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The British Winter Tyre Conundrum

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Here in Britain we’re obsessed with the weather. Many find this puzzling since Britain has a pretty mild climate: not very hot in the Summer, not very cold in the Winter and not very exciting in between. We don’t get monsoons. No tornadoes (other that the sort that are so small they wouldn’t get a mention on a Texas weather report). No metres of snow in the Winter. No Summers where you can boil an egg on a road. It gets a bit windy, a bit sunny, snows for a few days in he Winter and pretty much rains for all time in between.

However during most Winters there is a period of a week or two when the country comes to a complete standstill. A mere inch of snow is enough to block all the motorway, leave people stranded in their cars in the night and cause countless crashes. Yet, while the average temperature between November and March stays below 7C, it rarely dips into double negative digits. And if there’s a grand total of a foot or snow over the Winter period then that’s considered a “bad” Winter (such as this one). Countries such as Germany never have these problem. So what’s going on?

The difference is Winter tyres. In a lot of European countries if you crash in Winter with Summer tyres fitted your insurance is declared void. So when the temperature dips below 7C people swap their Summer tyres over to Winter ones and swap them back when temperatures rise above 7C the following Spring.

Brits tend not to buy Winter tyres for two main reasons:

  • There isn’t enough snow and ice to justify them
  • Cost – the fact is motoring in the UK is expensive enough

However after doing some research it’s easy to argue that those two above points are invalid and you’d be crazy not to. Firstly the snow issue. Contrary to popular (in the UK) belief, Winter tyres do not have spikes on them. They differ from Summer tyres in two distinct ways: different rubber and different tread. The rubber in Summer tyres stays soft and pliable above 7C and this means they reshape themselves and stick to the road, providing you with grip. However below 7C that rubber hardens to the point where instead of gripping onto the road surface it loses that cohesion and on wet, slushy or snowy conditions the grip, so traction and stopping distances becomes significantly worse.

Winter tyres on the other hand come into their own below 7C. The rubber stays soft at those lower temperatures and so are able to move and grip the road. Next, the tyre tread is different to allow better gripping in snow and slush. If you look at the picture below closely you can see that snow sticks in the tread and this helps provide better traction on snow. The little ridges on each knobble also grip into the road and slush to help things further:

Some Winter Tyres

Next is cost. Since the rubber on Summer tyres hardens below 7C it turns out that they wear much more quickly than Winter tyres that are designed to work in the cold. So if you switch to using Summer tyres in the Summer and Winter tyres in the Winter you’ll find that both pairs will last longer than using Summer tyres all year round. While the cost difference between Summer and Winter tyres isn’t great it means that in the long-term it can work out cheaper to have both sets of tyres – so long as you have a place to store the spare wheels and don’t use the same wheels and swap the tyres over (since that means paying for tyre fitting and balancing twice a year).

I was interested to see how good they were so bought a spare set of wheels with Winter tyres for my wife’s car when it started getting cold late last year and prayed for snow. Fortunately my prayers were answered and we’ve had one of the coldest Winters in recent years in the UK and plenty of snow. And I tell you what, having tried Winter tyres you’d be crazy not to fit them!

As I mentioned an inch of snow in the UK grinds the place to a halt, but an inch of snow when driving with Winter tyres is nothing at all – it’s just like driving on a wet road. Zero fuss. One night my wife was out babysitting and drove home while a couple of feet of snow was falling. Cars were abandoned all over the place and the only things moving were 4×4 vehicles and her little Fiat 500. I, on the other hand, ended up staying at a hotel from where I was coming home – despite having snow socks for my car, in the end I had to quit and call it a night. If I had Winter tyres I’d have had no problem getting home. Grip in the wet was also very good – altogether infinitely safer than my car on its useless Summer tyres. Sure, you still slip on ice, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as on Summers.

