When the first snow begins to fall, the roads whiten and turn into a real skating rink. It then becomes hard to achieve good road adherence with standard tyres. To avoid unpleasant surprises, you should always equip your vehicle with the most suitable tyres for that season of the year, in this case, winter tyres. What does that mean? How do they help? How do you make the right choice? We explain everything in this guide.
What is a winter tyre?
Tyres are certified as "winter" tyres when they fulfil all the conditions for efficient and safe use in the winter. In reality, this means tyres whose road holding performance is superior to that of summer tyres when it is cold (temperatures below 7°C), and when there is rain, snow or ice.
Typically, manufacturers advise vehicle owners to swap over when the clocks go back. But in reality, you should go by the weather forecast.
How to recognise a winter tyre
It's easy to spot a winter tyre. You have probably already noticed the "M + S" marking on some tyres. This stands for "mud + snow". It is a compulsory certification for winter tyres. You can also find it on some makes of summer tyres.
Which means that not every tyre with this marking is intended for use in cold weather. The tyres that are genuinely suited to winter conditions are those that meet the 3PMSF (3 Peaks Mountain Snowflake) standard. Tyres marked 3PMSF are specially designed to withstand cold, snow and ice. This is real winter gear specially designed to enable you to drive your vehicle when the weather is cold and wet. They are easily identified by the marking of 3 mountain peaks surrounding a snowflake which can be found on their sidewalls.
You may also see the slightly less common ICE (Nordic tyres) marking on some tyres to indicate they are suitable for extreme cold. These are generally found in northern Europe. They are more efficient than the 3PMSF certified models. If you would like more information on tyre markings, you can read our article on this subject.
Why use winter tyres?
Driving with snow tyres is beneficial for several reasons. One of the most important is driving safety. Winter tyres have a rubber composition that doesn't harden when the temperature starts to drop. Consequently, they guarantee better grip on the road and exceptionally good braking on roads covered with snow or frost. You'll be able to drive smoothly whether it's into a bend or along a straight line.
Also, using tyres designed for low temperatures and snow enable you to extend the lifespan of your summer tyres. These tend to wear out much faster when stressed during the winter. Keeping them warm in the garage during this time each year will save you money.
The various types of winter tyres and their use
Winter tyres are available in three different ranges. These are the main types:
- High performance
- Nordic or studded
If you want to choose the right winter tyres, you need to know how each type works.
Standard winter tyres
Standard winter tyres have the basic certification (M+S). They give you better grip on slippery roads with their tread and multiple sipes. They are good for passenger cars, SUVs and 4x4s as well as commercial vehicles.
You can opt for these tyres if the winter temperatures in your area don't get extreme. They are generally the most affordable.
High performance tyres
High performance snow tyres have much better characteristics than standard winter tyres. You will usually find the 3PMSF marking on their sidewall.
These winter tyres guarantee excellent roadholding even at high speeds with their reinforced grip. They also have better braking capabilities, both on ice and on snow.
You can opt for these tyres if the winter temperatures in your area are fairly extreme. This guarantees that you can use your vehicle on a daily basis.
Nordic or studded tyres
These tyres are suitable for the most extreme winter conditions (down to -40 ° C). They guarantee you perfect control of your car even if there’s lots of ice or very thick snow. They can be easily recognised by their tread, which is covered with metal spikes (between 100 and 500). It's because of these spikes that they perform so well and hold onto the road so effectively.
These tyres are recommended for drivers who live in geographic regions known for their heavy snow.
For safety reasons, you are not permitted to drive over 90 km/h when you have these winter tyres fitted on your vehicle. This speed limit drops to 60 km/h for trucks and vehicles carrying dangerous goods.
What other criteria should you consider when choosing winter tyres?
If you want high performance tyres, you need to look beyond your needs and your budget. You need to consider some other essential criteria:
- The speed index;
- The dimensions;
- The European tyre labels.
The speed index
By law, in the winter season you can use equipment that has a lower speed index (one letter less) than the tyres you would normally fit on your vehicle.
Obviously, you need to take the dimensions of your original tyres into account when you want to fit new ones. This is always the first thing you should enter when looking for new tyres. How can you find out your tyre size? On the sidewall, you will see a marking like this example: 225/55 R17.
The number 225 shows the width of the tyre in millimetres. The number before the R is the height expressed as a percentage of the width. The last number (17 here) tells you the tyre's inner diameter.
You can also instantly find the original values recommended by the manufacturer in the owner's manual of your car, or in the vehicle door.
European tyre labelling
If you want to fit your car with the best tyres for winter, you should refer to the labels on them. Tyre labelling for tyres sold in Europe became mandatory in November 2012. These labels give you vital information about the winter tyre's performance. European tyre labels tell you the three following characteristics:
- The tyre's noise emission level or the rolling noise (in decibels);
- Grip on a wet carriageway (from A to F);
- Rolling resistance (from A to G) that affects fuel consumption.
How many winter tyres do you need for the best performance?
Depending on your budget, you may decide to only fit two snow tyres on your vehicle in the winter season. That's better than nothing at all. However, if you want optimal grip and braking performance on the roads in winter, you are advised to fit 4 winter tyres. This helps you avoid certain road grip issues which can frequently occur when you fit wheels with different characteristics on the same vehicle.