In 2008, I really got fed up with the prolonged periods of snow we were having in the UK and decided to get some winter tyres for my family estate car, a Mazda 6. The final decision was made when I struggled to get out of our road for an essential journey across country.
Firstly, winter tyres are for all road conditions encountered during a typical UK winter and not just for snow and ice. They are designed to provide more grip in the dry, in the wet, slush, snow and on ice. They do this by having a tread pattern that is designed to grip snow, mud and water and push it out of the tread. The tread blocks have sipes, which are thin wiggly 3D cuts into the tread blocks, to improve grip. They also have a higher rubber and silicon content, which means they stay softer at lower temperatures. The tyres I bought are designed to be used at temperatures below 8°C. This typically means that they are on the car for about four months of the year.
Most people fit winter tyres to a second set of wheels and this is what I have done. The downside of this approach is that you have to have somewhere to store a set of wheels and tyres when they are not in use. Garages will swap just the tyres over but, there will be a charge each time this is done. I know some people that use winter tyres all year round in the UK too. The downsides of this are increased wear rates and reduce fuel consumption but, it does save on the hassle of changing tyres and wheels.
I decided to buy a second-hand set of wheels from a breaker and used http://www.breakeryard.com to search the UK for some. You submit a request and it goes to many breakers and vehicle dismantlers, who email you with availability and price. This saves the hassle of phoning round and haggling over the price. You can also get wheels quite cheaply this way, when compared to main dealer prices. The wheels I bought were identical to the ones already on my car and they were in reasonable condition. I paid £140 for a set of four delivered.
Winter tyres are a longer term investment. You need to decide how long you are keeping your current car before you decide to fit them as they should easily last more than six years with the type of usage I have in mind. It’s fairly easy to get them fitted to different wheels later if need be but, this assumes any replacement car has same size wheels/tyres. Essentially you are running two sets of tyres, swapping between them. Whilst you have the up-front outlay for two sets of tyres, each set should now last about twice as long.
These are the winter tyres I bought and fitted to my second set of wheels: Goodyear Ultragrip 7+. I bought them because they were recommended by a friend and they also did very well in reviews in various German car magazines. Most decent tyres shops can obtain them and fit them in the UK but, my local tyre fitter had to order them from Germany. I paid £430 for four, fully fitted and waited six days for delivery.
These tyres are directional, so you need to label your wheels and tyres and be careful to fit them on the correct side of your car. You can swap front and rear wheels to even up the wear but, you can’t swap a left side tyre to the right side and vice-versa. Also make sure that the speed rating and load rating of the winter tyres you buy is correct for your car.
Some insurance companies don’t like winter tyres and consider them a modification but, I’ve not had any issue in this respect. It is best to check with your insurer just to make sure though.
Having used them for two winters now, I would never run a family car in the UK again, without some spare wheels and winter tyres. The extra grip in all conditions is just amazing. In country lanes in the dry, wet, snow and ice the car has so much more grip and provides so much more confidence.
Decent winter tyres give you much more grip and control than any 4-wheel drive vehicle with normal summer tyres. I’ve previously owned a Subaru Impreza Turbo and it was hopeless in snow and ice, due to the fat, low-profile tyres with minimal grip. 4WD or AWD is only useful if you have decent traction to start with.
There is slightly more tyre noise from my winter tyres on smooth roads but, not much more. If anything the tyres feel slightly softer, due to the deeper tread blocks and softer rubber. After two 4-month periods of usage, there is little sign of wear on the tyres. I couldn’t justify the expense of fitting winter tyres to our other car but, it makes a lot of sense to have at least on car properly equipped for the winter in the UK.
Winter tyres don’t give you the ability to go out driving in any weather. They do improve grip and safety throughout the winter and they will allow you to get to places that you would simply not be able to get to with summer tyres. At the end of the day though, some trips are simply not worth the risk and given the option it is sometimes better to stay at home.
Update – October 2011
I have replaced my Mazda 6 with a new Mazda 6 Takuya, this time with 225/45R18 tyres on it. I have sold my Goodyear Ultragrip 7+ tyres for £250 and have bought another set in 205/60R16, to give the same rolling diameter as the tyres on my new car. This time I bought a set of Goodyear Ultragrip 8 tyres for £480 fitted.