Fleet News

Winter tyres: do they fit the fleet bill?

SO, with the feeling of well-being that is Christmas behind us, it’s time for a few home truths.

This is the most dangerous time of year to be on the roads. Drivers are more likely to die over the winter months than at any other time of year.

Why? Because it’s often spleen-freezingly cold, and such conditions bring trouble.

Ice, snow and low temperatures can play havoc with cars and vans. And while a slow-starting motor is a mite annoying, skids and a lack of control through the tyres can kill. The rubber is, after all, a vehicle’s only contact with the road, and the contact area is surprisingly small – about the size of your palm.

Who uses them?

THE concept of CWTs has been a huge success in mainland Europe over recent years. In the Netherlands, sales rose eight-fold between 1996 and 2004, from 55,000 to 412,000. In Austria, they account for 55% of all tyres sold.

Some countries even legislate for such tyres. In Finland, Latvia, Slovenia and Norway, they are mandatory during the coldest months. In Germany, cars travelling in mountainous areas must be fitted with them.

But the UK has no such legislation. Indeed, winter tyres are not even mentioned in the Highway Code.

So with no law forcing fleets to adopt the Alpin or Pilot Alpin, what makes Michelin so sure that they will?

The answer is accountability. Michelin is convinced that the performance of their tyres will make drivers safer. In the current duty of care-conscious climate, fleets anxious to cover themselves in the event of an accident may want to do everything possible to ensure driver safety.

Will we see more winter tyres in the UK?

A SPOKESMAN for Michelin UK says the company’s plan for introducing CWTs to the UK revolves around the model that has proved so successful over a period of eight years in the Netherlands.

A marketing campaign will extol the virtues of the tyres to motorists, fleet operators and the trade, with the aim of installing the concept in the mind of all relevant parties.

While the spokesman said there were no plans to push for legislation, he hoped the insurance industry would take notice as it had done elsewhere.

‘I don’t think there’s any plan that’s successfully going to achieve any legislation,’ he said. ‘There have been discussions but I think in the short term the insurance industry could recognise the value of cold-weather tyres.’

That won’t necessarily mean an instant slashing of premiums, he warned, but it could mean insurance firms begin to look more closely at accident figures on standard tyres compared with CWTs. In France and Germany, they are doing just that and Michelin is eagerly awaiting the statistics.

Are they any good?

OVER here, talks are planned with motoring organisations and the trade to work out how best to get the message across.

To show the differences between its standard tyres and CWTs, Michelin invited a few motoring publications, to its global headquarters at Clermont-Ferrand, in France’s volcanic Auvergne region. Nestled at the foot of a mist-shrouded mountain is the company’s private proving ground at Ladoux, where new tyres are put through their paces.

Michelin supplied two identical Mercedes-Benz C220 CDis and a pair of Ford Focus C-MAX TDis. One of each had ‘standard’ Michelin Energy tyres and the other had the cold-weather rubber – Alpin for the Focus and Pilot Alpin for the C-class.

The test track, ‘Le Canard’ (‘The Duck), so named because of its shape and perhaps because water regularly slides off its back, has an inbuilt sprinkler system to pour surface water onto the asphalt, guaranteeing a simulation of the wettest of roads. With a December temperature of three degrees centigrade, it was the perfect setting to test Michelin’s claims.

First up was the Merc on standard tyres. It was certainly fun to drive on, with the back kicking out at the slightest provocation, but fun like that is not what you want on the road in bad weather. A quick changeover to the Pilot Alpins then.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was rather disappointed. I expected spectacular differences that made driving in the wet and cold a breeze, but that wasn’t the case.

On the CWTs, the point where tyres lost grip was not vastly different, although there was less skittishness when on the edge. This could help some drivers in keeping control for longer, but could also prove problematic – I felt there was less warning that grip was running out. While there may have been an improvement, it was barely perceptible.

Switching to the Focus, we deliberately avoided identifying which tyres were on which test car, to see if we could tell each set purely from feel.

The first vehicle felt surprising good after the handful that was the Merc. There was drifting on long corners and understeer on the tighter bends but, considering the conditions and front-wheel drive, the Focus felt composed and predictable.

Corrections were easily applied with no drama. This was more like it; clearly these tyres were the Alpins.

Except they weren’t. Emblazened on the tyrewall was the word Energy in large letters. If nothing else, this was a hearty endorsement of the ‘standard’ tyres.

Later on, the assembled journalists discussed their experience, which made for interesting conversation. Several had used the CWTs as an excuse to drive faster, believing they would have extra grip.