The fact that we stopped caring about the weather forecast because we knew we could get through any snow and slush took a lot of potential stress away and made me a Winter tyre convert. Whether it snows or not they’re far safer than Summer tyres and when it does snow it gives you a much higher chance of getting home without crashing into a tree. I’ll definitely be getting a spare set of wheels and Winter tyres for my car for next time. I would strongly urge you to do the same. Unless you live in Bora Bora. In which case, you lucky git!


So It Turns Out The Best Small Car That Isn’t A Fiat 500 Is A Fiat 500


My good lady’s Peugeot 206cc was starting to show its age. Being a French car it was rattling like a bucket of bolts and generally starting to fall apart (why did we ever buy a French car?!). And though the folding roof still worked perfectly with no leaks, we live in Yorkshire where a sunny day is rarer than a world class Scottish footballer (for non-football / soccer followers that is a very rare thing indeed). However the biggest problem with the car were the running costs. It’s 2010 and petrol in the UK is very expensive – £1.18 per litre at the moment – and with an ageing, inefficient 2.0 engine that meant pouring money down the drain. And to cap it all the road tax was around £200 a year.

So we thought it was time for a change. Something small (because she doesn’t need a big car). Something economical (most small cars can do 40-50mpg easily). Something with cheap insurance and tax (a lot of small cars have no road tax or a mere £20 a year). Something that would last (she’d be keeping it for 5 years so didn’t want it to fall apart – ie. be non-French). Something cheap (no point having cheap running costs if you have to spend a fortune buying the thing). Something with air conditioning (many cheap cars don’t have it and there’s no way we’d live without it). Something quirky (preferably a car you sit in and think “I love this car” – although this wasn’t mandatory, just a nice-to-have). Oh yes, and something that wasn’t a Fiat 500. Cool though Fiat 500s are (she’s always loved them), we thought they were over-priced and therefore discounted them entirely.

And so our search began.

There are plenty of car showrooms near where we live so we went to all of them looking at what they had. The VW Fox was too paper-thin and cheap, the old VW Polo looked boring and the new one, though lovely, was way too expensive. The Citroen C1 ticked all the boxes and was dirt cheap (even brand new) but while my other half wrestled with putting the deposit down she just couldn’t see herself living with it for 5 years (remember, it’s French).

We tested the new Ford Ka which is apparently built on the same platform as the Fiat 500. We expected good things but were disappointed. It was quirky, looked nice, had all the bells and whistles (being the top of the range) but it handled like a rocking chair (which is to say not very well). The Mazda 2 was a bit dull but very nicely put together – a little expensive but a real contender. Definitely on the maybe pile. We looked at several other cars but in the end we just didn’t see anything that really stood out and made us want to put money on the table. Then we decided that we’d be fools not to test drive a Fiat 500 so we’d see what they’re like.

This proved to be rather tricky as the nearest Fiat dealer was an hour away. We had a look at a couple of them and what was immediately clear was the smile on my good lady’s face that hadn’t been there when looking at any other car. To be fair the 500 is an extremely cool little car and very stylishly done. We came back for a test drive another day expecting it to suck as much as the Ford Ka but it was a completely different animal. Much more solid, handled nicely and soaked up bumps in the same sort of Germanic way my Audi TT does. In other words it’s a small car that’s high quality and miles ahead of anything else in its class. We both loved it.

Fiat 500s are not widely available second hand and as they’re so popular you can’t get a discount so we resigned ourselves to buying a new one. Fortunately there was a white base model with a white and red interior and air conditioning on the system in manufacture (meaning a couple of week wait rather than a 2-3 month one) and we put our money down then started counting the days…

Her Fiat 500

So all this happened a couple of months ago and looking back I think we made the right call. The car really is dirt cheap to run with its fancy stop/start system and efficient engine. It looks great, the interior is quirky without trying too hard and there are many cool design features like the circular speedometer and rev counter. The attention to detail clearly sets the standard in the class of car and is way beyond any of the other cars we looked at. It’s easy to drive and park and feels much larger inside than it should be – every time we drive past another Fiat 500 we see how small they are and can’t believe we’re in the same thing – it’s a very clever trick. And best of all my good lady loves it and smiles every time she drives it. As far as I’m concerned that’s what matters the most!

