Is it time to ditch the spare tyre for a cheaper, space-saving can of foam?
New cars used to come with a proper, full-size spare wheel, so when you got a flat tyre, you could pop it on and carry on as normal until you could get the puncture repaired at your leisure.
Then came the ‘space saver’ wheel, a smaller version of the wheels and tyres fitted to your car. Ostensibly brought in to liberate more space in your boot, the space saver was also usefully cheaper than having to provide a proper spare, a detail that didn’t escape the manufacturers’ attention.
Having said that, at least you were still self-reliant and could keep mobile, even if you had to continue at a much reduced speed (as a limit of 50mph is often imposed when you are using them).
Car manufacturers then realised that if a space saver could save them money compared to a having to provide a full-size wheel and tyre, then providing a can of puncture-repairing foam saved them even more. And, best of all, they could claim that it was a weight saving measure to make your car more fuel efficient, dodging accusations of profiteering.
So an awful lot of new cars are now being sold without a spare wheel, forcing motorists to rely on a canister of foam to get them out of trouble. Of course, most manufacturers still offer to sell you a spare wheel and tyre, at a cost…
So, should you bother paying the extra on your next new car or are foam tyre sprays as convenient and effective as the manufacturers claim?
The foam comes free with your car, while a space saver wheel and tyre will cost you extra: Ford, for example, will charge you £100 for a steel spare wheel and tyre for your Fiesta, while anyone lucky enough to be in the market for a Jaguar F-TYPE will have to pay a whopping £265 for a space saver wheel, albeit one made of alloy.
Winner: The foam is considerably cheaper than buying a spare wheel, gaining its first win.
Ease of use
Using the tyre repair kit (as they are grandly labelled) is a doddle. You just squirt it into the tyre using the normal tyre vale, and then inflate the tyre with the compressor the manufacturer supplies for the purpose. You’ll then need to drive for a few miles at a decent speed (see your car’s handbook for details) to distribute the foam throughout the tyre. This makes them an excellent choice for those who are not of a mechanical bent, or those with restricted mobility or strength.
Replacing a wheel is something of a lost art. It also takes time, and an element of strength and dexterity. You’ll probably also end up dirty and sweaty and late.
Winner: Tyre repair foam is easy to apply and you could be on your way in five minutes, against the half-an-hour or so it will take to change a wheel.
The problem with a foam repair is that it only works on some punctures; if you rip a hole in the sidewall of your tyre on a kerb, for example, it won’t work at all. Others report problems getting the foam in in the first place, or with problems inflating the tyre at the end of the process. In all, tyre foam is thought to be effective in four out of five punctures.
Fitting a spare wheel and tyre might be a faff, but at least you know that when the job is done you’ll be able to continue your journey, even if you are forced to do so at a much slower speed.
Winner: Providing you’ve kept an eye on the tyre pressure in your spare tyre, it is a guaranteed fix, which isn’t something that can be said of the foam repair kit.
Neither solution is a long-term fix. Your foam-inflated tyre will need replacing within a couple of hundred miles on average, which will generally mean that it needs to be done within a few days at most.
Similarly, the space saver spare should only be used as a temporary repair until you can get the puncture on your full-size wheel repaired. Although there is no official time or distance limit, best practise suggests that it should be made a priority as the grip from such a small, skinny tyre is significantly less than you get from the other three, leading to an unbalanced car that could easily spin out of control and crash if you don’t drive with extreme caution.
Winner: It’s a draw as neither are a long-term repair. Unless, of course, you are driving one of the very few cars that still provides a proper spare wheel and tyre.
The post-puncture costs need to be examined too. The canister of foam will, of course, need replacing, which might cost you £20 or so. However, the biggest expenditure will be for a new tyre as most tyre repair outlets will refuse to repair a tyre that has been inflated with foam. This means that any puncture, no matter how small, means that you have no choice but to fork out for a new tyre too.
Using a spare wheel, on the other hand, means that your punctured tyre can often be repaired and put back on your car. The cost of having the puncture repaired – and a puncture repair is, if done properly, perfectly safe – is likely to be roughly the same as buying a can of tyre repair foam.
Winner: The spare wheel takes a well-deserved win here. The money the manufacturer saves by not equipping your new car with a spare wheel and tyre is passed directly on to you, the consumer, in the event you have a puncture.
As you might have guessed, I think the absence of a full-size, ‘proper’ spare wheel and tyre is one of the 21st century’s great automotive rip-offs. While modern cars are faster, safer, more economical and more reliable than at any time in history, the absence of a spare wheel is one of those things that won‘t cross your mind until you have a puncture – and when you do, a small problem becomes immeasurably amplified.
I’ve had entire weekends ruined when a failed foam repair has meant calling the recovery service to take the car to a tyre repair centre to have a new tyre fitted – and with the proliferation of makes and sizes, there is no guarantee that they’ll even have one in stock. If they don’t have the right one in the storeroom you’re stuck for a night at least and if you opt to fit a different make to keep you mobile you’ll be hit when you come to resell your car because obsessive potential buyers like me are likely to be put off by the fact that the tyres don’t match.
My advice? Pay the extra for a spare wheel and tyre whenever you buy a new car. Then write the manufacturer to complain, because they only get away with it because we let them.
Credit to Saga Magazine, and freelance motoring journalist Carlton Boyce for the story.