By on April 26, 2006

Courtesy fastcoolcars.comMy name is Katherine, and I've got an ultra high performance summer tire monkey on my back. I can't live without grippy tread compounds attached to the bottom of my hopped-up Volkswagen Passat. By the time I've got 15K miles on last summer's set of Kumhos, the tread compound starts mingling with the carcass, traction begins to suffer and my Amex automatically reheats. Needless to say, most drivers don't share my expensive affliction; their Wal-Mart-honed sensibilities keep high-priced rubber donuts off their automotive repair radar. In fact, the treadwear ratings on my automotive shoes of choice would make a value-driven consumer cry– should they live that long. Given the way they think about tires, there's a reasonable chance they won't.

Stop. It's not so easy if you've got "long lasting" tires. While tire and auto manufacturers don't like to talk about tires' critical impact on stopping distances, when it comes to not hitting things, the behavior of the rubber beneath your car is one of the single most important variables. If your tires aren't soft enough to stick to the road surface, all the ABS and computerized AWD trickery in the world won't put an end to your slip-n-slide nightmare; you'll go skidding off into the sunset on your rubber rocks. The best thing about driving on two sets of sticky tires is the stopping. You always can. Unless it's snowing.

Every winter, I roll along on my skinny hi-po snows, scanning the roadside for high-performance cars wearing summer sandals. I don't know anyone who's purchased a new Corvette or Crossfire who's also been instructed to purchase a winter wheel and tire package. Word up: Z-rated stickies aren't going to grip at zero C like they do at 20C. In fact, cynical-minded readers would be forgiven for thinking that car dealers are intentionally drumming-up off-season business for their auto body repair shop. And if those way cool performance tires can't grip tenaciously enough for winter traction, how do you think they grip for braking? Bottom line: I try not to be around Mustang GT's after September.

Tire companies are more than slightly responsible for this irresponsibility. In general, they sell longevity, speed and style. When it comes to traction, they sell… tread patterns. Although precious few auto enthusiasts can tell you the dynamic capabilities of a tire's tread pattern just by glancing at it, "everyone" can tell you whether it looks aggressive or not. And bad-ass looks are, of course, as important as tread life– at least when you're rolling chromie double dubs with a whopping 20 profile rubber band protecting your bling. Truth is, if a tread pattern doesn't say "get the hell out of my way, bitch," no one's going to buy it. Instead of filling their internet sites with useful traction versus temperature graphs, big tire companies feed the desire to be cool by promoting "extreme" new tread patterns and hopping-up customer adrenalin with profiles of racers and track queens.

The modern all-season tire also shoulders part of the blame (so to speak) for this dangerous, laissez-faire attitude towards tires and safety. They're a rubberized jack of all trades (adequate for most situations) and master of none (adequate for most situations). That said, the rubber buggers excel in one important category: tread life. With warranted wear ratings of 80K miles, more and more of today's drivers never see the inside of a tire shop; they trade their car long before the tires wear out. They've removed the seasonal ritual of tire changing from the liturgy of auto ownership. Ignorance is bliss, bang, boom!

If you ask the average tire guy or dealership wonk, you'll hear the urban legend: all-seasons make snow tires irrelevant and summer tires an extravagance. With that in mind, it's easy to see why nobody thought twice about that little tire pressure problem on all those Ford Explorers. Heck, I'll bet most of those owners never once checked inflation and couldn't change a flat if they had to. How many airbags are there inside the average car these days? The four contact patches on the bottom of your whip are what keep you on the road– and away from solid objects.

Sure, I'm toeing the near side of nuts when it comes to tires. But I've got myself and my kids to think about. Common sense and self-preservation suggest that it's time for the pendulum of public opinion to swing back towards a more thoughtful, more proactive approach to tire safety and performance. Meanwhile, anyone got a line on a couple of pairs of right-priced S03 Pole Positions? I believe I'm just about ready to swap out again.

[Celebrate National Tire Safety Week by visiting www.betiresmart.org]

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