4x4 tyre test continental cross contact at

get a grip

Fit the wrong tyres to your SUV and you risk squandering many of its all-wheel drive benefits. With the Continental Cross Contact AT tyre, there's little chance of that happening. Andy Enright reports.

This was as graphic a demonstration of the need for the correct tyres as it was possible to imagine. Two ostensibly similar looking Nissan X-Trail compact SUVs sat at the base of a grassy slope. One was a four-wheel drive model, the other the cheaper front-wheel drive variant. On the face of it, the four-wheel drive car should have less of an issue scrambling up the dewy incline but this car was fitted with normal road-oriented tyres and the front-wheel drive X-Trail was shod with Continental Cross Contact AT rubber.

It's a sad fact of life that tyres often come some way down the priority list for drivers of many cars, not just 4x4s. The unspoken assumption is that as long as you choose a decent brand, tyres are all much of a muchness. Round. Black. Make your hands dirty and keep your alloys off the tarmac. That sort of thing. The truth is that there is a massive variation between the best and the next best and it pays to do your homework. Continental are very aware of this and the company is keen to demonstrate the effectiveness of its products in live scenarios. Hence the pair of Nissans and independently conducted flailfest that looked set to ensue.

The location was Land Rover's Eastnor Castle test facility and, prior to the Nissan test, the majority of the day had been spent with the Freelander 2, getting a feel for the Conti tyres around some of the estate's more treacherous off-road sections. Although it's the Land Rover product that's least adept in serious terrain, the Freelander 2 is often written off as a lightweight by many 4x4 enthusiasts, discouraged by its lack of a low range transfer box, yet the Freelander 2 is surprisingly capable. Shod with the Cross Contact AT tyres and sporting an optional bash plate kit fitted to the underside to protect it against the hairier sections of our off-road route, Land Rover's baby surprised us all.

A combination of the clever electronics and the tyre's ability to translate those lines of coding to solid traction did the trick. The Cross Contact AT features an open shoulder design that allowed the big tread blocks to grab the sides of the muddy ruts we were traversing. Many off road tyres use this design but few utilise materials like the Conti, which manages to balance a compound that grips well with a firm tread block that ejects stones and mud and has measured high mileage ability. The three circumferential offset block rows are designed to 'step' smoothly onto the road surface and not slap down like the parallel tread blocks of many rival tyres. This means quieter cruising on tarmac.

Tarmac cruising was the last thing on our minds at that moment though. Trusting the Land Rover's traction control was key. Rather than batter the car through a tricky section, you needed to allow a wheel to start slipping for the system to fully engage. Gradually wind on the throttle from that point and the Conti tyres would sniff out any available traction, the Freelander crawling out of seemingly irrecoverable situations.

Yes, there are instances where its lack of suspension travel will defeat it as it rides on steel springs and can't be pumped up and down like the air-equipped Discovery. The cut down version of Land Rover's Terrain Response system works in concert with the stability control, traction control and Hill Descent Control. The automatic gearbox is a smart system and just takes one more variable out of the equation when your brain is maxed by some particularly tricky obstacle. When we completed our off road route, we inspected the underside of the car and the rugged bash plates looked as if they could be sold as new. The alloy wheels were, rather amazingly, free from scuffs and gouges around the rims, helped by the Cross Contact AT's rubber flange which protects this part of the rim. That's helpful for people like me who still manage to make a Horlicks of some parallel parking manoeuvres.

Getting out of the Land Rover and into the Nissan was the real clincher. The four-wheel drive X-Trail model was utterly bested by the grassy slope, the road-biased rubber unable to get a purchase where the front-wheel drive car with the Cross Contact ATs all round had a little shimmy half way up but otherwise crested the bank without undue drama. Driving both cars back to back on the route back to our hotel that night was also illuminating. Yes, the Cross Contact ATs were slightly noisier but you had to really listen out for it and, if anything, whine from the centre diff of the all-wheel drive X-Trail was more of an issue. If you're buying a 4x4 and want to occasionally stretch its abilities but don't need a full mud tyre setup, the Continental Cross Contact AT offers the perfect on and off road compromise. Coming to a grassy bank near you.