So it turns out that the best small car to buy that isn’t a Fiat 500 is none other than… A Fiat 500. Strange that, but there you go!


John Joins The Rotary Club


Three and a half years ago I swapped my fancy, gas guzzling BMW 325Ci for a small, faster, more highly equipped Renault Clio Sport 182. Since I was commuting to work every day I needed something that did better than 20mpg. It’s been a great little car, cheap to run, very fuel efficient considering its performance and I have lots of happy memories blasting along country roads, cruising up and down motorways and carrying things to the local tip from time to time.

However since I now work from home I hardly do any miles at all. We thought about going from being a two car family to one but realised that despite my not doing a lot of driving, we both needed to drive to different places at the same time frequently enough to kibosh that. Also, my Clio was starting to cost me a bit of money. French cars tend to be pretty good for a few years in my experience then start falling apart and costing lots of money, so after the last BMW-priced service (in that I’d expect to pay that to service a BMW, not a Renault) I thought it was time to get something different.

Fuel economy was no longer an issue for me and thanks to the world recession and car tax in the UK penalising gas guzzling high polluters, fast sports cars are dirt cheap. So after a bit of research I managed to pick up a year old Mazda RX-8 with a mere 30 miles on the clock – so effectively brand new – for a price I still can’t quite believe!

My New Mazda RX-8

It’s ‘sparkling’ black, has a cream leather interior, an amazing Bose stereo, that new car smell, rear wheel drive, 2 seats in the back you can get adults into (via the rather cool rear suicide doors), proper pin-you-to-the-back-of-the-seat acceleration and most interestingly for me a Wankel rotary engine under the bonnet. Rotary engines work somewhat differently to the standard engine you find in most cars. Rather than bore you with the details, just read the Wikipedia article if you’re interested in how it works. Anyway, the end result is that it red lines at 9500rpm – almost motorbike numbers – and yet sounds amazingly smooth and is accompanied by a lovely engine note quite unlike any car I’ve been in before. It’s very easy to drive and tame when you go around town, but if you get the revs up it turns into a racing machine that’s beautifully balanced and seems to have endless power on tap and loves being driven fast.

All this does come at a cost though. The engine may have an official size of 1.3 litres but it’s actually equivalent to a 2.6 litre ‘normal’ engine and therefore drinks quite a lot of petrol. Drive it like a grandmother in 6th gear at 56mph and you’ll maybe get around 25mpg. Drive it like a normal person with a pulse and you’ll get around 21mpg. Drive it like a maniac and you’ll get under 19mpg. It also pumps out more CO2 than my friend’s Jaguar V8 which has a 4 litre engine. This puts it in the top road tax bracket of £400 per year. So it ain’t cheap to run.

Fortunately as I said I don’t do many miles so the fuel economy doesn’t really matter as much and the driving I do might as well be fun. If I had to commute to work it would be rather costly (and a stupid choice of car) but driving to football a couple of times a week and away hiking and such like at weekends might cost me slightly more than before but it’s a small price to pay for a much newer car with a long warranty period, amazing performance and handling and a genuinely innovative and unique engine. To get a BMW with similar performance would cost me double what I paid – and having had one before I can honestly say I prefer the RX-8 in every way.

Oh, and it has the bonus that every time I describe it to friends and say ‘Wankel’ my wife can’t stop herself from laughing! 🙂


No More BMW


mynewclio.jpgWell, I finally got around to changing my car and it was an odd experience indeed. Trading in my BMW 325Ci Sport for a mere Renault Clio Sport 182 meant that the dealer actually gave me a large cheque when we swapped keys! It was a nice feeling.

