Is it worth fitting winter tyres in the UK? Pros and cons of changing tyres and how all-season tyres compare

Looking at the handling and braking benefits of switching to special tyres as the temperature drops and what it means for your car insurance

A new study by car maker Audi has found that nearly two thirds of UK drivers don’t think it is worth fitting winter tyres to their car in the colder months.

The survey of motorists found that 61% would not be changing their regular tyres for season-specific ones this winter, with many citing costs and the inconvenience of having to swap tyres as the main reason for avoiding them.

Although winter tyres are common in many parts of Europe and are legally required in some countries during winter months, they have not caught on in the same way in the UK, with some drivers believing it doesn’t get “wintry” enough to warrant their use. According to tyre maker Bridgestone only around 8% of UK drivers change tyres in winter. However, the first flurry of snow inevitably starts some people wondering whether winter tyres or their newer all-season rivals are worth fitting, so here’s everything you need to know about fitting and using winter tyres.

How do winter tyres work?

You might think that one car tyre is much like any other tyre but winter tyres are specially designed to cope with cold and wet weather, with unique materials and construction.

While regular tyres work well in warmer weather, once the temperature drops below 7 degrees the rubber in them stiffens, making them less able to grip the road surface. Winter tyres are made from a different compound with more silica, which helps them stay softer in far lower temperatures.

Gary Powell, Bridgestone’s tchnical manager, explains: “Modern snow tyres are capable of maintaining flexibility in freezing temperatures. This increased rubber flexibility allows tyres to maintain traction on snowy, icy, wet and dry driving surfaces.”

Winter tyres also have very different tread patterns from summer tyres, which help with grip and control. Gary continues: “Winter tyres generally have deeper tread depths than summer or all season tyres. Deep tread depths allow the tyre to manage snow and slush dispersion from under the tyre. It also allows the tyre to provide better snow-on-snow traction by packing it within the tread blocks.”

“Another feature you’ll notice are thousands of tiny slits in the tread pattern, called sipes. These act as thousands of biting edges on ice that help with acceleration, deceleration, and stopping.”

Winter tyre treads are also designed to shift to “shake off” snow so it doesn’t build up and affect braking and steering.

Is it worth fitting winter tyres?

Winter tyres can be expensive but they are worth having. The average winter temperature in the UK is around 4 degrees and we see a lot of rain and snow, meaning summer tyres simply don’t perform as well during winter months, leading to far longer braking distances and less grip in corners.

Tests by tyre maker Goodyear show that on a wet road at 5 degrees, a car on summer tyres will take an extra five metres to stop compared with a car on winter tyres when braking from 62mph. That’s the length of a Range Rover.

On snow or ice the difference is even greater. From 30mph on snow a car on winter tyres will stop in 35m, compared to 43m for summer tyres. On ice from 20mph, a car on winter tyres will come to a stop in 57m rather than 68m - that’s more than two car lengths sooner.

And while it’s an additional outlay at first, every mile you drive on winter tyres is a mile’s less wear on your summer ones.

Do I have to tell my insurer if I fit winter tyres?

In most cases the answer is no. A few years ago the Association of British Insurers asked its members to clarify their position on winter tyres, amid concerns that they might be seen as a modification and affect a driver’s policy. All the insurers confirmed that fitting winter tyres would not affect a driver’s insurance and only three - eCar, Southern Rock and Swiftcover - require customers to inform them if they fit winter tyres. Some insurers stipulate that any replacement wheels/tyres must match sizes fitted by the vehicle manufacturer as standard or optional equipment and it also goes without saying that they need to be fitted according to the manufacturer’s instructions and be in good condition.

Can I use winter tyres in summer?

There’s no law against leaving winter tyres on your car all year round but we’d advise against it. They wear out faster in higher temperatures and offer worse braking and steering performance on dry roads, so it’s best to switch back to summer tyres once the temperature climbs again.

Gary says: “With their special compounds and tread patterns, winter tyres are designed to provide traction and grip in low temperatures on dry, wet and icy surfaces. But as the temperature rises, winter tyres lose this advantage.  In higher temperatures, summer tyres provide better all-round performanc, particularly in braking and handling, wear resistance, rolling resistance and fuel economy.

“Bridgestone tests show that the performance gap between summer and winter tyres in terms of braking and handling in warmer weather can vary by between 30% and 8% respectively. In wet weather and an ambient temperature of about 30°C, a vehicle fitted with good quality summer tyres has a braking distance up to 30% shorter than a vehicle fitted with winter tyres. In certain conditions, this difference can even equal two times the length of the car.”

What are cross-climate or all-season tyres?

While winter tyres are designed specifically for a certain part of the year, in recent years tyre makers have also developed alternatives designed to work year round. These all-season tyres are intended to offer a compromise between winter and summer tyres. The best cross-climate tyres offer some of the cold-weather performance of winter tyres but are still durable enough to be used in warmer weather and provide better grip and braking in drier, warmer conditions.

They feature a tread pattern somewhere between regular and winter tyres, so are better able to cope with standing water and snow than summer tyres but also offer better performance than winter tyres in warmer months.

They are seen as a compromise and aren’t as good as a dedicated set of winter tyres in the cold or summer tyres in the warm but the best examples do offer a strong balance between the two and the convenience of not having to swap wheels/tyres every year.

Gary comments: “All-season tyres perform reasonably in warm weather, but they may offer less grip than summer tyres, sacrificing some steering, braking, and cornering capabilities. This trade-off is necessary for all-season tyres to provide acceptable performance in light winter conditions and provide longer tread life. All-season tyres are capable of providing traction in winter, but are not the best tyre to use in extreme winter driving conditions.”