Tom Wilson
December 1, 2003

Touch a tire and you get grimy and black. Look at a tire and it's dull and grimy and black. Run a tire hard and it turns the pavement grimy black. But bolt on a fresh set of tires that are well-matched to your ride and they're golden. In fact, no other single part on your car makes such a performance difference nor is as vital to your automotive enjoyment or safety as those four grimy black donuts that provide the all-important contact patches with terra firma. But being grimy black all the time, tires typically don't get the respect they deserve.

That's definitely not the case at The Tire Rack in South Bend, Indiana. There, tires are king. From a mind-numbing selection to same-day shipping, tires are the focus of every effort at The Tire Rack.

That's why we jetted to South Bend when we wanted to illustrate the range of street-tire performance available these days. Without a doubt, modern tires offer impressive performance, but they also represent a major investment. With so many tire brands and styles available, guidance on which is the right tire is the best place to start.

Two IdeasCost is an obvious criterion when selecting tires, so we worked with Matt Edmonds and John Rastetter of The Tire Rack to build a test that would illustrate the entry, middle, and upper edges of the high-performance street-tire market based on tire price. This range of real-world performance street tires is easily where the action is, and that's why we didn't bother with low-buck specials, wallet-excoriating, ultra-high-performance tires, or the track-oriented, super sticky, fast-wearing race tires sporting just enough tread to muster DOT approval. Those are another story altogether.

It's also important to understand the tires tested here are not the only-or necessarily even the best-choices for any particular application. Instead, these tires are a cross-section, a representative set of price ranges and brands designed to show what range of performance differences you can expect in this class of tires.

We also had another idea, that of going plus one or plus two in wheel diameter. Moving from 17- to 18- and even to 19-inch diameters is almost as common in the Mustang world as replacing worn tires, so we wanted to take a careful look at what such moves gain. Because The Tire Rack also sells wheels, putting that test together was a snap.

Naturally, we wanted to use Mustangs for our testing, and Ford SVT helped us out with the loan of two '03 Mustang Cobras. With the logistics thus handled by The Tire Rack and SVT, all we had to do was show up and drive. Life was good!

Arriving on CampusHere's the real kicker. Not only does The Tire Rack have half a million square feet of tire warehouse to draw from, but there's also a dedicated tire test track built into the front lawn. Purpose-built for tire testing, the short, modified figure eight was precisely what we needed to objectively test several tires. Given the track is outfitted with a timing system yielding overall and segment times, as well as a sprinkler system for wet testing, we were set to acquire all the data we could handle.

Additionally, The Tire Rack uses several miles of public roads surrounding the plant for noise, ride, and other real-world evaluations. These tests follow a set pattern-radio off, ventilation fan no higher than the lowest setting, windows up, posted speed limit, and so on. This maximizes the tires' input and provides repeatability. The roads vary from new to old, surface streets to freeway, and concrete to asphalt.

Same Size, but DifferentFor our first test, we tried three dif-ferent brands of tires, all in the same 275/40-17 size standard on current Mustang Cobras. The three tires and their details are as follows.