You might think it’s a bit of a downgrade but I really don’t think it is. Sure, the BMW was nice and luxurious, the 6 cylinder engine sounded great and was very fast. But it cost a fortune to service and it used up petrol like a 747. I really didn’t think it was worth the money, it wasn’t that much better than a Ford Focus. The Clio, on the other hand, is much more economical, the servicing is cheaper and the tyres don’t cost £200 each. Oh, and it has all the toys and then some of the BMW – leather interior, climate control, cruise control, auto-lights and auto-wipers, xenon lights and much more besides. Plus it’s faster than the BMW too – lots faster!

It’s pretty quick up to 5000rpm but from then on it turns into an animal – in the wet it tries to take off! Anyway, I managed to get through the first day without crashing it which is always my aim with a new car. And I don’t miss the BMW so far – somebody actually let me out of a junction yesterday which never used to happen! Oh, and those wheels look much easier to clean than the spokey ones I used to have – should save a bit of time in my bi-annual car washing…


The End Of My Bavarian Affair


my325ciMy current car is a black BMW 325Ci Sport and I always wanted a car like it. It’s got a 2.5 litre 6 cylinder engine that sounds beautiful. It accelerates like a jet. It corners like it’s on rails. The tyres are about twice as wide as a normal car’s (and are 18 inch rims – no need to pimp my ride!). It’s got a leather interior and all the gadgets you could dream of. So I’m happy right?

Well no. You see, there’s a downside. I need an oil tanker to follow me around because it drinks petrol like a teenager drinks cider (it cost around £50 to fill it and I’m lucky if it covers 300 miles). Those super-wide tyres cost around £200 each and don’t last a year (the rear ones are wider and so cost more than the fronts). An oil service (that’s the cheap one) can easily cost £500 – just like the one it had today. And in less than 12 months of ownership the thing’s lost around £6000 in value!

I should have learned by now. My previous car was also a BMW and I eventually traded it in when I had to cough up nearly £1000 for a service (that wasn’t a pleasant day). Unfortunately I was seduced by my current one as it looks great and is an animal to drive. Well no more. I’m going to downgrade.

I’ve had enough of BMW’s. They’re very good cars but I just don’t think they’re worth the money and the running costs. My mate Neil says that all cars under £70,000 are much the same whether they’re a Kia or a BMW and I’m beginning to think he’s right. For the same money that mine’s worth I can get a brand new car that’s quicker, smaller, has most of the same gadgets as mine and has far lower running costs. Can you guess what it is?


Top Marques For Service


I’ve just bought a new car. Not completely new mind, it’s 18 months old. I decided I wanted one of these cars (a BMW 318Ci Coupe) for several reasons:

  • It has a big boot that I can get my mountain bike in to.
  • It has climate control and I love climate control.
  • It has a 6 CD multi-changer and I stay awake on long journeys by singing (not necessarily in the right key).
  • It has ABS and traction control which a bad driver like me really needs to stop me from crashing my car (I’ve had a few knocks over the years).
  • It’s completely over the top as far as quality goes (I’d previously been in a couple of new BMWs and always thought they were superb).
  • When I have kids I’ll never be able to afford / justify one, but I can for the moment.

I wasn’t interested in image, I never have been with cars. Over here anybody who drives a BMW is automatically labelled as an asshole. I must admit that I often held this view too, but they’re so common now that loads of people drive them, not just executives constantly trying to impress everybody. But I realised that buying one would make people think I’m a git. As most people who know me think that anyway then there was no way I could lose!

So with all this in mind I started looking around for one a couple of months ago. I quickly realised that I wanted one sold after September 2001 as at that point the put a larger engine in (2.0) with more power and included cruise control. This restricted my options somewhat as there didn’t seem to be many about. Then I checked out the BMW website’s approved used cars section. Knowing that to buy from an approved dealer would mean paying more, I had a look anyway to see what there was.

