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  • Todd

Unsexy Upgrade

Recently, I stood with an excited owner as he told me all the changes he still planned to make to his vehicle. There was a breathless list of exhaust parts and intakes, each with their expected power gains, followed by a studied consideration of coilers and “cranking up” the boost. The theoretical bill for all these changes would total many thousands.

“What about tires?” I asked.

“Oh,” he paused, a bit surprised by my question, “The tires are fine.”

This is the problem with tires.

Telling someone you cranked up your boost or found torque with a new exhaust leads to knowing nods from your car-friends. Every car gathering has owners standing by their ride with the hood up, waiting like an angler fish to pounce when you glance at the engine bay. The quest for more power or a more unique car brings shiny new parts and bragging rights to go with the new “stuff”. Tires, the only connection point of every car on the road, get forgotten because they are common place and all look about the same.

No one at a car show ever said, “Look at my new tires!” and drew a crowd.

However, no modification does more for every part of fast driving than spending money on tires. Any car test that involves changing the factory all-season tires to a high-performance set always yields a few seconds improvement in track times. A few seconds of improvement on a normal length track is monumental. Many drivers will work every part of a track, or spend thousands on part upgrades, trying to find a half a second faster lap time. Meanwhile a tire upgrade will hand them even more.

I spent some time today looking at track tires for my FR-S. I shook my head at the prices and tried to figure out if I can justify a track tire purchase. This proves two things: first, I’m not normal, and second and more importantly, that tires have to do lots of things for most of us and we don’t want to feel like we wasted our money. Unlike other upgrades, tires are seasonal and specialized and designed to wear out. If every car tune wore out in a year and we had to buy a new one, I suspect fewer people would bother.

Speed, handling, and braking are all improved by a change to more aggressive rubber. Car-lovers seem to understand this when we watch racing and marvel at a high speed, four-tire, pit stop. We forget it when it’s time to drive our favorite road. Tires require research, and most likely a trip to somewhere that can mount, balance, and align them on your car. This is an upgrade that takes you outside your garage and gives you an errand. We don’t want the hassle.

The sad truth is your tires are “fine”. Unless you drive an expensive sports car, the tires mounted at the factory were selected for long life, gas mileage, and all-season capability. They are the equivalent of a one-size-fits-all shirt. Technically, you’re covered. But if you want to know what you and your car are really capable of, skip the exhaust, delay your tune, and shop for tires.

After that… a driver mod.

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