The use of winter tyres in the UK is not very common. They are however very common in other parts of the world. A common misconception is that they are for snow use. Although they are good in the snow, they are really designed for cold conditions, providing better traction, cornering and braking than normal tyres once temperatures fall below 7˚C. They have softer compounds and tread patterns optimised for wet, ice and snow. This makes them ideal for those cold damp mornings, or frosty nights. A good set of winter tyres can make a high performance rear wheel drive car manageable and useable throughout the year. A rear wheel drive car with winter tyres is safer than all wheel drive on summer tyres.
Winter tyres can be bought from most tyre outlets and on-line retailers. As with most tyre purchases you get what you pay for, with the tyres from the premium brands performing better than budget brands. ADAC do very thorough annual winter tyre tests, testing two tyre sizes each year. Search for ADAC Winterreifentest. Either use an on-line translator, or there are some websites that reflect the results in English, or learn some German !
As you use each set of tyres for half the year they last twice as long, so over a few years of car ownership the extra cost becomes reasonable. You can have the tyres swapped over on one set of rims twice a year, however many owners buy a second set of rims for the winter tyres – a cheap scruffy set also avoids exposing your nice diamond cut split rims to salt. It is normal to go down one size for winter tyres as a smaller contact area results in higher pressure from the weight of the car. Exact sizes for your car are on the tyre sticker in the drivers door frame, look for the M+S sizes.