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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 23, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    Time for a tyre rethink?

    Michael McAleer

    If you had asked the average motorist in the street during the summer, if their car was front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive they would have looked at you blankly and walked off. Few, apart from those of us who enjoy boring others with our tedious car knowledge really had reason to know or care. Until that is, the winter of 2010.

    Winter 2009 did give us a clue of what was to come, with bad levels of snow and ice, which carried on until the first part of this year. But it was nothing compared to the unprecedented levels of snow and ice that have fallen this year. I asked my Dad, who is 76, when he had last seen snow like this and he replied, “1947” which means that it has been a while.

    Back then, he tells me, cars were mostly rear-wheel drive, had rubbish tyres and slipped about like a motherless foal at the first sight of ice. But people didn’t drive in those conditions. Because we have to use our cars to get to our crèches and schools and offices we cope as badly.

    Rear-wheel drive cars, such as those made by BMW and Mercedes-Benz have come into focus for the fact that they are terrible in ice and snow. Terrible that is, with the wrong tyres. Front-wheel drive cars do a little better normally because the engine is over the driving front wheel and this provides a little better traction. In a rear-wheel drive car, the engine is at the front and the wheels are turning at the rear without much weight on them.

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    And in a lot of cases, despite the best efforts of these car’s fancy electronic systems, the cars that are sliding about hopelessly are the really expensive ones. You would think that the Germans would have figured this out then? Well of course they have. They just put on proper winter tyres.

    Since most of us rarely care about our tyres at any time of the year, it is a big leap for us to suddenly think about getting a second set. So why should we get winter tyres? Unlike summer tyres (everyday standard tyres in Ireland), winter tyres do not harden at lower temperatures. That means they give you a much better grip on the road and the ability to stop in a shorter distance. The rubber compound of a winter tyre is very different to a summer tyre. It is designed specifically to work in temperatures under +7 degrees centigrade.

    With the tyres that most of us have on our cars, when the temperature drops the tyre compound loses its flexibility, making it less grippy in low temperatures. Winter tyres are made from specially developed compound with more natural rubber so they don’t harden when it’s cold, which means increased grip on the road and greater safety.

    On ice and snow winter tyres provide grip that no summer tyre can match.  A vehicle fitted with winter tyres will come to standstill on a snow-covered road (from a speed of just 50km/h) after 35 metres – with normal tyres the braking distance required is a further 8 metres (43 metres). That is another two car lengths. Or a nasty repair or insurance bill. Or worse.

    Winter tyres are a legal requirement in other EU countries such as Austria, Germany and Finland and many offer specific winter recommendations. This could eventually happen here if the weather conditions get consistently bad every year. This year there was a big demand for winter tyres all of a sudden and sadly they were proving hard to find in Ireland. One tyre distributor told me that it was simply down to space. They couldn’t order all the winter tyres they would need for the various sizes of car so people would have to order them specifically and this was taking time. Sales of winter tyres across Europe were also unprecedented this year, so there was a shortage across Europe.

    Then there is the problem of where to store your summer tyres when you have your winter tyres fitted. In places like Germany they have ‘tyre hotels’ which will store your summer tyres for you while you use your winter tyres. This doesn’t exist here except for BMW, who have now introduced a winter tyre programme for BMW and Mini customers. Prices vary by model but start at €580 for a complete set of four winter wheels and tyres on a MINI Hatch and €828 on a BMW 1 or 3 Series.

    If you are reluctant to change tyres and have nowhere to store summer tyres when they are not in use, according to tyre firm Continental you are better off using winter tyres all year round. “Winter tyres are as quiet and comfortable as summer tyres and, thanks to sophisticated compound technology, do not wear any more quickly,” said a company spokesperson.

    “There is a slight trade off with stopping distances as a winter tyre does not stop as quickly in the dry as a summer tyre, however, on balance if it is not possible to switch tyres in the winter, experts say you are better off with winter tyres all year round. This is because the difference in stopping distances of summer tyres in winter is far greater than for winter tyres in the summer,” they added.

