10 things to know about performance tires

Mac Demere

(Photo: Mahela Munasinghe | Flickr)


Forget turbochargers, nitrous oxide, suspension kits, and all other go-fast goodies. The two best and cheapest ways to make your car quicker are a set of super-sticky tires and a serious upgrade of the organic software (that being you, the driver).

It Don't Mean a Thing If You Ain't Got Good Tires
Depending on whether you'll be driving on a twisty road-racing circuit or Decker Canyon, a set of sticky tires can be worth 50, 100, or even more horsepower. Slippery tires won't allow a car to translate its power advantage into cornering force and acceleration.

Here's a real-world example: Several years ago when I was organizing an event to give Michelin employees some seriously fast rides around a test track, I fit a 2001 Mustang GT with tires intended for a Dodge Viper and made the Ford nearly 3 seconds a lap faster around a 1.1-mile road course than a 1999 Porsche 911 shod with new, original-equipment tires.

The 911 enjoyed an advantage of roughly 40 hp. Its suspension was far more sophisticated than the Mustang's—a car that could trace its lineage directly to the 1978 Ford Fairmont. Both vehicles were stock except for roll cages and six-point racing seat belts, and the drivers were each professional tire testers and race drivers. (The Porsche driver, a Frenchman, was usually a bit quicker than me in the Porsche, and I was always better than he in the Mustang.) Yet your humble narrator beat him around the track.

Tires First
If you want to go quicker in the corners, fit top-flight tires before you waste money on engine and suspension modifications.

My secret to beating the Porsche in the Mustang? The 275/35ZR18s intended for the front of a Viper boasted a tread compound that was nearly identical to a full-on race rubber. While the man in the Porsche drove his ego off, I just cruised around relishing the advantage.

Finally, my competitor employed two techniques that evened out the times: He jumped the curbs as one would on a racetrack (but was prohibited by Michelin internal regulations), and he refused to give rides to males, meaning I was carrying considerably more weight.

Speed Costs Money
A tire company spends about $1 million to develop rubber for a car like the Viper. The result will have unimaginable grip, slice through standing water, and give the driver ample warning they're approaching their limit of adhesion.

The upshot: If you're looking for replacement rubber for a vehicle built for performance, then the best max-performance tires will be the ones that came on your car. (Seriously, you spent six figures on the car and you're trying to save a few hundred dollars by putting on another brand?)

That said, sticking with original equipment tires won't fulfill your needs if those tires weren't meant for the high performance you're after. The Porsche would've smoked me if I'd fitted the Mustang with its original Goodyears. But I was willing to give up just about everything to make that old Fox-body Mustang kick some Stuttgart booty.

Two things I surrendered were turning radius and tire life. Those huge Viper fronts would've made parallel parking impossible. Not all upgrades are so impractical for the real world, but remember that you're going to sacrifice something in the pursuit of performance.

Know Your Jargon
Allow me to start what not to do in your search for stickier tires with this: Stay far, far away from all-season tires, even "ultra-high-performance all-season tires." All-season tires give up dry- and damp-road grip for traction at below-freezing temperatures. Look for a "summer" or, more accurately, a "three-season" tire.

The term ultra high performance once indicated tires that offered the highest grip. No longer. Now some sellers have created terms for tires that have far more traction than the old UHP nomenclature. "Max performance summer" is a step up, and often a big leap above, those labeled UHP. Tires that are even stickier are sometimes called extreme performance summer.

Overrated Stats
The government requires tiremakers to compare their products with a reference tire, and then self-rate their tires with minimum estimates for how long they'll last (tread wear), how much grip they have (traction rating), and the temperatures they'll survive. You can find this info on the tire, the removable label, and on the tire company's website. Any tire that an enthusiast would consider is capable of earning AA for traction, an A for temperature, and a 400 rating for tread wear. (Because a tire gives up tread wear for grip, performance tires usually last no more than four times as long as the reference tire, which is what the 400 rating means.

It's important to know what all this means, but don't put much stock in these ratings. For one thing, the tiremaker is free to give its tires a lower grade. You might see the same hypothetical tire discussed above rated A for traction, B for temperature, and 200 for tread wear. And often, these ratings aren't consistent within even a single manufacturer. They're an unreliable measure.

Overrated Stats, Part 2
A tire's nominal tread width, aspect ratio, and speed rating appear both on a tire's description and its sidewall. Consider a tire labeled 245/45R17. Section width is the 245 (millimeters). Aspect ratio is the 45—it means the tire's sidewall is nominally 45 percent as tall as the tread is wide. Speed rating is a letter preceded by a number: An example "88Y." The 88 is an assessment of how much load the tires will carry.

Almost every tire an enthusiast would consider will earn a Z (capable of surviving speeds at least> up to 149 mph), a W (up to 168 mph), or a Y (up to 186 mph). Again, this is a safe estimate. It does not mean a Z-rated tire will blow at 151. Indeed, it may survive 190 mph.

Now that you know that, forget about it for the purpose of finding a grippy tire. Here's what you should look at:

When to Stray From the Mainstream
It's hard to go wrong with Bridgestone, Michelin, Pirelli, Yokohama, Goodyear, or the like. However, some of the lesser-known brand names, especially those from South Korea, make some damn good tires. One lesser-known Japanese maker produced a tire that handed it to the big names on a damp track and matched them in the dry.

I've also tested a Chinese-branded tire I'd never heard of before or since that matched the majors. Going this route is a bit like investing in an unknown company: Use money you don't mind losing.

Reach for the Limits
If you're looking for the tallest, widest tire, you might not find it in tire company materials, which publish "nominal" sizes and diameters.

The tire industry association allows tires to fit within a size window, and then publishes the "theoretical size that may vary from the actual size." But don't confuse this with production tolerance! Performance tires are almost always in the upper corner of the permitted window, near the limit of what the tire governing body allows. Using the previous example of a 245/45R17 tire, a serious performance tire would be slightly wider than 245 millimeters, with a sidewall taller than 45 percent of 245, and an overall diameter greater than the 25.7 inches published in the spec sheet. To find the performance tire you want—the one that nudges right up against the upper limit of what your car can use—you might just have to get out your old-fashioned tape measure.

Ask Around
You may have to call the tire company to confirm what's the best tire for your very specific need. Find a general number and ask for product marketing. The poor guy probably used to be a test driver and would love to talk fast driving.

Also, check out the customer reviews on the websites of the big Internet tire sellers—but be wary of what you read. This is a good place to find useful information from people solving the same problem, but it can also host a lot of misinformation from buyers who aren't experts.

In our continuing example, the Michelin Pilot Sports intended for the Viper that I put on the Mustang were radically different from those designed for a Porsche 911 Coupe, and those had some notable differences from those intended for a Chevrolet Corvette. (You'll see this when one tire size is listed two or three times, with different multiple part numbers in tire company specs.) While the Viper owner may praise the tire in his comments for its extreme grip, the Corvette driver may be upset because his Pilot Sports lasted "only" 30,000 miles.

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