When the temperature falls, most people will go searching for their grippy shoes to better tackle the ice, snow and water that winter throws at us. The same logic can be applied to your car's tyres. When the frost starts settling it can be tempting to change to a set of winter tyres. Question is, do you really need a set and if so, which are the best?
Thankfully our sister magazine Auto Zeitung in Germany has done the thorough testing. It bought the latest crop of winter tyres anonymously at independent suppliers to see what is the best winter tyre you can buy in 2021.
Winter tyres: what we’re looking for
The official labels categorise tyres on efficiency, wet grip for braking and rolling noise - and classify each property with letters. To this we tested a range of parameters including deceleration, traction, steering precision and driving stability on various surfaces and under the same parallel conditions. We also rated comfort and resistance to aquaplaning (when the tyre floats up on standing water, losing grip).
Designing a winter tyre that can excel in every discipline is difficult. Tyre makers juggle compound, tread design and carcass construction to find the elusive sweet spot where the rubber can cut through ice and slush, find grip in all conditions - whether slippery or dry - and serve up ride comfort, peace and quiet for drivers. Oh, and tyres must also last a long time and not disintegrate when the temperature climbs. It’s a tough gig.
These are often conflicting goals; if you improve a tyre’s efficiency, for example, grip in wet conditions decreases - and vice versa. If you reduce the profile depth for more steering precision, the tyre will float faster. If you design more slats - or sipes - in the profile to improve grip on snow, dry grip becomes worse. In short: all-rounders are the exception.
How we tested the best winter tyres 2021
Auto Zeitung is always run the tyre test with incredibly stringent rules to ensure reliable results:
- All tyres were purchased from independent retailers in January 2021.
- Tests are independent with no manufacturer help. Each tyre is examined using reproducible driving manoeuvres at the limit on snow, wet and dry surfaces - with and without ESP stability control engaged. This is the only way we can say whether a tyre offers security during a spontaneous evasive manoeuvre. We also subjectively evaluate the comfort properties
- Each tyre has its rolling resistance tested on two different test stands.
Best winter tyres 2021: which ones should you buy?
If you're after a proper set of winter tyres, one that's good in all conditions tested (snowy, wet and dry surfaces) then the top choice is Bridgestone's Blizzak LM005. Despite not being the best option in the snow (the steering is a little indirect), its performance in the rain and on dry surfaces was exceptional making it our top winter tyre.
Truth be told however, only six points separated first place from fourth and any of these would be excellent choices for winter tyres depending on your needs. The Michelin Pilot Alpin 5 SUV was by far the best option for snow, the Continental WinterContact TS 850 P the best tyre for dry roads and the Vredestein Wintrac Pro was nearly as good as the other while being cheaper.
Both the Firestone Winterhawk 4 and Goodyear UltraGrip Performance were acceptable choices, performing decently but not exceptionally in each area. The Hankook Winter I*Cept was good on snow but struggled in the rain, while the Falken Eurowinter HS01 SUV lacked grip in all areas and came home a distant last place.
The best winter tyres 2021
1. Bridgestone Blizzak LM005
The best winter tyre 2021
Testers' notes - Unbeatable wet performance, very good dry performance and it's good on snow too.
2. Michelin Pilot Alpin 5 SUV
Best winter tyre for snow
Testers' note - This is the best tyre for snow, it's also great for overall winter safety.
3. Continental WinterContact TS 850 P
Best winter tyre for low rolling resistance
Testers' notes - A good all-rounder which offers the lowest rolling resistance and is safe on any surface.
4. Vredestein Wintrac Pro
Best winter tyre on a budget
Testers' notes - Very good on snow and wet surfaces, good on dry surfaces. Very good value.
5. Firestone Winterhawk 4
Testers' notes - Good results for snow and wet surfaces, average performance in the dry.
6. Goodyear UltraGrip Performance
Testers' notes - Solid performance all-round, master of none.
7. Nokian WR SUV 4
Testers' notes - Decent grip on snow and good in the dry, not so good in the wet.
8. Pirelli Scorpion Winter
Testers' notes - Good in the dry, not the best in the snow or the wet.
9. Hankook Winter I*Cept
Testers' notes - Good in the snow and on dry surfaces, not very good in the rain.
10. Falken Eurowinter HS01 SUV
Testers' notes - Not very grippy in any environment, highest rolling resistance too.
Find the correct tyres for your car online
Want to make sure that these winter tyres will fit your car? Amazon offers a feature called Amazon Garage which allows you to add your car and filter parts that are designed to fit. There is also a service called Amazon Confirmed Fit which will ensure that any tyre you look at fits your car. Halfords and Blackcircles offer similar services.
What are winter tyres or cold weather tyres?
Firstly: ‘winter tyres’ or 'snow tyres' as we’re accustomed to calling them, is actually a misleading title. These aren’t massive chunky mud-plugging boots with knobbly, noisy treadblocks and spiked studs. They're cold-weather tyres, designed to work in lower temperatures, on wet and dry roads, as well as giving better performance on snow and ice – which, given the inconsistent gritting on our nation’s road network, is just as well. We need a do-it-all tyre.
How do winter tyres work?
Winter/cold-weather tyres contain more natural rubber than regular tyres, and are constructed from a softer compound. This allows them to stay supple as temperatures drop below 7 degrees C in conditions where a normal tyre becomes hard and less keyed-in to the asphalt. The result? Higher grip levels on the road, even when the tarmac isn't covered in white.
It’s not just all chemistry, though: look at a winter tyre up close, and you'll see the tread is different to a more conventional tyre. The contact patch of a winter tyre is more rugged: it's covered in thousands of ‘sipes’ – tiny channels or grooves cut into the rubber which help warm them up – while also displacing water and slush at a faster rate. Winter tyres can have up to 10 times more ‘sipes' than your average tyres.
On snow, these little crevices work together with a larger tread. If you were to use a regular tyre, its channels would quickly become clogged with compacted snow – making for less-than-confident handling. On the down-side, wobbly treadblocks mean cold-weather tyred cars are less responsive in milder conditions.
Should I buy winter tyres?
In the snow, winter tyres are an obvious option. They make for safer, more confident driving, and they improve grip significantly – but they’re also a gamble. Sure, we often have a cold snap in a typical British winter – but you can't bank on it. It takes just one mild winter (like 2020's) for you to question the extra expense of buying an additional set of rubber.
Cars can become notoriously unruly on winter boots, with vehicles closer to the performance end of things – like a DB11 AMR, for example – spinning the wheels in fourth.
In snow and cold weather, a seasonal rubber compound, chunkier tread and sypes work well – but they don't behave as they should if it's really mild and above the optimum operating range. We've driven numerous cars shod with winter tyres that have a chunkier ride quality, woollier steering and slippier handling in certain conditions.
It’s a complicated argument and one that comes down to your budget, and the predicted weather for the next few months. In colder countries, getting winter tyres is an easy decision, but in our more temperate British climate, we can’t even rely on a cold snap.
That said, if you can afford a set of winter tyres, they'll do far more to keep you mobile than picking an all-wheel drive car. If you want added peace of mind, have somewhere to store an extra set of rims (some garages will do this for you, at a price...) and need to keep mobile this winter, just do it.