Are You Driver Enough?

By Author: Paul Herrold, Date: Sep 12, 2016

Sons of Speed learns that it’s not just the type of tire, but the brand as well.

There are few things more confusing and frustrating to car owners than purchasing a new set of tires.  From treadwear and speed ratings, to tire size and terrain use – nobody really looks forward to buying tires, it’s one of those necessary evils that comes with car ownership. Consequently, many people just purchase the same tire model that originally came with their car.  After all, car companies spend big money to research the perfect tire for their cars and who would know better than the people who actually make the car, right?  Well, tire giant BFGoodrich wants to challenge that logic and are determined to get you to rethink your next tire purchase.

All about handling rather than pure speed!

The Challenge

I was invited to the “Are You Driver Enough” tire comparison event sponsored by BFGoodrich where they take two identical cars with two different brands of tires and have you take them out on a drive.  One car is equipped with a leading national brand tire and the other car rides on the BFGoodrich equivalent. By using the exact same car, all the variables such as suspension, brakes, chassis stiffness and vehicle dynamics are all equalized so the focus is placed directly on the tire characteristics.

The challenge was staged at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, but wasn’t actually inside the Speedway oval.  Instead, the event was out in the parking lot where the I could see all sorts of orange cones set up in a make-shift autocross circuit.  Not really knowing what to expect when I arrived, it became obvious to me that this presentation was going to be all about handling rather than pure speed – not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.  The event started with the typical sign-in and, once all 30+ attendees arrived, the welcome presentation began.  It became immediately clear that BFGoodrich takes these events very seriously as I discovered right away that the presenters and ride-along staff were all professional race car drivers with a host of trophies under their belts.  The competitive nature of these drivers came through loud and clear as they would poke harmless fun at each other during the talk, pointing out who crashed what car at what racing venue (and on what tires no less) which made for great entertainment and kept the pace lively.  After the introductions, we were given a brief safety talk and then broke up into 3 smaller groups to tackle whatever they had in store for us.

Session 1

My group did not drive right away like the other two groups. Instead we stayed under the welcome tent and were introduced to the new BFGoodrich all-terrain T/A KO2 tire and – full disclosure here – not being a tire salesperson like the rest of my event company, I couldn’t have cared less.  At least, that was my initial feeling until about 5 minutes into the presentation, then my thought transformed to, “Man, I really need these tires!”  Well, if I owned an off-rode vehicle that is!  But I did learn a lot about tires, things that go beyond tread, sidewalls and grooves.  I learned all about vertical sipes and how they maximize snow and mud performance, I learned about converging lateral slots and their effect on road noise and water removal, and I even learned about engineered compounds and the trade off between traction, ride and tread-life and how new materials, both natural and synthetic, are bridging that gap with every new tire model.  Before I knew it, it was time for my group to move onto the next session.

Now the real fun started!

Session 2

Now the real fun started; we were going to rip-up the track.  The first autocross layout featured two identical Mazda 3 sedans and was designed to showcase a more versatile tire where handling and traction are important, but ride quality is also a priority.  Each car had a different set of all-season tire brands, the grey Mazda 3, which everyone would drive first, was equipped with BFGoodrich Advantage T/A Sport tires. The white Mazda 3, which we would all drive second, had on competing Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max tires. About 6 drivers later, it was my turn to get in and drive up to the start line.  The drive would consist of two parts, a straight line acceleration test which had a shallow pool of water at the end where we had to perform a full panic ABS stop.  This would demonstrate off-the-line dry traction as well as braking performance under wet conditions. The next part of the circuit consisted of both wet and dry S turns and was designed to showcase the handling and traction limits of the tires.  We would drive each car two times around the course.

As I watched the drivers before me, it was obvious that despite being a great bunch of people, they were not the track-orientated, racer wannabe that I was. So, naturally, I didn’t really know how fast I should drive this autocross.  Of course, I could ask my ride-along instructor but I found out a long time ago that everyone has a different perception of what “go as fast as you want” really means. Not looking to get another scolding like I did at a previous Lexus event, I made the executive decision to go max-out on the first part of the course, like everyone else did, and then reel it back in for the more technical part with the curves.  So off I went, the 155hp, front wheel drive Mazda 3 comes off the line with just a tiny hint of initial torque-steer; acceleration was linear although not neck-snappingly quick. I drove into the water pit where my copilot started yelling “brake, brake” so I hit the brakes hard and the car’s ABS brought us to a brisk and controlled stop.  So far, the car and tires performed very predictably with no surprises.  I am then given the “all clear” to start the second part of the course, I keep my speed humble, and just as expected, the Mazda was well controlled around the turns.  Even in the wet, there was only a faint squeal from the tires but the car goes exactly where pointed.  I reached the end of the course and drove back to the starting line to start my second run.  Suddenly, I envisioned one of those biblical moments when the clouds open and a beam of light comes down from the heavens as I heard my ride-along instructor say, “For this second run, why don’t you open it up some more – actually a lot more.”  Somewhere in the background I swore I could hear Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” playing as I stomped on the gas to start round two.  This time in the turns, I had the tires screaming for mercy and the chassis in a complete roll.  Yet, the car was still predictable and never veered off my intended path – grip was great, hardly any understeer.  Steering feel, although light and a little numb, was progressive and felt very connected – I now know why the automotive magazines always give high praise for Mazdas, they are great handling cars.  With the run over, I exited the gray Mazda 3 and got in the white one with the Goodyear Assurance tires and started up for my two runs.  Instantly, I found myself in a completely different Mazda 3; this Mazda 3 behaved in another way entirely.

