For most of us, whether we’re talking about premium or budget tyres, a tyre is simply, well, a tyre. They’re round, black, and have a patterned tread on them. But that’s not the full story. For a start, tyres are the only direct connection your car has with the road. That little area at the bottom of the tyre – called the contact patch – dictates how your car goes round corners, how quickly it’ll stop on a wet road and even how much fuel it uses.
A car engineer once told me that the tyre can contribute as much as 50 per cent towards the way a car behaves when you drive it. So tyres are vitally important, but it can be difficult to tell the difference between the various kinds. After all, the most expensive tyres in the world can look very similar to the cheapest, so how do you know which to buy?
Start with the label
This gives them a rating for how much grip they have on wet roads, the level of noise generated and fuel efficiency. It means that on those criteria you can compare tyres that may otherwise look identical. But there are other things you might want to look for in a tyre. What is its handling in the dry like? And how durable is it?
Who makes them?
Big-name companies like Bridgestone, Continental, Goodyear and Michelin spend billions of pounds every year developing tyres. The tyre market is hugely competitive so these firms are constantly pushing the envelope to engineer new tyres that exploit the latest technologies. But all that research and development takes time and resources so tyres like these tend to cost more money.
Budget tyres: don’t ignore little-known names
Go into your local fast-fit centre and you won’t be short of choice. There will be all sorts of names you may never have heard of from all kinds of countries that you may not associate with making tyres. For example, budget tyres come from makers such as Runway from Singapore, Maxxis from Taiwan and Lassa from Turkey. Frequently, companies like this represent the cheaper alternative from firms you might know the names of. For example, Lassa are produced alongside Bridgestone, using much of the same technology. It’s similar in principle to how a Skoda uses much of the same technology as a Volkswagen.
It’s all in the chemistry
Building tyres is a very tricky process because they involve so many compromises. A tyre engineer told me they could make a tyre that would pretty much last forever, but it would have hardly any grip. The trick is to balance all the demands we have from our tyres. Part of that is achieved through chemistry and the blend of raw materials that makes up what we consider to be the rubber element. These so-called compounds vary from tyre to tyre. Then there’s the construction such as the casing that gives the tyre its strength. And last but not least there’s the tread pattern. All these factors contribute different elements. And all vary from tyre to tyre.
Verdict: which should you go for?
Buying the right tyre is all about compromise. You need to find a happy balance between cost, what’s on the label and performance. Tyre dealers will be able to advise you, but it’s always sensible to do your own research. Independent magazines Auto Express and Evo conduct annual tyre tests where they review tyres from the most popular brands head to head. They’re well worth looking at.
When you’re buying replacement tyres, it’s also worth remembering that all cars are designed with input from tyre makers. Therefore, some tyres will have been engineered specifically for your model of car – something known as ‘original equipment’. Ring a dealer for that make and they’ll tell you what brand of tyre yours was originally fitted with. Whichever tyre you end up with, one thing’s for certain, different makes most definitely aren’t all the same!