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by John Cadogan

The old joke among tyre engineers is also one of the tyre game’s bigger issues. See, the difference between good tyres and bad tyres is that they are both black, and round. However tremendous the gulf in performance separating a really good tyre and a really rubbish tyre, to many consumers they both look the same, leading to a logical (but dead wrong) presumption that they must be equal.

Above: Black, round – check. Must be a tyre. But how do you differentiate the wheat from the chaff?

If they appear to be the same, why would you reasonably pay more for the ‘name’ brand? Why pay the extra $100 for the word ‘Goodyear’ embossed on the sidewall (in black)? Actually, Forbes says ‘Goodyear’ is one of the world’s 75 most reputable companies, but as a fashion accessory it hardly carries the same cachet as ‘Prada’ or ‘Yves St Laurent’. Could the Chinese cheapie really be that bad?

(Answer: yeah. It could. In fact, it’s probably worse than that.)

Above: Generic pills are an example of similar performance using the no-name brand. Tyres don’t subscribe to the same philosophy

There are plenty of parallels in life that could lead you down the wrong path with tyre choice. For example, every time you go see a pharmacist, they point you to the generic brand, which, they say, contains the same active ingredient and is a third of the ‘name’ brand’s price. The message is clear: You get the same benefit using a far cheaper brand you’ve never heard of. However, if pharmacology worked like tyres, the streets would be knee-deep in corpses whose penultimate act in life was to opt for the generic paracetamol over the Panadol.

Above: Wet braking is the thing that most drivers are most concerned about

In other words, a quality tyre will save your life in situations where an inferior one could kill you, or someone else. (Back before the internet killed magazines, I did a lot of tyre testing, year after year. We used GPS data-logging and control tyres, infrared timing beams, etc. I can tell you unequivocally that the brands you know to be quality tyre brands invariably out-perform the brands you’ve never heard of – often by more than the life-death margin.)

Above: The big brand names (not just Goodyear) can all be trusted to perform under pressure. Run away from the brands you’re unfamiliar with

The other worry is that, as a consumer, the brand of those tyres is really all you have to go on. The names of the individual models don’t have very much consumer relevance (big marketing similarity with petrol there, with a quick cheerio to Caltex’s Bio e-Flex…) Here’s a pop quiz on this: Can you say, off the top of your head, which company makes the ‘Assurance Armorgrip’ tyre, and which makes the ‘Adrenalin’?

Above: Cracking the code…

From there, the tyre-tech rabbit hole goes straight to Wonderland: if you want to learn more about tyres you jump straight into a brain-bendingly consumer-incomprehensible code cracking exercise (most people will never know what 225/45R17 93W means) – and after that it’s all completely esoteric, highly technical engineering fluff. Terminating at…

…they’re all black and round.

Which is why, last Friday, I’m sitting at Aria, perving at the Coathanger and the Sydney Opera House in the pouring rain, with touring car ace John Bowe and a bunch of senior execs from Goodyear. (If you want the press to turn up to the launch of a tyre, the restaurant had better be good, and Aria is certainly one of the best.)

Above: Science factoid – Goodyear made the tyres for the Apollo moonshot’s Lunar Rover, which is thought still to be operational (keys are under the seat)

Over a very nice pinot, a funny-but-informal chat from Mr Bowe (wearing his Goodyear ambassadorial hat) and in between the pork belly and the barramundi, there’s a comprehensive briefing on the all-new Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2 and Eagle F1 Directional 5 tyres. (The former being the company’s ultra high performance tyre for cars like an M3, while the latter is the company’s tyre du jour for your tweaked WRX or SS Commodore.)

Above: New Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2 with outside edge on right

There’s a heap of advanced technology packed into both tyres, and I’m sure they’re both as good as Aria’s barra. For the non-tyre cognoscenti, asymmetric tyres have specific inner and outer edges (hence the name). Basically, the really stiff bits go on the outside edge, which is where all the load is during cornering. There’s usually some rigid circumferential grooves in the middle to aid straight line stability, and most of the inner edge is given over to water dispersal and noise attenuation. (The Asymmetric 2 ticks all these boxes.)

It’s pretty important that the tyre fitter matches the outside edge of an asymmetric tyre to the outside edge of the wheel, otherwise the tyre will go on backwards and perform like rubbish. To idiot-proof this requirement, all asymmetric tyres have the word ‘outside’ embossed on the outer sidewall. (It doesn’t hurt to confirm they are correctly fitted.)

Above: New Goodyear Eagle F1 Directional 5 tyre

Directional tyres, like the new Goodyear Eagle F1 Directional 5 (what a mouthful…) have a deep V in the tread face, which is all about pumping water away (think F1 ‘wet’ tyre). In the wet it’s just like a circumferential pump, drawing water from under the tyre and spitting it out both sides. The new Directional 5 tyre has a less pronounced V for quieter running when worn, but Goodyear says its wet braking is actually improved.

