Choosing A Winter Tyre

Tuesday 7th September, 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.

Inspired by BMW's Winter Tyres Programme, my mind was taken back to earlier this year when massive snowfall disrupted the UK for the 2nd time in as many years. In winter 2008, I was driving a Lexus RX-400h and discovered to much amusement that, whilst most drivers were stuck nose to tail in lanes 1 & 2 of the M25, I was able to drive over the drift in the middle of the carriageway and cruise down lane 4 at a rather more normal pace.

AWD vehicles are great at finding available grip, if there is any, but if you lose traction in all 4 wheels you're still in a similar place to other car drivers - this especially applies when you try to stop. As soon as you take your foot of the throttle on an AWD car and hit the brakes, you're pretty much in the same place as other car drivers - sliding down the road hoping some combination of ABS, ESP and EBD will save your car from bouncing off the kerb or worse.

The only proper solution, as those in more Arctic climates are fully aware, is to swap your tyres for something a little more suitable for the conditions and jump aboard the growing UK market for winter tyres. Any F1 fan will know that it's critical to have the right tyres for the road conditions and that even some of the best drivers in the world can't get around even a single lap of the circuit without flying off the road if they are on the wrong compound.

Explaining the basics of tyre compounds is fairly easy if you take yourself back to school when you used to spend most of your time using a pencil, instead of ink, and an eraser - or rubber, as we used to say, giggling. In your class there would have been a variety of erasers in different shapes and colours, some were even transparent. Some, usually the boring white ones, were actually good at the job. Erasers work by gripping the lead (actually graphite) better than the paper surface does. As you rub it over the page, the lead sticks to the eraser and your error is gone. The good erasers were soft, so bounced well if dropped, and also left bits all over the page that you would blow off. These are similar to the "marbles" we see on the track in some F1 races as the tyre compound disintegrates. The rubbish hard erasers didn't exhibit this behaviour and, instead, simply smeared the lead all over the paper or even worse tore a hole in it. Owners of the nice soft rubbers only had one issue, they would quickly wear out.

New cars generally come fitted with what is generally known as an "all weather" tyre - jack of all trades, master of none. They usually have fairly hard rubber with good wear characteristics, so they don't need to be replaced too quickly and, of course, plenty of tread pattern to allow a path for water in wet conditions. Performance cars, like Porsche, come fitted with softer tyres like Bridgestone Potenza which add significantly to available grip in all conditions but even these can be limited in true winter conditions, especially snow.

Over the years on my numerous high powered cars, I've tried many highly rated performance tyres such as Bridgestone Potenza, Goodyear Eagle F1 GSD3 and Michelin Pilot Sport but winter tyre choice had me going back to the drawing board and researching again. I swiftly confirmed that not many people buy (or even sell) them in the UK and those that do have generally lived overseas where it's more normal to change tyres in winter. In some climates, it's apparently a legal requirement to fit winter tyres when the temperature falls before 5 Celsius and insurers won't even pay out if you have an accident in winter conditions without them fitted - but in the UK we've always just managed but, as we become more dependent on the car, attitude are slowly changing.

Reading a very interesting Autocar article, led me to a lot of comments from winter tyre owners. Firstly, I noted that I couldn't find one person anywhere in the world who regretted fitting winter tyres and found them bad value. Secondly, many of the reviews (like the Autocar one I linked), highlighted the Continental tyre brand when investigating winter tyres but I couldn't find anybody who had actually paid for a set - Continental PR appear to be giving away free sets to journalists who might raise the profile of the brand, I was even approached myself when I mentioned buying a set of Winter tyres on Twitter. As many of my other journo contacts mentioned Conti, for whatever reason, I decided to include them in my research.

In the end, I shortlisted 3 tyres:

1) The Nokian WR G2 is mentioned many times in the comments on the Autocar article. If you've never heard of them, they are apparently the best selling tyres in Finland - they know rather a bit about snow driving in Finland.

2) The Vredestein Wintrac xtreme - these came up many times when searching for winter tyres to replace my current Yokohama and appear to be at the performance end of the sector.

3) The Continential WinterContact TS - as highlighted by many articles.

I'd already been researching a while before the Conti was added to the list so the first thing that shocked me was the price. We're talking £100 a corner more than the "premium" Vredestein model. Did this tyres justify over £1000 a set? Or was it simply paying for a serious marketing budget? I really had to find some owners, which let me to - a review site "by consumers for consumers" with literally thousands of first hand reviews about different models of tyres.

