First Drive - Vredestein Wintrac xtreme Winter Tyres

Wednesday 13th October, 2010

This is one of numerous in-depth winter tyre articles I wrote over the winter of 2010/2011. Please click here for a summary of my results over the season and links to all the other articles.

You never know what a replacement tyre will be like until you drive on it. You can admire its shape and the pattern of the tread grooves but, ultimately, it's just a black circle of rubber until you stretch it over a wheel rim. I do, however, know exactly how the old ones feel. I've driven the current Lexus GS model since it was launched in 2005 covering approximately 40,000miles - including almost 10k in the GS-450h I bought in September 2009.

Unlike bike suppliers, who may give buyers a choice of "standard", "sticky" or "touring" when buying a new motorcycle, car manufacturers don't usually give you a choice of what tyre comes with the car. Often you won't even know what rubber is on the rims until the car is delivered. Some manufacturers do extreme tyre testing and get their chosen manufacturer to put a special marking on tyres they approve, like the Porsche N Marking but, in the case of the Lexus GS, you get a set of Y speed rated Yokohama A10.

The 245/40 tyre is pretty low profile on the 18inch rims and I've always put the characteristic handing down to this profile and the hard sidewalls they likely require. The Lexus is a heavy car and you can feel every kg of it when cornering. With the hybrid traction batteries in the boot, the weight distribution is good, but you can easily feel like you're having to fight the wheel a little on roundabouts and tight bends. Engaging the "sport" setting on the suspension can help a little, keeping the car more level and tight, but this further exacerbates the firm ride.

When I say firm ride, I mean seriously bumpy. Driving over the abundance of potholes on Surrey's roads, you can get the kind of clatter that will make your CD cases rattle in the door pocket. Even driving over a cats eye in the middle of the road can cause deviation in the steering wheel as it tram-lines. Of course, when you're familiar with a car, you get completely used to all this and you know when you need to catch the wheel as the tarmac changes mid-bend on your regular commute. It's totally controllable, not at all unsafe and you often only notice when the traction control light flashes as you go over a bump in the road. It has always struck me as a little odd, however, that my wife's Urban Cruiser handled the bumps better than a luxury car worth more than double it's price.

Enter the Vredestein Wintrac xtreme tyres that I chose to put on for the winter months. As they're a cold weather tyre, they are made of softer rubber that has considerably more grip at lower temperatures (below 7C). I expected things to handle a little differently on these tyres, but had no idea how the changes would be characterised when driving. I also expected more road noise from winter tyres - just something I'd read in reviews - but I'd not seen any specific full reviews of these tyres. These tyres don't just handle a little differently, they're a different world, and it's like driving a completely new car.

Firstly, the tram-lining is gone, completely. The Yoko's would follow the line of the tarmac in the road and I would blame the low profile tyres. Not true, it doesn't appear to do that now. I no longer need to grit my teeth when approaching potholes at high speed and a cats eye is now just something that lights the road ahead in the dark. The biggest change of all is the handling of speed humps, which ii now just comfortably glides over in a way I've never known a GS to do. In fact, the ride quality took me back to when I test drove a Lexus LS-600h earlier in the year. In magnitude terms, the ride is smoother now in "sport" mode than it was previously when set to "normal". The suspension still tightens up, and I get all the handling benefits, but without all the "CD case clatter".

To say I'm overjoyed with these new tyres is an understatement and I just can't find any negatives. The expected increase in road noise simply isn't there and if anything the drive is quieter due to the increasingly smooth ride. They look the part, too, with their extreme groove pattern and chiselled edges. If you crouched behind the car on the Yoko's, you could clearly see a pronounced curve where the tread met the tyre wall. It curved around, like most tyres do. The Vredestein, however, is a completely different beast with an almost perfect right angle at the edge of the tyre tread. This is wall to wall grip and not 1mm has been wasted in giving the required grip during the cold weather.

If you're looking for a Winter tyre, I don't think you can go wrong with these. If you're familiar with tyres, these feel more like a Goodyear Eagle F1 GSD3 than anything. Loads of grip, oodles of steering response but with a soft ride that won't rattle your Gran's false teeth. You can almost feel the tread pattern move around a little when cornering hard on the dry road because, unlike the Yoko's, it's actually stuck to the road. The additional confidence on cold, damp roundabout exits is inspiring.

As my friend Bob said when he bought his Triumph motorcycle...tyres? I'll take the sticky ones please.

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