    There has been a surge this year in people buying winter tyres from the Internet if they can’t get the winter tyres at a local outlet. The most popular site appears to be eiretyres.com, which appears to source tyres from Germany and is based in Hanover. On this site there are a variety of brands from some pretty ropey Chinese tyres to better-established brands.

    This week I am driving a pretty standard Volkswagen Golf 1.6-litre diesel with 195/65 R15 tyres. Concentrating on the premium brands, because we wouldn’t encourage anyone to buy the nasty cheap tyres, the results varied in price on this site from €74.60 per tyre for the Dunlop SP Winter Response, €77.20 per tyre for the Continental WinterContact TS 830, €78 for the Bridgestone Blizzak, with the most expensive being the Pirelli Snowcontrol Serie II at €97 per tyre.

    Supposing we chose the Continental WinterContact tyres which have rated very highly in tyre tests. That is €308.80 for four tyres, including postage and packaging which is included in all of their pricing. It asked me to key in where I would like them fitted. I entered where I am from, which is Drogheda and it offered me two outlets where they can be fitted for me nearby which is €15 per tyre on steel wheels or an additional €10 per tyre on alloy wheels. I would also be charged €3.00 per tyre to dispose of my old ones if required. So it would cost just over €400 to have a premium set of winter tyres fitted to a Golf using this website. Which really isn’t bad. Plus, you could leave these on for the whole year without too much hassle.

    The winter driving tips video we posted has had almost 10,000 hits since we put it up in earnest one snowy morning. Thank you for the comments that were added to it. Sure enough, there were a few tips that were left out and many of you added to these. Obviously we didn’t include them all, simply the basics to get people going and lots of you have said that it did help. Of course, some of you didn’t agree with the stuff that I put up and I might take the hump with that if I had in fact invented winter driving tips. The tips I posted weren’t naturally ones that I came up with myself, but were mostly perfected by German, Swedish and Icelandic men with names like Sven, Erik and Hans. And in the greatest traditions of journalism, I simply relayed them on to you. And I have also sat in enough classes with these people to have a fair idea of what they were on about. The tips were and are designed for the nervous and perhaps novice winter driver out there. Those of you who know it all will of course not need to learn anything from any of us.

    In relation to the Weiss Snow Socks, which have sold out faster than the Irish Government, they are pretty useful but remember they are limited. They only work up to a speed of 50km/h and I watched a driver of a Hyundai Santa Fe yesterday barrelling along at 100km/h on the M50 with them fitted, the front wheels spinning wildly within them. He may now be in a hedge somewhere.

    Stay safe out there. Do consider winter tyres because ‘climate change’ appears to be among us and don’t bother going anywhere if you don’t need to.

    • willie says:

      “You would think that the Germans would have figured this out then? Well of course they have. They just put on proper winter tyres.”

      Not true – I live on the continent and drive a BMW. While winter tyres do make a massive difference when driving on snow (but still don’t prevent skidding on ice), rear-wheel drive cars still perform poorly on the snow even with winter tyres. The best thing to do is put some weight in the boot.

      Regarding storage of summer tyres – why is it that almost all Irish apartments/townhouses/terraces built since 1995 do not provide any storage space? Its ridiculous and another reason why developers should be hung out to dry.

    • Siobhan says:

      Willie, not only do they have no storage space they also don’t have any hanging out to dry space !

    • Copenhagen says:

      They give a false security.

