What’s the most important safety feature on your car? The airbags? Or what about the clever electronic stability control system that prevents skidding? Or how about the seatbelt that pulls you back into the seat in the split second before an impact? Actually, it’s none of these innovations. The most significant equipment for saving lives are car tyres.
Tyres are a car’s only contact with the road. And although they may all look the same to the untrained eye, there are big differences between good and bad tyres. In fact, picking a cheap, poor quality tyre for a car could be the difference between having an accident and avoiding it.
Yet it’s understandable that drivers want to save money. A set of four tyres can cost an arm and a leg. And if the timing falls badly, new tyres could be required at the same time that a car’s annual service and insurance needs to be paid for.
So how can drivers ensure they choose the best tyre for their needs and budget? Read on for hints and tips on making the right decision.
What size tyre does my car need?
All car tyres have markings on their sidewalls which tell drivers their size. However, to some, these can look as unintelligible as an algebraic equation. To understand their meaning, see this guide. Alternatively, look up the recommended tyre size in the car’s user manual, or go to the tool on tyre shopping websites and enter your registration number to find its required size.
The price difference between premium and budget tyres
What is it that tempts drivers to pay good money for a brand of tyre they’ve never heard of? In a word: savings. Many car owners can’t see further than their wallet. But for reasons we’ll come to, it’s a false economy.
To illustrate those savings, take Britain’s best-selling family hatchback: the Ford Focus. There’s a significant difference between the most expensive and cheapest set of four new tyres, for a model with a 205/55 R17 fitment.
The most affordable at Kwik Fit, the high street retailer, is an unnamed budget brand that costs £58.50 per tyre, or £234 for a set. The most expensive is a Michelin, at £142.50 each. That’s £570 for four. The difference is an eye-watering £336.
So it’s easy to see why drivers steer clear of certain brands. However, somewhere in the middle ground is a happy compromise, where the quality, roadholding performance and fuel efficiency of a tyre are worth paying that bit extra for.
Where premium and budget tyres differ
Within a minute of watching this test conducted by What Car?, it’s clear to see the performance difference between cheap tyres and premium brands with familiar names.
In tests, a family hatchback fitted with Sunew tyres, made in China, took 82.4 metres to stop on a wet road. Michelin tyres reduced that to just 59.5 metres. The difference is five car lengths.
Which? has reached much the same conclusion in its impartial tests. Stopping distances between premium brand rubber and cheap items shoot up by 15 metres.
Did you know that car makers recommend certain brands?
Car makers typically spend a minimum of three years developing a new car. And during that time, their engineers will evaluate a wide range of tyres, before settling on one or two. In some cases they will even ask manufacturers to develop tyres specifically for a new car.
They do this because they want tyres to show the car in its best light, offering the best roadholding, ride comfort, braking performance, refinement levels and fuel efficiency. These tyres are what’s known as original equipment, or OE.
In Europe, OE car tyre manufacturers include Continental, Dunlop, Goodyear, Michelin and Pirelli.
Do original equipment car tyres cost more?
They do tend to cost more than non-branded tyres. But before dismissing paying more, consider the independent reviews. Auto Express conducts an annual tyre test which is considered one of the most exhaustive of its kind. It measures performance in the wet and dry, and the tyres are bought independently to ensure manufacturers can’t submit a set of secretly uprated rubber.
Shop around for the best deals
Once you’ve identified the best tyre for your car and budget, shop around online and note the best price you can achieve. Then phone a selection of high street fitters and see if they can better the offer. You’ll be surprised at how competitive they can be.
James is a motoring journalist and former magazine editor at BBC Top Gear and Auto Express. He has scooped, reported on and reviewed most new cars of the past 20 years, and currently contributes to the Driving section of The Sunday Times.