The thing to remember about directional tyres is that they’re meant only to rotate one way. (That is, if you want the tread to pump water away properly. If you want it so suck water from the edges and jam it under the tyre, go nuts; run a directional tyre backwards.) Since the driver’s side tyres rotate clockwise and the passenger’s side anticlockwise when the car is rolling forwards, directional tyres need to be fitted one way on the left side, and the opposite way on the right (the V has to point down at the front).

Above: This Eagle F1 Directional 5 tyre is fitted for the left (ie passenger’s side). If you fit it to the right side, it pulls water in (that’s bad)

This means you can’t change directional tyres side to side (ie take a tyre from the left side of the car and put it on the right) at least not without taking the tyres off the rims and turning them over. This makes you re-think your tyre-rotation strategy to extend service life. It’s also a dud idea to have a directional tyre as a spare, unless you can predict what side you’re going to get a flat on (in Australia it’s usually the left, but I wouldn’t bank on it).

During the Goodyear presentation, the rain is pounding. I’m starting to think I might get trapped forever in Aria – a more uplifting proposition than the Chilean miners enjoyed. The world outside goes grey, and the Coathanger disappears. It’s Biblical. Like, time to whip down to Bunnings for a tape measure graduated in cubits (if they still make them) and head back via a sawmill and the zoo. It’s, literally, the day you want not to be driving on the Chinese cheapie tyre, appropriately enough.

Above: Excellent weather for panelbeaters, tow-truck operators and lawyers; bad for retreads and second-rate rubbish

The conversation turns to other thing you don’t want to be driving on, on afternoons like this: retreads, which for passenger cars are much hated within the tyre industry. Truck tyres are made to be retreaded; passenger tyres aren’t. Yet car tyres are routinely retreaded. Apparently there’s a worrying trend in retreading performance sizes like 235/45R17 (think: old SS Commodore or XR6) that sees plenty of young blokes ‘economising’ (if that’s the right word) on retreads in these sizes – and still presuming they’re driving on a performance tyre. Nothing could be further from the truth. You put an inexperienced driver in a powerful, rear-drive car and then run the whole show on retreads, on an afternoon like this. Guess what happens?

Unfortunately, some people who manage to buy a quality tyre still manage to shoot themselves in the foot, and undo all that clever engineering just by being slack. See, cars have become so reliable that people no longer do basic maintenance. Back in the 1970s, if you tried the ‘zero maintenance’ option your car would simply break down. Plugs would need cleaning, points would need gapping, timing would require adjustment. People like me did this stuff therapeutically, at the weekend. Today, however, the only mobility-maintaining prerequisite is fuelling up when the light comes on. That’s it, between services.

Air? Who needs it?

Above: one in five to one in 10 people driving with a dangerously underinflated tyre means 1.2 million vehicles – at least – in Australia

According to Goodyear’s people, the estimate for cars ‘out there’ in traffic driving around now with at least one dangerously under-inflated tyre is between one in five and one in 10.

There are 12 million cars on the road in Australia. Even if we take the conservative end of that estimate (one in 10) this means there are 1.2 million cars out there with a tyre that’s dangerously low. That means extended stopping distances, reduced stability in corners and under brakes, and reduced swerving and cornering ability. Effectively, if that’s you, you’ve undone all that brilliant underlying engineering built into the tyre just by failing to take advantage of the free air at the servo. (FYI: the standard sort of interval for checking your tyres is at least every two weeks, like most owner’s manuals say.)

Above: Once a tyre looks this bad it’s not only offering at best vestigial grip, you could roll it off the rim or have a blowout after a few kays

Without strange mental powers, it’s impossible to tell by eye if tyre pressure is too low. If you can see the tyre is a bit flat, its pressure is w-a-a-a-y too low. A small drop in pressure is invisible, but easily enough to translate into a big drop in grip. So you need to use a gauge, and the tyre placard inside the driver’s door frame, to get the pressure right.

You can check your tyre pressures in five minutes, for free. Like, the fuel’s going to cost you $80, and the two-for-one Kit Kats will add another $3, but the air is still free. And availing yourself of it might just save your neck. (But even if that’s too hard, Goodyear’s Beaurepairs retailers do a free tyre health check.)

Above: Chivallry isn’t exactly dead, but there’s not reason everyone shouldn’t learn how to pressure-check and inflate a tyre

Unfortunately, people tend not to be motivated by the ‘it might save your neck’ marketing strategy. Nobody can relate. Deep down, because everyone’s the hero in their own movie, nobody believes they’re really going to die.

Above: About 15 million passenger car tyres get thrown on the scrap heap every year in Australia. Many don’t go the full distance because underinflation causes excessive wear

So here’s the alternative justification: running with the pressures just a little low not only reduces grip, but it greatly accelerates tyre wear. So if you want to contribute disproportionately to the profits of Pirelli, Dunlop, Bridgestone, Continental, Yokohama, Michelin – and Goodyear – don’t bother keeping your tyres pumped up. That free air will actually save you money by extending the longevity of your tyres.

It’s something to consider.