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.
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
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
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since been superseded by the Ultragrip 8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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Further Winter Tyre Reading
- 2011 Winter tyre buying guide
- All winter tyre tests