Winter tyres or 4×4: What’s best for cold weather driving?

Winter tyres

Is four-wheel drive better than winter tyres in the snow? (Picture © BMW)

The clocks have gone back, it’s getting dark ever earlier, and the forecasters say it’s going to be a cold winter. It means the roads are wet and greasy, or even worse, could be slippery with ice or snow. And that means regular two-wheel drive cars like most of us own can struggle for grip. It’s little surprise that so many drivers consider swapping the family saloon for a four-wheel drive SUV at this time of the year.

However, there could be a simple, more affordable approach for drivers other than forking out for an SUV, or indeed any four-wheel drive car: fitting winter tyres to their current car. Here’s how drivers can keep moving this winter.

What are winter tyres?

More correctly called cold weather tyres, winter tyres are designed specifically to offer grip when the temperature drops below 7 degrees C. They are made from a special mix of chemicals, called a compound, and have a uniquely designed tread pattern so that they find more traction than regular tyres on slippery surfaces.

How much do winter tyres cost?

Like normal tyres, they vary greatly in price depending on their size and brand. However, winter tyres cost about the same as regular tyres. A winter tyre from a premium maker such as Michelin or Continental will cost more than one from a budget manufacturer – although independent tests suggest the premium tyre is more likely to be better than the budget one.

Winter tyres

Winter tyres like this have a different tread pattern to regular rubber

Why do regular tyres struggle for grip in the cold?

In order to grip the road safely from 8 degrees C upwards but not wear out too quickly, regular ‘summer’ tyres are made from a specific compound. But when temperatures drop towards freezing, the compound and therefore tyre get harder and provide less grip. In addition, regular summer tyres have a tread pattern designed to cope with rain and shift water from under the tyres. This is different from a tread pattern aimed at gripping a super slippery surface, like snow or ice.

What about all-season tyres?

These are a hybrid between winter and summer tyres and some drivers swear that they’re the perfect compromise. Check out independent reviews on the Tyre Reviews website

What about a 4×4?

All sorts of cars are now available with four-wheel drive. You can get hardcore off-roaders from as little as £1000 and regular saloons such as the Audi A4 or Volkswagen Passat with four-wheel drive. Interestingly, some cars that look like 4x4s such as the Nissan Juke or Mazda CX-5 are available with just front-wheel drive. Some cars have all four wheels driven all the time (generally known as all-wheel drive). Some cars switch from two- to four-wheel drive automatically. And some have a button to press to engage the non-driven wheels. The advantage of having a non-full time system is that driving extra wheels uses more fuel. Disengaging the front or rear wheels from the engine when they’re not needed saves money.

Which is best in cold damp conditions? Winter tyres or 4×4?

There have been two tests in recent years that have highlighted the difference between winter tyres and four-wheel drive. In 2011, performance car magazine Evo tested a rear-wheel drive Jaguar XFR on normal tyres around a race circuit in freezing, damp conditions. It recorded a time of 2 min 35 sec. A four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Evo, also on regular tyres, was six seconds quicker. They then tested the Jag on winter tyres. It went 25 seconds faster than the Mitsubishi.

Which is best in snow? Winter tyres or 4×4?

Two years ago, Auto Express took a pair Ford Kugas to the Tamworth Snowdome in Staffordshire. Both were identical apart from one had four-wheel drive, one was front-wheel drive. A tester then attempted to climb the snow-covered hill on regular tyres. The two-wheel drive car got four metres; the 4×4 made it up 13m of the slope before sliding back down to the two-wheel drive car. On winter tyres, it was a different matter. The two-wheel drive car went 110m up the slope before coming to a halt. The 4×4, fitted with winter tyres, made it to the top. The testers concluded: “Obviously the best solution is to have a 4×4 on winter tyres. Without the right rubber a 4×4 is just as useless as a two-wheel drive car.” See the Auto Express winter tyre test for yourself…

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2 comments on “Winter tyres or 4×4: What’s best for cold weather driving?

  1. Milner Off Road 12/04/2016 10:54 AM

    Great article guys. 4×4 winter tyres are somewhat overlooked in the automotive world, and people seem to have the perception that having a 4×4 is the key to safe winter driving, and don’t need to change tyres that more suited for the winter conditions. Thankfully, your test has proven that a 4×4 with the wrong rubber can be just as bad as a 2WD car in the winter. Great video too.

  2. keith 09/01/2019 11:36 AM

    Still a pricey option, needing to buy 4 more tyres and wheels, (can’t be doing with changing tyres on rims). Also what happens when temps suddenly rise again as they do often in the UK, will winter tyres be damaged or less efficient?

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