I’M STILL THAWING OUT after a trip to Arjeplog in northern Sweden. If the name sounds familiar it’s because this is the winter testing hub for the whole motoring industry. Camo’d cars from pretty much any marque you can name roll merrily around the town. But I wasn’t there to ogle disguised mules but instead was driving on F1 circuits carved from a frozen lake. We had a Subaru WRX STI Type RA, special ‘Lappi Winter Tyres’ with 300 metal studs measuring 30mm per corner, and it was as much fun as you can have without being arrested.
‘Okay, stop gloating,’ I hear you cry. The point is… those tyres. Tyres are everything. I’ve been on so many car launches where the engineers spend more time talking about tyres than double wishbones, MacPherson struts, horsepower or torque. Contact patch is king and basically the entire car’s set-up is developed upon those four fistsized areas where rubber meets tarmac. Whether you crave sports car response or quiet luxury, tyres matter more than you could ever imagine. And yet so many people, enthusiasts included, skimp on rubber.
I know this well from various magazine tests over the years. A pristine, meticulously serviced low-mileage car arrives. The owner is deeply enthusiastic and rightly proud. I’m excited, too. However, my first instinct is always to look past shiny paint and the perfectly vacuumed interior and focus on the sidewall. ‘Please say Michelin,’ I think. Or whatever was OEM. Or at least one of the big boys like Pirelli, Continental, Goodyear or Yokohama.
You see, fitting cheaper tyres can mean death to dynamics. Behold the tragedy of the Escort Cosworth on a set of DitchFinder 999s that initially refused to turn in and then suddenly snapped into oversteer. Or the 968 with the double whammy of shot dampers and 20-year-old rubber that bobbled and slipped around like an elephant on ice skates. There were fleeting milliseconds revealing the magic within these revered chassis, but boy did you have to look for it.
These are graphic illustrations of how buying sub-standard tyres can destroy the feel and behaviour of a car, but if you want hard numbers for objective differences they are out there. Tyre tests seem deathly dull, but if you are into the minutiae of dynamics they’re fascinating - hence why we conduct them annually at MOTOR. And of course, we’ve already read in this very issue the difference a decent tyre can make on the same car, with the same driver, at the same track.
For me the biggest eye-opener was during a test on a wet handling track. We were using a Golf GTI Edition 30 and had nine different tyres to assess. The lap was roughly a minute on the best performing tyres, and the worst performer was 7.5 seconds slower than the pace-setting Goodyear... 7.5! In wet braking tests the worst tyre’s stopping distance from 90km/h was 12.5 metres longer than the best. Scary.
Forgive me for talking tyres for an entire column, but they’re the most crucial component to ensuring your cherished car drives as it should. Stick to OE or investigate newer options carefully. More modern compounds and patterns aren’t always better for your classic but they can be transformative. Porsche’s sublime Carrera GT was so improved when new Michelin Super Sport tyres were made available that it hardly felt like the same car. That’s another story… But the moral of this one is simple: unless your new tyres are painfully expensive, they’re probably just not good enough. Sorry.