As a benchmark, I first looked at tyres I had owned to ensure that the overall opinion pretty much mirrored my own experiences. I swiftly confirmed that the Eagle F1 is a great tyre and that I was right to be taking my current Yokohama tyres off for the winter - they scored a "poor" rating for grip in snow. Establishing this site as trusted, I then researched my shortlisted winter tyres.

If you click on the brand names here, you can see the reviews for Nokian WR G2, Vredestein Wintrac xtreme and Continental WinterContact TS. The results surprised me a lot. The Vredestein and Nokian both share excellent scores but the Conti WinterContact can't touch them at all. Of particular concern is tyre wear, owners feel they don't last as long, and "Grip in Snow" which is the worst category for the Conti whilst the best for the other 2 brands.

All 3 brands carry the snow flake symbol, meaning it adheres to legal requirements in some countries but it seems there are still clear differences between tyres that carry the mark. I clicked through to the individual reports to get more detail. Opinions varied but those with high powered or rear-wheel drive cars, who need winter tyres most, had a serious opinion about the Conti WinterContact. "Auf Schnee ist die Traktion schlecht" wrote one German owner, "When There's Snow , you got to be careful with those tires", wrote another. An Audi A8 4.2 Quattro owner delivered the death blow for me "Very good tire for Highway - excellent grip on dry tarmac. Nightmare, if on the road is mess of ice and snow." These are winter tyres but, if they're no good in ice/snow, what's the point in buying them? Especially at a premium of £400-500 per set. I asked Continental PR if they could explain the premium price for a tyre that is getting reviewed so badly by owners and got referred to a load of reviews where they had scored well - none of which actually featured winter tyres. I crossed the Continental off my list.

This left me with Nokian and Vredestein which both had almost identical scores. It was really hard to choose between them, despite the Vredestein brand winning the wet handling category in this years Auto Express tyre awards. Clearly they know their stuff, but Nokian are god of tyres in their home market.

Ultimately, I made the decision based on speed rating. The Nokian has a V (149mph) speed index which is lower than the stock tyres on my Lexus which has a maximum speed of 155mph. Whilst I'm unlikely to hit that speed, especially in winter, it could be classed by my car insurer as an unapproved modification to my vehicle. Speed ratings exist for a reason and you can go up the scale, but not down. The Vredestein Wintrac xtreme carries a W rating which certifies up to 168mph - they cost me a few more £s but I have piece of mind that I am doing the right thing.

They'll be delivered this week but I won't be fitting them until the weather turns colder in October; after which they'll likely stay on until March/April when we're sure the winter conditions are over. I'll feed back more when they're on and tested properly.

Update: Since publishing this article, Continental PR have been back in touch to clarify a few things and I felt it was due an amendment to the original article.

1) The Continental WinterContact TS 810 S I featured in the article is an old discontinued model and has been replaced by the newer Continental WinterContact TS 830 P. At £175.70 (at time of publishing) they come up more than the Nokian (£126.40) and the Vredestein (£159.60) but the pricing is much more favourable. Conti don't fix tyre pricing and I'm concluding that the pricing of the older 810 S was inflated due to limited remaining stock.

2) The Conti 830 P is clearly rated higher than the older model and, the mytyre site moves it up to 4 stars from 3.5 stars for the older model. Individual results are linked here but the sample of 21 owners is small. Overall score is currently 1.76, compared to 1.88 for both Nokian and Vredestein. Clear improvement across the board, compared with 810 S, definitely making this new tyre a contender.

3) Conti PR included a load of different review results that I think are worth a look. Whilst there is no review including my chosen Vredestein tyre - they use the much cheaper Snowtrac 3 model, which has a poor speed rating, in the tests - there are some direct comparisons to the Nokia WR G2 which are good for comparisons. I've linked the information supplied by Conti here.

So, the information regarding the new 830 P model changes the picture somewhat but not for me. The new 830 P is certainly scoring well but still only certified up to a V speed index, like the Nokian, so I can't fit it to my car without approval from my insurer. I'm confident I've made the right choice for my car, and the cheaper price will pay for the fitting, but if you drive a slower vehicle the newer Conti is clearly worth a look.

The Vredestein tyres are now fitted to my car, take a look at my first drive review here.

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