tyre test - winter tyres & dunlop's wintersport 4d

cold comfort

tyre test - winter tyres & dunlop

At long last, British motorists are waking up to the benefits of Winter tyres, arguably the biggest aid to road safety during our colder months. Jonathan Crouch considers their benefits and puts Dunlop's WinterSport 4D tyre to the test in frozen Sweden

It's the same every winter. Cars in ditches. Calls for more gritting. Queues at pathetic speeds on the snow. Another year. Another generation of motorists inadequately prepared for the season.

We live in a time when we'd all better start taking the colder season a bit more seriously. Evidence across the last decade shows a clear trend for winters becoming more severe and unpredictable. It isn't up to the council to keep our cars on the road during the arctic months: it's up to us.

How do we cope? By all going out and buying SUVs and 4x4s? Not necessarily. Even if we could all afford to do that, it wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. There are, after all, plenty of circumstances where an ordinary Ford Fiesta will cruise easily up an icy slope that would defeat a Land Rover Discovery - if the little Ford was on the right tyres.

And that's the key of course - as every racing driver knows. Get your choice of rubber wrong and you can have all the power and technology you want but it's not going to help very much. In the central European and Scandinavian countries that are permanently snow-bound in winter, they have no option but to understand this. For these people, bolting on a set of winter tyres in the freezing months, then swapping them for a more appropriate Summer set when Spring breaks through is as natural as filling up with fuel.

It's hard for them to understand why we in Britain largely can't be bothered to do it. All right, so our conditions might not be so severe all the time, but every year there will be periods where they're going to be. And in any case, you don't need six foot of snow to feel the benefit of winter tyres: an icy morning will do just as well. Manufacturers stipulate that winter tyres work best at temperatures of 7 degrees and below, temperatures we get over 150 days every year in the UK.

To be fair, there is some evidence that this message is getting through to British motorists. Sales of winter tyres have risen by over 400% on these shores over the last few years, fuelled by the increasing prevalence of snow in the colder months and growing public awareness of the problem. The Scottish Parliament recently issued a recommendation that motorists should fit winter tyres in the colder months and Westminster is considering doing the same.

Mind you, the tyre industry here still has a way to go in making the whole winter/summer tyres transition process easy for the consumer. Free tyre changeovers and 'tyre hotels' (where your local stockist looks after out-of-season rubber until you need it) have yet to be commonplace but both will doubtless arrive as customer demand rises. For the time being, most tyre dealers will be helpful in both regards should you choose to buy from them.

But buy what? There's a bewildering choice of winter rubber on the market. Where to start? Perhaps with the state-of-the-art. Dunlop's latest WinterSport 4D tyre is a high performance design that sits above the more family-orientated SP Winter Response tyre in the company's range. It claims to move the market for winter tyres to a new dimension - so I flew to arctic Sweden to try it.

Dunlop has a long and successful legacy of winter tyre technology stretching back to 1993 and the launch of the SP WinterSport M2 and more recently underlined in 2005 with the SP WinterSport 3D. If that doesn't mean much to you, then the many premium car makers that choose the brand's winter tyre technology as original equipment certainly will, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, Jaguar and Porsche among them. All these marques are, even now, bolting sets of WinterSport 4D tyres onto some of the most powerful and prestigious cars they make.

The reasons why are to be found in the unique technology of this new rubber and its clever '4D sipe' system. A 'sipe', you'd be forgiven for not knowing, is an ultra-thin groove made in the tyre's tread that enhances both traction and grip. The 3D sipes on Dunlop's previous WinterSport design were already enough to win it a whole clutch of awards and adding the fourth '4D' transversal sipe that gives this tyre its name makes all the difference - more contact with the road and greater lateral performance and grip. Active safety was a key objective for Dunlop's designers. This, they were determined, should be not only a short-braking tyre but also one that would react quickly to steering response. And, at the same time, exhibit 10% less rolling resistance than its closest competitors, a key for reducing fuel consumption.

It all sounds impressive - but then manufacturer's claims always do. Putting this tyre to the test back-to-back with competitors on the frozen lake that Dunlop had laid on near the central Swedish town of Are would, I was confident, properly test the technology and give me a greater insight into the real benefits of winter rubber. Both front and rear-driven cars, Audi A3s and BMW 3 Series models, had been provided for the purpose, with the Audis first up on a frozen ice oval track. Our first test pitted cars with the new 4D against others using Dunlop Winter tyre technology two decades old, our hosts wanting to underline just how far this market has come in the last twenty years. The point was well made, the Audis shod with more modern rubber turning in quicker and sliding much less than their counterparts.

But next was the crucial test: a fleet of rear-driven BMW 3 Series saloons awaited nearby on a testing, twisting, undulating snow circuit, some fitted with WinterSport 4Ds, the others featuring the best alternative winter tyres that competitors Michelin and Pirelli could offer. First I tried a car with Pirellis which slid and oversteered luridly. The Michelin-shod 318d I tried next was better but the car fitted with the Dunlops comprehensively out-pointed it. Turn-in was sharper, lateral grip was more reassuring and even when the car broke away from you, it was easier to bring it back into line. A subsequent road route further underlined these initial impressions.

Only a summer tyre comparison was missing from my Swedish test, but such rubber would of course have been laughable in the snowy terrain we were using. Yet these conditions are exactly what the majority of British motorists attempt to use summer tyres in several times every winter, putting themselves, their loved ones and other road users at risk. It's about time we all thought a bit more carefully about it - for safety's sake.