    • Paolo says:

      I’m an Italian from the north who live in Dublin for 9 years.
      I can confirm that for the last 10 years in Italy most people used to switch tyres. Now drivers who clock-up low mileage (e.g. 15,000 km per year) don’t bother any more as the winter gear performs decently even in summer.
      Moreover in Italy by now there are special driving course that teach to control the vehicle when it skids even at some speed.
      I lived in Austria for 3 years and wouldn’t have dreamed of driving in winter without proper tyres: there during the winter months insurance companies can refuse cover in case of accident even when snow conditions aren’t the cause if the vehicle isn’t equipped with winter tyres.
      Last year I tried getting a set for my Passat and tyre dealers in Ireland were staring at me as if I asked to buy a unicorn.
      This year I managed to install them and most of my colleagues told me or more often others that I must have more money then sense… laughs best who laughs last!
      BTW a four wheel drive vehicle (be it saloon, estate or off road) doesn’t perform any better then a front wheel drive one when it comes to braking or steering on snow or ice. The tyres can instead make the difference.
      Finallya comment about the socks: depsite being manufactured in Italy, their use isn’t legal there.

    • Eoin says:

      I’ve been living in the Alps for 8 years and only those of us living at altitude fit 4 snow tyres in Winter (or those with 4x4s which require all tyres to be the same). People living lower down, who only see occasional snow, only fit 2 winter tyres (on the driving wheels). Before moving higher up the mountain this is what I did on my Saab and i never had a problem on snow, even driving up to the local ski station.

      So I would recommend Irish drivers considering just 2 winter tyres. Cheaper to fit and less storage space required in those Irish apartments :)

    • Colin says:

      What really amazes me is why so many people STILL insist on using their mobile phones while driving even in this weather. Tyres don’t matter if you’re not paying attention..

    • Jim says:

      I’ve been running winter tyres this year for the first time (on a heavy FWD manual saloon; ABS is the only installed driver aid).

      The difference is astounding, but comes with some warnings as some people have alluded to already

      - Ice is still tricky, but generally surmountable with a gentle touch. The truth is nothing will genuinely beat ice, save for ice (studded) tyres, or chains.

      - Deep snow will still get you into trouble, and doesn’t change just because you have winter tyres; be cautious of anything that may lead to your car sitting on a bed of snow, or deep enough to make your car act like an imitation snowplough.

      Performance on snow and slush is drastically improved; taking off (even steep hill starts) is much less tricky; cornering is reasonably stable, and braking is noticeably better (although stopping distances are greatly increased over non-winter conditions). The tyres will slip if pushed beyond their limits, but in a progressive manner (something which is well worth testing in an empty, open space, if the opportunity permits).

      In essence, winter tyres will not convert you or your car into a winter wonder-machine, but greatly improve your ability to keep on the move in the conditions we are experiencing at the moment, and help reduce the risk incurred for you and others due to your own driving.

      Some other things that help (winter tyres or not)

      - be as smooth and gentle as possible in all your driving manoeuvres
      - carry a shovel, and a 2ltr bottle filled with sand/cat litter or similar, to help you get out if you get stuck
      - don’t be afraid to try a higher gear to take off (thus reducing torque, helping prevent wheelspin)
      - gently rock the car back and forth if space allows when stuck, to try other routes out of the position you’re in

    • john says:

      weiss snow socks no good. bought them last friday and they were worn and torn in 6 days. i only drove a few miles each day and never drove above 50 km. however the main roads were snow free and maybe i should have removed them but my own road is a mile of compacted snow and ice. a waste of 80 bucks!

    • Tony says:

      I encountered several accidents on a small stretch of road in the north county Dublin area yesterday and , irrespective of the type of tires that one had , many of these accidents would still have occured because of the condition of the roads.

      Forget about changing tires, what we need is to change our politicians and maybe get some people who are pro-active
      in getting in some salt and keeping our roads safe. All these people should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

    • steve says:

      winter tyres are only for really cold countries that drop below -15 degrees celsius.i live in alberta where it drops to -30 for the last 20 years and have never owned a set .front wheel drive makes a huge difference and if you put weight in the boot of back wheel drive it makes a huge differnce.nothing will make adifference if the roads aint salted and gritted.do listen to the politicans bankers or so called experts.they are just loking for another way to rip off the ordinay working irish people.

