A few years ago during a couple of big freezes winter tyres were massive news, with tyre fitters struggling to keep up with demand. But then a milder couple of years seemed to dampen interest. Nonetheless, tyre makers have continued to push their message that a proper set of winter tyres can transform your car’s behaviour in the bleak mid-winter.
To see how much difference they make I’ve been testing a set of Continental’s WinterContact TS 860s.
These are the latest award-winning tyres in Continental’s WinterContact range, designed to provide better traction and stopping in cold and slippery conditions.
They come with various differences to summer tyres, all with silly names like Cool Chili. But behind the names is a serious purpose. Cool Chili is the high-silica rubber compound used to make the tyre. The high silica levels mean the tyre stays softer at temperatures below seven degrees Celcius, improving grip on cold roads.
The tyres also feature more treads to channel away water and “sipes” – tiny jagged grooves in the tread wall to compact snow, which actually improves braking – nothing sticks to snow like snow.
Tyre makers claim that such characteristics make winter tyres a safer option anywhere that the temperature regularly stays below seven degrees, not just in countries beset by heavy snow. Tests by the British Tyre Manufacturers Association showed that in at five degrees Celsius a winter tyre stopped a car five metres sooner than a summer one from 62mph – more than a whole car length.
Despite the figures and manufacturer’s claims, I’ll admit to being a little sceptical about how obvious the difference between our Michelin summer tyres and the Continentals would be, particularly as they were being fitted to a front-drive hatch with as much puff as an asthmatic hamster.
I was surprised, then, by just how pronounced the change is.
From the off the car feels more secure on the road with grip that just wasn’t there on the summer tyres. On cold but dry days the car behaves as it would on a far warmer day on regular tyres and in the icy slush they do a noticeably better job of pushing through and making decent contact with the ground. Braking feels more positive too and I definitely feel more comfortable about the car’s ability to deal with the weather.
Such performance, of course, comes at a price. The winter rubber is noticeably noisier than the summer tyres and there’s been a small but noticeable drop in fuel economy too. The tyres also definitely don’t perform as well far above that seven-degree threshold, either.
Still, for a more composed, safer-feeling drive over the winter months it’s worth accepting these minor problems.