Tyres are the most important part of your car when it comes to safety. They’re the only bit of the car that actually touches the road, so every input you make – acceleration, steering, braking or otherwise – goes through them.
The contact patch is smaller than you’d think, too – about the size of your computer keyboard across all four tyres.
There’s a reason all racing drivers are obsessed with tyres, then – and they’re just as important for road driving. Read our five-minute guide to make sure you choose the right tyres and stay safe.
Are premium brands better?
Never has the mantra ‘you get what you pay for’ been more true than with tyres. They’re one of the few products where you really are better off plumping for a premium brand.
In a recent back-to-back test by Fifth Gear’s Jonny Smith, the dramatic differences between the name-brand and budget tyres was made apparent. Comparing two identical Mercedes-AMG C63 cars, the car with ‘premium’ Continental rubber performed much better in handling, braking and agility tests.
“Many people want to know why premium tyres are preferable to budget brands,” said Smith.
“With tyres the only part of your car in direct contact with the road, it makes sense to ensure they’re the best quality possible.”
It’s not all about the high-performance stuff, though. Some tyres won’t be the right fit for your car. The track-focused Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R is perhaps not the choice for a Toyota Prius, for instance. Likewise, an eco set from a well-regarded brand won’t carry a McLaren Senna to a blistering lap time.
In direct comparisons using the tyre energy label, however, it’s still name brands that do best. A good mid-range tyre that performs well across fuel economy, wet weather and noise should suit most needs.
Tyre energy labels: explained
Speaking of the tyre energy label, what is it? Briefly, it’s a good way of comparing tyre performance – and performance per pound.
Every tyre sold since 2012 comes with an energy label, much like you find on fridges and other white goods. This allows you to compare products at a glance, with simple graphics showing how they compare for fuel economy, wet-road grip and noise.
This is based on a tyre’s rolling resistance – i.e. how much friction it generates with the road. Measurements are taken on a calibrated test rig: the lower the rolling resistance, the better the fuel economy. The most efficient rubber earns an ‘A’, while the least efficient are rated ‘G’.
Good grip is most important when the roads are wet, so this rating is based on wet-braking performance in a straight line. Experts say an A-rated tyre can stop in 30 percent less distance than a G-rated one. That’s potentially the difference between a near-miss and a dangerous crash.
Anyone who regularly drives the concrete section of the M25 will know just how noisy tyres can be. This final infographic puts the tyre into one of three categories, based on the noise it emits in decibels – measured from outside the car – when cruising at a steady speed. One black bar means a quiet tyre, while three bars is noisier – albeit still within legal limits.
Do I need certain tyres in certain weather conditions?
The effects of the right rubber in the right conditions are immeasurable. Many experts believe that a two-wheel-drive car with winters will fare better than four-wheel-drive SUV with standard tyres. It doesn’t matter which wheels are driven if their drive isn’t put to the ground effectively.
Winter tyres offer much-improved grip on snow and ice – and indeed on dry roads if the temperature is below 7deg C. Winter tyres are even mandatory during the colder months in some European countries. Just as slick rubber will dramatically increase performance on a dry track, so too will a winter tyre boost grip in colder, slushier conditions.
There is also rubber suited to all types of conditions. ‘All-season’ doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll only work in a blizzard…
We’ve had good experiences with the Michelin Pilot Sport 3, Uniroyal Rainsport 3 and Falken Azenis FK510 as strong performers in wet and dry conditions on the road.
Are your car tyres safe?
The law says you must replace a tyre once the tread-depth drops below 1.6mm across three quarters of its surface. An easy test is to place a 20p piece in the groove of the tyre. If the outer band of the coin is hidden, your tyre is legal.
However, bear in mind that a new tyre has a tread-depth of around 8mm, so grip will be reduced – particularly in the wet – well before it reaches the legal limit. Consumer group Which? recommends replacing your tyres when tread depth reaches 2-3mm.
You should also check tyre pressures regularly. Over-inflated rubber could increase your risk of skidding or having a blowout, while too little pressure will increase fuel consumption and have a detrimental effect on handling. In both instances, your tyres will wear at an excessive rate, too. The correct pressures for your car will be listed in the handbook. Alternatively, use the Tyre Pressure Checker tool on the TyreSafe website.
Regularly check for flat spots, bulges, cracking and rubber degradation. A sun-dried tyre can be just as dangerous as insufficient tread. Also check they’re are still in-date. Yes, tyres have a use-by date.
Part-worn tyres: should you take the risk?
On the subject of safety, part-worn tyres are often a false economy. If you’re paying two-thirds of the cost of a new set for tyres with 4mm of tread left, you’re paying more than half the price for half the product.
Recent research has also indicated that as many as 90 percent of part-worn rubber in the UK aren’t safe for sale.
It isn’t illegal to sell part-worn tyres. Talk of a ban is in the air, however. If you really must, check for the usual factors: tread depth, pressure, flat spots, bulges, degrading rubber and damage. Also check the date on the tyre.
Tyre sizes: explained
Tyres come in a wide range of different sizes. Check your car handbook, or read the markings on the outer sidewall to see what size your replacement tyre should be.
For example, a typical tyre size is 195/50 R15H. Breaking this down gives you:
- 195 – tyre width in mm
- 50 – tyre sidewall profile, as a percentage of tyre width
- R – stands for ‘Radial’. All modern tyres are radial-ply
- 15 – diameter of the wheel rim in inches
- H – speed rating (see below)
Regardless of the national speed limit being 70mph, you must fit tyres rated for the maximum speed of your car. Speed ratings are marked with letters and range from N (88mph) to ZR (over 149mph). You’ll find a full list of speed ratings on the TyreSafe website.
How to save money on tyres
We really can’t say it enough – don’t scrimp on rubber. They are the most safety-critical part of your car, so buy the best you can. And there are ways you can avoid paying over the odds for good quality rubber.
If you need a tyre at short notice, the cheapest option will probably be an independent tyre fitter, rather than a franchised car dealer. Make a few phone calls to compare prices and ensure the fee you are quoted includes new valves, fitting and balancing. Remember, you can haggle.
If you have more time, buying online will almost certainly prove cheaper – and you may be able to have the them fitted at your home or office. Again, it pays to shop around as there are plenty of retailers competing for your business. Popular websites include Asda Tyres, Black Circles, MyTyres and Tyre Shopper.