I heard a quick chirp from the front tires!

As I hit the accelerator I heard a quick chirp from the front tires, I definitely didn’t hear this lack of initial traction from the BFGoodrich Advantage tires.  Next, I crossed into the water area and stood on the brakes – ABS came on full force, but the car was barely stopping.  In fact, when the car finally did stop, I was a full car length further compared with the BFGoodrich tires – roughly 17 feet – a huge difference!  After the “all clear,” I drove into the turns as fast as possible and, in addition to tire howling, I started to hear a strange chatter sound each and every time I turned the wheel.  In addition, grip was way down and the tail end of the car did not feel as planted as it did in the other Mazda; it felt like the front half of the car was responding a second slower to my steering inputs and the back half of the car was responding two seconds slower which, frankly, did not inspiring confidence, and inadvertently I found myself driving much slower as I crossed the finish line – not good.  When the driving session was over, we all met under the tent to discuss what had just happened.  The presenter talked about the differences in handling, traction and even treadwear, but what I really wanted to know was what was going on with that chatter noise?  Well, as it turns out, the Goodyear Assurance sidewall is much thinner and allows the tire to flex and curl away from wheel rim during a turn.  That “cha, cha, cha, cha” sound is basically the sidewall flapping back and forth between the road and the rims, also called wheel hop, it contributes to loss of traction and handling.  Well, I certainly learned something new that day.  And before anyone thinks the tires were inflated differently to give one tire an advantage over the other (obviously this had come up before), we were shown a tire-gauge proving both sets of tires had the exact same psi.

Session 3

It was finally time for session 3 on the other side of the parking lot.  This was to be a showcase of performance cars sporting performance tires and was what I was waiting for all day!  On display were two Ford Ecoboost Mustangs, a red one with BFGoodrich Comp2 A/S and a white Mustang with Continental ExtremeContact DWS. I was very familiar with the Continentals as they were the original tire on my 2012 Volvo S60 R-Design AWD, and I thought they did a great job. This autocross was set up nearly identical to the Mazda 3 course, with the exception of an added wet slalom area, which was very tight and would make keeping clear of the cones an issue.   First up was the red Mustang with the BFGoodrich tires: great response and adhesion under hard acceleration, great braking performance in the wet, great handling in the wet and dry turns and great feel and grip through the wet tight slalom.  The Comp2’s are a solid tire, especially for an all-season, and I can say that with utmost confidence because right after this run, I drove what I thought was also a solid tire, the Continental ExtremeContact, and boy was I completely wrong!

The Continentals kept pace with the BFGoodrichs tires under hard acceleration, but once I hit the wet area and slammed the brakes, it was all downhill from there.  The Continentals easily took an extra full car length to stop.  In the turns, the tires were singing – but not in a good way.  Although, I did not get the judder noise that I got with the Goodyears on the Mazda, I did get this perpetual feeling that the Mustang should be driving faster and handling better on this course because I just did it in the GFGoodrich tires!  During the wet slalom, the back of the car felt skittish and less buttoned down while the front felt synthetic, like the tires were connected to the car, just not to the steering wheel.  I did not have that “mechanical directness” that I did with the BFGoodrich tires.  Naturally, this was a major let down as I was quietly rooting for the Continentals, not because I have a bias to any tire manufacture, but more because I wanted to believe that a car I drove for 3 years was the best it could have been.  Unfortunately, I discovered there was a whole lot more handling and performance in the Volvo that went untapped and unexplored – all due to the tires.

The Slow Walk Back

Walking back to the entrance tent at the end of the day and gathering my thoughts it became very clear how important a tire is to a car.  Yes, all tires are round, mostly black and made of rubber, but the type of a tire you put on your car can literally transform its feel, its handling, its performance and the sense of confidence it gives to the driver.  No other single component can alter a vehicles dynamics so quickly and so easily then installing a proper set of tires.  So in the end, was I “Driver Enough” to attend this event? I definitely think so.  But, the real question is, did BFGoodrich make me rethink my next tire purchase?  Yes… absolutely!

Tire Specifications
Mazda 3 Sedan
BFGoodrich Advantage T/A Sport 235/50R17
Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max 235/50R17

Mustang Ecoboost
BFGoodrich Comp2 A/S 235/50R18
Continental EXTREMECONTACT DWS 06 235/50R17

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