Fitting winter tyres is a bit of a European more than British habit. On the Continent it’s considered normal to switch to winter tyres, and in some countries it’s a legal requirement. But in Britain, with our milder climate, many drivers don’t bother to change the tyres, arguing that it’s not worth the expense or hassle.
But are we missing out on an important safety boost? We took to the snow to find out. In a high-performance rear-wheel-drive BMW.
The unlikely choice of car was to find out if cold-weather tyres can make even the most extreme of machines more controllable in winter. The 1M has 335bhp sent to the rear wheels with little weight over them. As news reports whenever the winter storms arrive confirm, BMWs don’t like snow. Least of all this one.
But fitted with a set of Michelin Alpin winter tyres, it was transformed. Even in normal winter driving, it was remarkable just how much more settled it was. There was grip where previously there was none, and the car felt altogether more settled and secure.
Then we encountered the snow. Instead of being rendered totally useless, the 1M could carry on driving pretty much everywhere. Rear-wheel drive BMWs shouldn’t be able to do this, we thought. It was as if we were driving on rainy roads, not snow-covered ones.
The only weird aspects we found was a speedo that was now wildly optimistic – a true 70mph read as 80mph – which also wrecked the accuracy of the fuel range indicator. The tyres also confused the car’s traction control. Traction was there but the computer didn’t believe it, killing power neurotically.
Generally though, this was a BMW transformed. It was usable on snowy roads whereas previously it wouldn’t stand a chance. We were so impressed, we later tried winter tyres on other extreme machines, such as a BMW i8 and Porsche 911. The results were similarly convincing.
For this reason alone, it’s worth spending the £1000 on a set of winter tyres. When the rest of Britain grinds to a halt, you’ll be able to drive on. And just think, if everyone had winter tyres, that infuriating snow-bound gridlock that always occurs could be eradicated.
The statistics back this up. Tyre manufacturers say winter tyres can improve braking and traction by more than half. That’s a ludicrous improvement. It’s braking performance that’s particularly eye-opening. As safety sells, this alone should be a reason to choose them.
And if you think you don’t need them because you have a front-wheel drive car, think again. The improvements may not be as stark as with a rear-wheel drive car, but winter tyres still make things a lot better – again, particularly in braking. The benefits aren’t just felt in the snow, either. The special design clears water unlike any summer tyre, so they’re brilliant in the rain as well.
Don’t panic if the weather suddenly gets warm. You can actually use them all year round if you really want to, although the softer, grippier rubber will wear out faster. Better to store them over the summer and experience the chalk and cheese improvement once temperatures drop below 5-7deg C.
Ah, but you have a set of snow chains, you say. You don’t need winter tyres. But they won’t help you out during that sudden snow storm. They won’t offer benefits all through the winter. And we can’t bear the thought of having to fit them: can you?
Tyre manufacturers produce winter tyres that will even fit 20-inch wheels these days. They don’t cost any more than comparable summer tyres. They may pay for themselves simply through not ruining your car insurance no-claims bonus.
So are winter tyres worth it? Undoubtedly. Spread the word.