Is There Help for the 'Accidental Performance Buyer?' - Tire Review Magazine

Is There Help for the ‘Accidental Performance Buyer?’

Accidental performance buyers almost always identify themselves, especially by the time they get to the tire store.

Accidental performance buyers will complain about the performance of their all-wheel-drive sports car in the snow. They’ll moan about the rough ride of their 22-inch-wheel-shod vehicle. They’ll complain about bent wheels, and wonder why their tire blew out, and since the blowout was weeks or months removed from when they hit that pothole, they will pinky swear that had nothing to do with it.

Accidental performance buyers will be outraged when their tires are scrubbed down to the wear bars after just 6,000 miles. Some whine about paying extra for the Y-rated tires when an outwardly identical H-rated tire is available for much less and, besides, they’ll never exceed 75 mph, much less hit 130 mph  or even 180 mph.

Sometimes the accidental performance buyer will take legal action. This is especially true if the tire, fatally damaged from pinch shock when they smacked that traffic island, fails and injures someone.

Car guys can wonder why the accidental performance buyer didn’t notice his AWD sports car was fitted with summer (aka “three-season”) tires when he purchased it. Tire guys are bewildered that the accidental performance buyer failed to notice the 20-inch wheels and 30-series rubber on his new ride.

Twenty-inch and taller wheels are the spiked high heels of the automotive world: They look sweet, but they hurt your back and are impractical. (I don’t have any personal experience in such shoes, as far as you know. That’s just what I’ve been told.) By the way, wheels larger than 19 inches are strictly for show, not performance.

Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin’s former motorsport director, told me that if Formula One racing eliminated its tire and wheel rules, wheels would grow from the currently mandated 13 inches to “17, maybe 18, certainly no more than 19 inches.” While the larger-diameter tires will put more rubber on the track, it will be offset by aerodynamic drag at some point.

Another aside on low-profile tires: They do not necessarily improve “handling,” if “grip” is included in the equation. Lower profile tires usually (but not always) improve initial steering response. This means the car will dart into the corner as soon as the steering wheel is turned. However, if the tread rubber is less grippy than a higher-profile tire, that initial response may cause the driver to over-estimate traction. Usually, an over-estimation of traction is associated with expletives and, if extreme, the sound of bending sheet metal.

The accidental performance buyer’s better half may ask if they didn’t notice the spine-pounding ride on their test drive. (If my wife phrased a question in that manner, my female-to-male translation guide says it means, “You are way too old for a boy-racer car. I must have been desperate when I married you.”)

Some accidental performance buyers quickly recognize their mistake and correct it. When the Lexus IS-F, a 416-horsepower factory hot rod, hit the market, I noticed that several dealers had extremely low-mileage IS-Fs on their used car lot, while new ones sat in the showroom. Some had as few as 400 miles on the odometer.

Lexus IS-Fs came with beyond-ultra-high performance 225/40R19s. The suspension was far tauter – you could say rougher – than anything Lexus had offered before. The IS-F’s excellent power-to-weight ratio meant an inexperienced driver could get into go-to-jail trouble in around 11 seconds. If he switched off the traction and stability controls, he might spin out leaving a traffic light.

A Lexus salesman confided that several customers had either immediately scared themselves witless or their wives had bitched unmercifully about the IS-F’s ride. So they returned the car, took the depreciation hit, and got something more Lexus-like.

Eliminating Accidents
So, how can a tire dealer help the accidental performance buyer?

For those complaining about short tread life, an honest explanation might be in order. When making a presentation for a tire company, I was confronted by a group of irate Porsche dealers who complained about the short tread life of the tires fitted to their fleet.

Here’s how I responded: “We could easily build tires that last 70,000 miles for your cars. But your customers – at least those who didn’t crash leaving the dealer lot – would hate your cars. Car writers would bash your vehicles’ performance. And little old men in Crown Vics would flash their lights and honk their horns because the Porsches were slowing them down on curvy roads. We can give you long life, or we can give you stick-to-the-ceiling grip. We can’t do both. Perhaps those who value long tread life are past the prime age for a Porsche.”

The answer for the AWD sports car owner who complains about no grip from his summer tires in the snow is easy, if you live in a very snow-prone area, such as Vail, Buffalo or Canada. A set of inexpensive wheels and winter tires will do the trick.

The answer is more difficult for those who live where the roads are clear far more often than they are snow-covered. This would include Denver. That’s because some UHP all-season tires have only a hint more snow grip than summer tires. (Manufacturers self-certify the “all-season” and “M+S” labels.)

Since every tire manufacturer says all its tires leap tall buildings in a single bound, you can check customer feedback or user comments on some mail-order tire websites. You might be surprised to see the comments.

Speaking of AWD, its only advantage is to help a vehicle accelerate or slog through mud or snow. AWD does not (cannot) improve cornering power, much less stopping ability. I’ve done about 1,000 tire tests in the snow on AWD vehicles. Usually, the tire would receive an “A” or even “A+” for its ability to climb a hill from a stop. It would receive at least a “B” for acceleration, but would get, at best, a “D” for braking and often an “F” for cornering. I came away sure that AWD’s main attribute is that it allows you to hit a snow bank much harder than you can with 2WD.

AWD, I assert, is counter-productive. In most cars, braking, cornering and acceleration ability are roughly equal. However, when driving on slippery surfaces, AWD offers excellent acceleration and almost no cornering or braking.

If harsh ride is a problem, a switch from ultra-high performance category to high performance or even grand touring might solve the problem. Make sure the customer knows that he’ll give up wet and dry traction and precise steering feel in the exchange.

A not-so-drastic attempt to improve ride comfort is to switch to smaller diameter wheels. This is easy if the buyer selected optional up-level 18s or 19s and 17- or 16-inch is standard. Fit the car with the OE tires on base-level wheels. However, sometimes the base wheels won’t fit on the up-level model because of larger brake calipers on the top-of-the-line edition. Again, the driver will almost certainly lose cornering ability and steering precision, without assurance the ride will be improved.

A word on damaged large-diameter wheels. If the wheel is even slightly bent, the tire has almost certainly suffered a fatal injury called “pinch shock.” A tire that’s suffered this fate is like a hand grenade from a munitions maker with poor quality control: It may blow immediately or it might wait until a hot, summer day on a fast Interstate. It’s going to blow. The question is when. The tire must be dismounted and inspected – carefully – from the inside.

It’s a challenge to explain why a buyer needs to pay extra for a Y-rated tire when his vehicle doesn’t go that fast. You can start by saying they are not identical, despite outward appearances. The buyer probably won’t be swayed if you tell him the change will alter how the car handles and rides.

However, fitting a lower speed rated tire is a dream for a plaintiff’s attorney. Maybe the owner will never drive beyond 70 mph, but perhaps the owner’s son might “see what she’ll do.” Or it might be the owner’s brother-in-law, or even the next owner. (My mother once asked me why her Lexus LS 430 “stuttered” at 150 mph. “That’s the speed limiter, Mom.” “Why do they have that?” she asked. “Toyota doesn’t want you going any faster,” I replied. “Can it be disabled?” she inquired. God forgive me, but I lied to my mother: “No, Mom, it can’t.”) I’ve worked for attorneys. I never want to be on the other side of the table from them.

An aside: Tires with higher speed ratings do not necessarily offer more traction or handle better. I’ve found some Z-rated tires with less traction than lower-rated tires. The higher speed rating simply means the tire will survive higher speeds. It might or might not offer more traction. Or handling. Or braking.

The accidental performance buyer will be a big challenge. But they’ll love you if you can fix their problems.

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