THE GOODS : What High Performance Tires Really Do For You

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost a third of the tires sold in the United States are now classified as "high performance," a remarkable marketing coup since the majority of motorists are anything but high performance drivers.

An ever-increasing share of new cars, even family sedans, come equipped with high performance tires. Of the 170 million tires sold in the United States, 52 million this year will be high performance lines.

Tire manufacturers say these tires are worth their higher prices, because they provide quicker steering response and better cornering capability.

The manufacturers are more circumspect about whether these high performance tires can bring a vehicle to a stop more quickly. Theoretically, high performance tires can stop a vehicle in a shorter distance, but there is little evidence to prove it.

High performance tires typically have a shorter sidewall and a wider tread that grips the road surface better than conventional tires, says Goodyear marketing manager Bob Toth. The high performance tires give more precise steering because the shorter sidewall prevents the tire from flexing and wobbling in sharp turns.

High performance tires cost 10% to 15% more than premium non-performance tires, and easily 50% more than the bread-and-butter tire that many consumers buy at discount. Some safety experts doubt the tires are worth the higher cost.

"Most people don't drive cars to their limits and therefore won't get the benefits of the high performance tires," says Clarence Ditlow, director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.

In many cases, consumers don't have a choice. Car makers are equipping new cars with high performance tires that help provide vastly improved handling compared with cars a decade ago.

"Some drivers may be unsuspecting high performance drivers, since they can appreciate the qualities that come with high performance tires, but they don't associate that with the tire," says Michelin spokesman Martin Peters.

If you want to retrofit your car, you should expect to replace your wheels with a larger rim size because of the performance tires' shorter sidewall. But keep the overall diameter of the wheel and tire at the original specification--otherwise the speedometer will give an incorrect reading and the gearing ratios will be messed up.

Understanding the sizing of high performance tires is a little confusing. Tire sizes have three numbers: The first indicates the width, the second the ratio of the height to width and the third the diameter of the wheel rim. The ratio is smaller in a high performance tire, while the width is larger. For example, a non-performance 185-70R-14 has nearly the same overall diameter as a performance 205-60R-15. The performance tire is 205 millimeters wide, has a profile that is 60% as high as it is wide and takes a 15-inch rim.

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