    • Desmond says:

      I beg to differ with the report that front wheel tires are better because of the weight. That is not so, I live in Canada and can tell you the difference is because front wheel drive pulls (therefore less spinning) and rear wheel push(therefore more spinning.If you had the time to check out any well used junction after a fresh fall of snow you would notice the ice forming from rear wheels spinning, any Canadian will tell you that. Proper snow tires like Michelin do make a huge difference but judging from the prices quoted you are getting away cheap. A good set of tires on their own rims in Canada installed plus taxes is $940 for four.

    • paul b. says:

      Hallo i live in germany and i would say a better bet is all weather tyres for most people in Ireland. Paul

    • Niall says:

      I live in Finland, 70cm+ snow this winter, it is law to change to winter tires, studded or friction, for the winter season. Tires can be stored at “tire hotels” as mentioned, I store mine at Euromaster’s tire hotel. I have a second set of alloys on which the tires are fitted, when I go to change them, they are washed in a special machine before being name-tagged and shelved in a huge hall.
      I live in an apartment and all apartments in Finland come with a secure storage cage in the cellar (and a bicycle room), so no problems if people decide to store their tires, but for convenience I chose to store them at the tire hotel.
      Tip: Drive a 4-wheel drive car with All Season tires. I drive a 4×4 Audi Quattro and I will never go back to 2-wheel drive.
      Safe winter driving all!

    • albert hall says:

      I spent Christmas in Ireland with my family and proved to be a great benefit in helping them get about in the extreme snow conditions. What I was taught and learned over the 50 plus years I have been driving was to forget the brake pedal, slow right down, to a crawl if needs be, do not make excessive steering wheel movements and treat the throttle pedal like your best crystal glasses. Excessive revving of the engine will get you nowhere except in a ditch or in the body shop with a sad looking vehicle. However, snow is one thing, but when it is compacted into ice then studded tyres are the only answer – or stay at home.

    • Fintan Vallely says:

      Winter politicians are definitely softer, but even though they kick in unseen they may still not have much grip. Didn’t Brian Lenehan slip in unnoticed in the middle of the ice crisis that we were giving another few billion to AIB, but, this time, there was ‘a cast iron guarantee of success’ , or something like that? Apart from slippery politicians, the dealers are like winter rubber too. I priced winter tyres in Armagh the week before christmas in one place and was quoted £129 each for the Pirelli’s you list for 97 Euros. But they are great stuff – I have driven long distances in Norway not on winter tyres, but on snow tyres – a differnt tread, and with goose pimples all over them. Traffic there barrells along on them at 100k as normal, and they have a ferocius braking ability on hard packed snow. For those who might get stuck, an old country trick is useful: carry a few metres of rope-style clothesline (nylon, woven, type, no other; orange or blue typically, cost 4 or 5 euro). Loop it progressively round just each drive wheel, across the tyre, through the wheel holes, and tension it tight by linking the outside laps at the finish. Knot it well. It bites into snow or ice. Cheaper than socks, and great for slow city traffic where stopping is the issue, but not for the motorway. Use what is left over for the bankers …

    • Kurtmeister says:

      I rang 28 tyre dealers in November and not one could organise winter tyres for me. finally I ordered a set of Bridgestone Blizzak LM30 for my A4 (front wheel drive). These were quoted to me in Ireland for 235 euro each; in Germany I got the whole set of 4 tyres for 480 Euro.
      1) Proves that Ireland is still the worst rip off republic in Europe.
      2) Here is a great business opportunity; these winters will get worse as the years go by.
      3) The Bridgestones are great in winter conditions. You will still slip, but breaking distance and steering is hugely improved in comparison to summer tyres.
      And to all those fools flying past me at 100 kmh in icy conditions: I hope you wreck your cars, but that you don’t hurt anyone else in the process. Remove yourselves from the roads, or drive responsibly!


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