What are winter tyres?

More grip in cold and slippery conditions without the need for four-wheel drive: how winter tyres will keep you on the road

By BuyaCar team November 20, 2023

Four-wheel-drive is often regarded as the obvious choice for traversing the toughest weather conditions, but there are other options that will save you a lot of money compared to buying and running a new four-wheel-drive car. Winter tyres are one of the most effective and affordable ways to make your car ready just about anything a UK winter can throw at you.

When temperatures drop, roads are often wet - which can then freeze into a layer of ice - or sometimes even covered in snow. Winter tyres offer more grip when pulling away - the same main benefit of four-wheel-drive - but the added benefits are extra grip when going round a corner and stopping.

Having a set of winter tyres fitted to your car could make more of a difference than going for a four-wheel drive car and leaving it on ordinary tyres all year around.

Four-wheel-drive systems also tend to greatly increase the price of a car, not to mention add a large chunk of weight as well that also reduces fuel economy. While purchasing a set of winter tyres comes with its costs, these will be much less substantial.

If you do fit winter tyres, make sure to fit them to all four wheels, even though your car might only be front-wheel drive. Fitting just two winter tyres to the powered wheels would cause a severe grip imbalance between the front and rear of the car, so in cold or snowy conditions the wheels with winter tyres fitted would grip, but the others wouldn't, which could result in the car spinning as you turn.

Read on for more details on winter tyres, or alternatively check out our guides to driving in floods and how to drive in snow plus the best cars for dealing with floods and the best cars for snow. If you want to be truly unstoppable on the roads this winter, choose one of those cars and get winter tyres fitted.

What are winter tyres?

Most cars in Britain use standard tyres, also referred to as ‘summer’ tyres, all-year round. These are great when temperatures are higher and the rubber provides good grip and control. However, when the temperature drops, the rubber becomes harder, offering less grip on cold roads and struggling significantly on snowy or icy surfaces.

Meanwhile, winter tyres are made of a special compound that remains softer, and therefore grippier, at temperatures below 7°C, which are not unusual in the UK’s winter months. However, they are less effective at higher temperatures, so for the best grip all year round it's worth switching back to summer tyres when the weather warms up.

Winter tyres also have deeper grooves that perform better than standard tyres on snow and ice, so it's quite easy to differentiate between winter and summer tyres just by looking at them, but winter tyres are also indicated by a snowflake or snow-topped mountain symbol on the side. When shopping for tyres, be aware of the difference between dedicated winter tyres and all-season tyres, which cope a little better in warmer temperatures, but as a result aren't specialised for cold roads.

Do winter tyres work?

TyreSafe, a not-for-profit safety organisation, reported that tests conducted by the British Tyre Manufacturers’ Association found that a car fitted with winter tyres can brake from 60mph on a wet road at 5°C a whole five metres shorter than one on summer tyres - equivalent to more than one car length. This means that winter tyres offer safety advantages on cold roads, even when there's no sign of snow.

However, the reverse was true in warmer conditions, as the car fitted with winter tyres required almost two metres more to stop at 20°C compared to the same model fitted with standard tyres. Consequently, it's wise to have a set of each, changing when the temperatures plummet in winter and when the warmer weather returns in spring.

This may sound like an extra expense - and if you buy another set of wheels to put the tyres on, it is even more so. However, remember that with two sets of tyres, each set will last twice as long, so the main cost to think about is any garage charges for swapping your tyres over twice a year.

Is fitting winter tyres compulsory?

In a number of countries that typically have cold, snowy winters, it's compulsory to fit winter tyres over the colder months. This is to boost road safety, with winter tyres offering improved grip and shorter braking distances in cold temperatures and reducing the rate of crashes.

As a result, in some countries winter tyres are a legal requirement between certain dates, or when temperatures are below a certain level. For example, in Austria, your car must be fitted with winter tyres between 1 November and 15 April.

By contrast, in the UK, where winters are generally less severe, winter tyres are not mandatory. In some more rural and remote areas, where measures such as road gritting are less frequent, winter tyres are a particularly good idea.

So, regardless of the law, it's worth thinking about whether you need winter tyres, by considering the type of roads you drive on, the car you're using and how many essential journeys you make in cold conditions. If you live in a city and never leave the house in the car if it's snowy or raining heavily, you're likely to cope much better without winter tyres than someone who lives on a hillside in the countryside and has to commute 60 miles to work every day, come what may.

Fitting winter tyres

Fitting winter tyres is no more difficult than fitting a standard tyre as it's actually an identical process. Winter tyres will be stocked by most garages and the process of putting them on your car requires no extra work.

Generally speaking, winter tyres will be slightly more expensive than your typical summer tyres. With winter tyres being more widely stocked than in previous years, in some cases there is little or no difference in cost for similar summer and winter tyres, but you may have to pay 10-20% more for winter tyres with other models.

While you can opt to replace just two standard tyres at a time - provided the other two are a similar type of tyre - winter tyres must be fitted as an entire set. This is because the extra grip they offer will be magnified in poor conditions, causing your car to be thrown off balance and much more likely to slide.

You can fit these tyres to your existing wheels, although remember that you'll have to store your summer tyres somewhere. Alternatively, you can have winter tyres fitted to cheap steel wheels, but make sure these are compatible with your car's wheel nuts, otherwise you'll be left with no wheels on your car at all.

If you'd like similar wheels to what's on the car already, you can always splash out on another set of alloy wheels from the manufacturer, though this can be expensive - especially if your car has particularly big wheels.

Is it possible to store my old tyres?

If your home garage is big enough, it’s fine to store them there without any adverse effects, as long as you protect them from damage. The last thing you want is to find they're no longer fit for purpose when you come to re-fit them in the spring.

Some tyre fitters provide an alternative to storing wheels yourself with a so-called ‘tyre hotel’ service. As long as you buy your winter tyres from them, they’ll store your standard tyres either free or for a small charge.

Will fitting winter tyres affect my car insurance?

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) says its members recognise that winter tyres can make a positive contribution to road safety and as a result, most insurers will not charge an additional premium.

Some may, however, so to help motorists negotiate this potentially confusing topic, it has published a guide to insurers’ individual positions here. The one clear stipulation is that winter tyres must conform to the car maker’s specifications.