noticeable improvement compared to summer tyres. The owner of the 830Ps commented that when leaving the drive on a frosty morning there was no slipperiness felt - and this was compared to just the previous day before when the winter tyres hadn't yet been fitted. The owner of the third car in the family - still on summers - independently remarked that the road had felt slippery to them.

Cold, greasy roundabouts partially left in shadow were also tackled at normal speed, whereas on our summer tyres in those conditions we would have entered with more care. Indeed, we repeatedly found ourselves caught out behind slower, summer-shod cars, who were having to tackle the roundabouts at a reduced speed compared to us.

Damp and greasy running on wintry motorways would similarly produce no drama.

And, as the temperature continued to drop, the Ultragrips continued to maintain their performance.

Wet running

With their wider channels (in the case of the 830P) and V-shaped grooves (with the Ultragrip 7+), both winter tyres coped with water without any issue. Indeed, the Ultragrips made the usual imperious progress through water that I am accustomed to with the similarly-grooved Goodyear Eagle F1s. If anything, the Ultragrips actually felt BETTER in the wet than the F1s - again possible due to the sipes, which were providing extra bite.

Dry running

While the Ultragrip appeared optimised more for snow (and rain), and so had a slight disadvantage in dry braking and steering, the Continental 830P proved a revelation in the dry. The 830Ps provided the sportiest feeling to that car in the dry that I'd ever felt, even compared to its standard touring summer tyres (Bridgestone ER300s). The 830Ps well and truly deserved their "P" suffix, without any apparent compromise in their wet or snow ability.

Ice experience

Early on I would park under the shade of trees in what I thought was a large puddle of water. As I stepped out of the car I nearly fell over - I had actually parked on sheet ice! This comical experience would be repeated later on when parking on compacted (and therefore icy) snow - I would slow and stop without any skidding, but then nearly fall over when on foot, unaware of the iciness of the surface I'd just parked on.

Snow running

Initial snow experience consisted of driving through a mound of snow and slush, which the Ultragrips "swished" through in typical Goodyear fashion. Driving in flurries gave a similar feel to driving in rain on summer tyres. When parking and pulling away on snow there was no skidding or slipping. Driving in 30 MPH areas could be done with confidence at near normal speed in the snow.

A final run was done on the summer-shod car. Compared to the winter-shod cars, the summer car's steering felt incredibly light and with no feeling of grip, and the ABS was quick to trigger on braking.

Two types of conditions DID appear to "catch out" both sets of winter tyres - driving on uncompacted powdery fine snow, and driving on "melted ice cream" snow. In both cases the winter tyres gained traction on the top layer of snow, but since that wasn't connected to the layer beneath it, there was some slight slippage - but NOT enough to cause skidding or loss of momentum.

In deep snow the Ultragrips were a revelation - no slipping, no ABS, and just a hint of understeer when cornering at speed.

Indeed, we would actually find ourselves "seeking out" snow - using dual carriageway and roundabout lanes that were not cleared, and spaces in car parks still under snow - rather than fighting with everyone else for cleared routes and car parking spaces.

Warmer running

As the end of March approached I was encountering days when I'd be running at -3 in the early hours to as high as +18 degrees C later in the day.

At 11-12 degrees performance on the winters was noticeably poorer. At 14-15 braking was very bad (long) on both winter tyres, and by 17-18 steering was appalling - EXTREMELY delayed.

Many people aren't in tune with or as sensitive to the behaviour of their cars/tyres, but from my own feel and experience I would very definitely NOT want to be running winter tyres all year round.

Switching back to summers

I actually found myself quite reluctant to remove my winter tyres! They had become like a friend - if somewhat of a quirky friend with some odd characteristics. However, they were quiet, smooth, light and provided much-improved rolling resistance / fuel economy.

Our first experiences of switching back to our summer tyres was that both summer tyres were INCREDIBLY noisy and gave a much harsher ride. The steering on the Eagle F1s also felt very heavy. On the positive side, braking distances in the dry were shorter, and you could lift off the throttle and get an immediate retardation.

But in switching between summers and winters (and back again) I also learnt a lot. In particular I discovered where my "heavy right foot," brought to light when braking with my winters in the snow, had come from. It was due to several years of running the Eagle F1s. I had become used to making quick and abrupt inputs in steering and braking and having them immediately - but smoothly - translated to the car.

Was it all worth it?

In one word - yes! At 3 degrees C and below the winter tyres gave a definite improvement in cold, frosty, damp and greasy conditions. And in general wet and dry (cold) running, the sipes produced extra bite, giving me the same sort of level of performance that my high performance summers did, but in cold and sub-zero temperatures. And that was all BEFORE any snow and ice - proving that winter tyres really should be considered as "cold weather" tyres, and not just for the snow.

In snow and ice the difference to summers was incredible - if to be expected. While other cars were sliding about or simply left unused, we were able to retain full mobility.

And in switching back to summer tyres we revelled in their own strengths when in their own optimum operating conditions.

I will very definitely be adding my name to the list of those that have tried winter tyres and would not go back to not running them.

David.

Further Winter Tyre Reading

- 2011 Winter tyre buying guide
- All winter tyre tests




Discussion:

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