They seemed to suggest that they did, but not by huge amounts. My approach was different. A fellow hack memorised the speeds of each corner on the first go and this speed was the same on the CWTs. So it would appear that you can hang on longer in the winter shoes, but you might not feel so good doing it.

It was then that Michelin played its trump card and one nobody had any quibbles with. A Mercedes-Benz E220 was used to demonstrate the superiority of the Pilot Alpins in brake tests.

The car was fitted with sophisticated computer equipment that automatically hit the anchors when a sensor switch in the road was tripped. The same unit controlled the throttle, so each test was from 80kph and started in the same place.

The car wore Pilot Premacy tyres for the first few runs round and the stopping distance averaged between 43 and 45 metres. When the wheels were swapped for Pilot Alpin-clad rims, each run was around 39 metres. Having CWTs clearly makes a substantial difference. The best result on the standard tyres was metres longer than the Alpins’ worst showing.

The day also included a chance to take to the mountain roads around Clermont-Ferrand. We ended up with a rather small-engined Citroen C4. I was assured that it was clad in Alpins, but I honestly couldn’t tell without driving in a way that the gendarmes would not appreciate.

Suffice to say there were no hairy moments with any kind of grip deficiency, despite some very winding bends. It’s hard to know what to say about these CWTs.

Up close: the tyres compared

MICHELIN believes its new range of cold-weather tyres (CWTs) is safer than standard tyres when the thermometer reads below seven degrees centigrade.

The firm claims that investing in a set will save lives. Michelin’s vision is of fleets with two lots of tyres, one for summer and one for winter. Drivers should, it says, change to the cold weather set whenever there is an R in the month.

The more cynical may suggest that the Michelin man just wants more money and of course tyre budgets are an area dear to many fleet managers’ hearts, taking up, as they do, around a third of all SMR costs. But there is scientific theory behind the firm’s claims.

The latest cold-weather tyres from Michelin are the Alpin and the Pilot Alpin. The former is designed for the majority of saloons and hatchbacks, while the latter is recommended for more high-performance cars.

The basis for the enhanced safety claims is the silica-based rubber compound and new, advanced designs of sipes, the small slits in the tread pattern.

Traditional ‘summer’ tyres can become less effective as temperatures plummet. The rubber compound used can harden, reducing suppleness and therefore offering less grip. Cold-weather tyres use a softer compound with a higher silica content that retains more flexibility in the cold.

Five times as many sipes (channels) as regular tyres are carved into the treads, designed to cut into tiny irregularities in the road surface. Wide central and transverse channels expel surface water.

In the past, cold-weather tyres have suffered because the sipes can weaken rigidity in dry weather. Michelin hopes its new bi-directional sipe system (BDS), which locks the sipes together, will reduce distortion and provide more positive handling.

CWTs: the practicalities

TYRE supplier Kwik-Fit is quick to point out that CWTs must be stored on the rim during the summer months. Otherwise, they lose their shape and become useless, says Nigel Davies, Kwik Fit Fleet’s corporate accounts director.

This immediately adds a massive expense for new wheels on each car. If you decide to replace standard wheels with CWTs when the chill starts setting in, you would have to buy at least four new rims.

Taking the Mercedes-Benz C-class as an example, a fleet buying four new 16in seven-spoke alloys, as found on Classic SE models, from the carmaker would have to fork out £613.76 plus VAT.

The CWTs themselves are also more expensive than standards as a general rule. However, some seem to be cheaper, depending on the size of tyre. On the C-class, the 225/45R 17 91V Alpin retails at £145, while the standard 225/45R 17 91W Pilot Primacy on the test machine in France is £123.

And while suppliers may not charge for labour, there is still vehicle down time during the changeover, and likely to be a charge for storage.

So, to equip 20 Mercedes-Benz C-class Classic SEs with cold weather tyres: 80 x alloy wheels from Mercedes-Benz - £14,423.12 80 x Michelin Alpin tyres (retail price) - £11,600 Total - £26,023.12 + vehicle downtime + tyre storage charge.

If you want to equip the spare wheels too, the price will be higher still. It’s hard to see how CWTs will catch on in the UK as things stand. The duty of care aspect may lure some, but the vast costs involved and relatively small improvement in performance will be a big turn-off to many.

Unless these costs can be reduced, or a push is made for legislation comparable with countries in mainland Europe, a sizeable bulk of UK fleet managers will remain unimpressed. The theory behind them is sound, but from my experience the overall performance improvements are minimal, apart from in braking distances, and certainly not enough for the average company car driver to insist on having them.

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