The number of British drivers choosing to switch to winter tyres is on the up, thanks in large part to the increasingly extreme weather faced by UK motorists. So what are winter tyres, and should you be considering them?

Put simply, winter tyres are designed to work at temperatures below seven degrees centigrade. Contrary to the perception of many Brits, they are not snow tyres – although they will still be far better in the white stuff than summer tyres.

Winter tyres have two key attributes:

1. They are made from a compound which stays supple at lower temperatures. Below seven degrees, summer tyres become hard and brittle, which can lead to a reduction in grip as they skate over the road surface. Winter tyres remain supple and key into the grain of the road surface, giving them more grip.
2. Winter tyres have a different tread pattern, allowing them to clear more water from their surface and bite into snow and ice more effectively. The surface is covered in as many as ten times the number of sipes – the cuts in the rubber – as a summer tyre.

Winter tyres always need to be fitted to all four wheels, not just the driven wheels as in the case of some snow chains and snow socks designed only for low speed use.

The effect on vehicle handling and braking can be life-saving. According to Michelin, the stopping distance from 31mph on snow is 63 metres in a car fitted with summer tyres, and 32 metres in an identical car with winter tyres fitted.

In Belgium and Holland – European countries with a similar climate to the UK – between 31 and 34 per cent of vehicles were fitted with winter tyres in the colder months of 2011, compared with just 3.1 per cent in the UK.

Auto Trader’s senior road tester, Andy Goodwin, has fitted a set of winter tyres to his car this year and shares his thoughts:

“My own car is a 2004 diesel Volkswagen Golf. When I noticed the front tyres were almost due for replacement in September, I decided to take the plunge and buy a set of Michelin Alpin A4 winter tyres. These had come top in the customer reviews I had read, and seemed to have the best combination of performance and longevity that I wanted.

“Since fitting the tyres, my confidence in the car has increased. Its grip and stopping power is now so good in the wet and cold, I can be reassured that if the worst should happen, I could brake or swerve, while still in complete control of the car.

“A surprise side effect is that ride comfort has improved too, and while I was expecting a reduction in fuel economy after fitting winter tyres, this has not been the case.

“While it can seem like a lot of money to spend, I plan to use these tyres for as many winters as I can until they need replacing, and because this will help my summer tyres last much longer too, the cost will balance out in the long run. If you have a company car, you may be able to ask your fleet manager to fit winter tyres to your car for no cost, and as this will improve your safety on the road, it could even save your business money in accident repairs and insurance claims.

“After experiencing the benefits of winter tyres both on the road and in a testing environment, I believe most British drivers would be shocked if they felt the difference.”