You put in your location and it works out the nearest dealers to you and shows you what they’ve got. I could only find one within my price bracket, close by and that wasn’t yellow. It was situated at the Harrogate dealer. Harrogate, for those of you not familiar with North Yorkshire, has a reputation for being a bit of a posh place. House prices are astronomical and there are loads of rich people who live there. So going to have a look at an expensive car in a place like that made me expect the “Pretty Woman” treatment (you know the bit when she goes into the clothes shop and gets thoroughly put down) – except I had no Richard Gere to rescue me.

However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The people there were great. I went out on a long test drive and was treated extremely well throughout. I was waiting on my mortgage coming through so I couldn’t buy the car there and then and they were quite happy with that telling me to come back when I had that sorted out and they could easily source me the exact car I wanted if the one I’d initially seen was sold by then. When I could wait no longer I returned and thrashed out a great deal on the car I was interested in. It was quite hard work but salesmen aren’t paid to give cars away!

The service was excellent and I even got a free BMW-Williams F1 golf umbrella (very handy in Yorkshire). I’ve mentioned before that I’ve come across some bad service, but these guys were brilliant. Very slick and professional.

As for the car. It’s awesome. I drove 750 miles over the weekend up and down motorways and on twisty roads and it took everything in its stride. Very comfortable, very fast and very refined. I’m glad of the cruise control otherwise I’d have lost my license from speeding. But enough about that, it’s only a car. My point was that there is great service out there and all it takes is a bit of friendliness and professionalism. And it works, because I’ll definitely get my car serviced there and buy my next one from them and recommend them to anybody who’ll listen (like now). Unfriendly sales assistants take note…


Just Call Me Mr. Boring

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A Citroen Saxo VTRI bought my current car when it was 2 years old. Having had a few older cars over the years (including a delightful mk.2 VW Golf GTi – great drivers car when it ran, which wasn’t nearly often enough) I decided to get a “modern” car that wouldn’t give me any problems. So I bought a Citroen Saxo (pictured right). It’s quite a quick car with pretty good handling and low insurance, so it seemed ideal to me. And it’s been great.

It took me a long time to stop checking the water temperature, oil and coolant levels every time I drove it (a hangover from the Golf days). But in 2.5 years it’s hardly had anything go wrong with it and has been the picture of reliability. I say hardly anything, but one thing that did go wrong was quite scary at the time. I was driving up a hill, a long straight with crawler lane (2 lanes on my side, 1 lane on the other) and was doing about 75mph, overtaking a couple of other cars. I lifted off the accelerator as I got past the others to slow down, but it just kept accelerating. It was at this point that I discovered how helpless you feel the instant you no longer feel in control of your car. To cut a short story shorter, the accelerator cable had frayed and got stuck in its housing, thereby keeping the accelerator flat out. It was interesting anyway. And that’s about all that went wrong with the car.

But I had decided that I was going to keep it for no longer than a couple of years. Any longer and things would start to go wrong and cost me money. Plus, as the miles and age go higher, so the value drops exponentially. Well, last week I decided the time had come and I was at the stage where I wanted a new motor. If you think this article has been dull up until here, then I’m afraid it’s going to get a bit worse (you might like to follow this link and read something more interesting and juicy instead).

Unfortunately, my criteria for cars hasn’t changed much in the last two years. I want something reasonably fast, with good handling and low insurance. Even more unfortunately, there aren’t any more cars out there that fit my criteria. So in the absence of any imagination or enthusiasm to go car hunting I opted to get a newer version of the same car. I found one, and it’s exactly the same colour as my current one. The Saxo was facelifted a couple of years ago and so has new lights, grille and interior. That’s about it. So I’ve traded in my previous car for a younger, almost identical one. How boring is that?

But you know what? I’m not bothered at all. It’s just a car, not a status symbol. Damn, I’m getting old… How long until I can have a mid-life crisis?