What price tyre safety?

Turn over your hand now and look at the size of the palm. Now multiply that by four and that is roughly how much rubber holds you on to the road come sun, rain, snow or ice. Through wet leaves, spilled diesel, potholes and gravel, that small contact patch is all that keeps you from having an unscheduled meeting with a tree.

Stick a set of premium tyres on your car and you usually won’t be getting any change out of £400, a substantial sum for four round bits of rubber, so a growing number of people are moving to cheaper tyres, even remoulds and recycled tyres.

With budget tyres available for less than half the price of the premium brands, and the remould or recycled options available for half of that figure, it is possible to save around £300 per set. That’s enough for a week’s holiday in Egypt, if the window of my local Thomas Cook is to be believed.

Given that all tyres look fundamentally the same, it is no surprise that a week in the sun is seen as a better option by many.

Keen to find out just what differences there are between the tyres, I spent a day with Continental at their testing facility in Germany, the Conti-Drom.

With a fleet of powerful cars and a high-speed test track, it would have been rude not to put a few laps in before getting involved in discussing this serious question, so I took the opportunity to punish some of the German firms tyres attached to the wheels of a Mercedes-Benz SL. After quite a few laps of enforced sideways action, the tyres were beginning to show signs of graining, but there was still plenty of grip and, more importantly, they remained consistent.

Having got that out of my system, it was on to the reason for being there. Why should a customer spend four times what they could for premium brands, when the round black things from everybody else look the same?

A very simple test demonstrated things quickly and easily. Enter stage right – a MINI Cooper fitted with a mix of Continental and budget tyres.

Half worn Conti tyres were fitted up front, with a brand new set of budget tyres on the rear. Ahead, there was a wet circle of low grip tarmac. It was time to put the tyres to the test.

Entering the circle and turning in, the tyres bit and the car headed round the disc. Building up speed to around 35 mph, things remained stable and consistent. One single extra mile an hour and things changed dramatically, the rear of the car (fitted with brand new import tyres, remember) swung wildly out, requiring some pretty quick steering inputs to keep things under control. The part worn Continentals simply continued to grip.

So far, so convincing. What if we swapped them around though, just to ensure the car wasn’t set up in order to prove a point…

With the new budget tyres now up front, and the part worn premium tyres behind, it was back to the circle. And then almost immediately off the circle, as the car understeered towards the grass beyond the edge of the steering pad.

Elsewhere I got to play on the wet handling circuit, using a fleet of BMW 118i cars. The 2km circuit was, admittedly, great fun on the budget tyres, with the tail sliding around at every corner, wheels lighting up every time the power was put down, and braking leading to some interesting lines.

Fun, but not very safe if you were on public roads. On the Continental tyres, each lap was done some 20 seconds quicker, with little to no drama. There were fewer smiles, but in the real world there would be fewer bent body panels and potentially fewer bent bodies.

On-track testing seems conclusive, but is there science to back it up? The final stop then was to head inside to see Continental’s new Automated Indoor Braking Analyser facility. A Volkswagen Golf appears to propel itself down a 300 metre steel corridor, at some speed. When it hits 75 mph, the brakes come on and the car stops. Another shoots by, but stops around four car lengths further down the track. The difference? Tyres, of course.

The magic is in the technology behind the facility, with the AIBA able to recreate any road surface under most conditions, regardless of the weather conditions outside. This allows uninterrupted testing 365 days of the year and offers the capacity for over 100,000 individual brake test procedures a year.
Tyres may be a distress purchase, something you do in a rush only when you need them, but it’s your last point of contact between you and the road, so getting it right is important.

The difference between the premium and budget tyre brands was so significant that spending the extra will undoubtedly go towards reducing the number of those killed or injured on our roads – that was 1,901 deaths last year, with 23,122 serious injuries.

What my day with Continental proved to me was that tyres are a vital influence on the safety of a car, and its occupants. The phrase ‘duty of care’ has taken on greater significance over the last decade or so and, in my opinion, the non-fitment of premium tyres by companies when the risks and benefits are crystal clear is one of the biggest failings of that duty of care.

Is that worth saving £300 for?

Phil Huff

Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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