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Sean Phillips

Inside Consumer Reports: Tire Testing

By October 23, 2011

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Photo © Sean Phillips

Consumer Reports Auto Test Center sports a beautiful test track out in the Connecticut backcountry. Once a drag strip, (the company has even kept the old timing tower) the track sports a long front straight ending in a sweeping turn onto the chicane-heavy backside. I was informed that on two occasions, light aircraft have landed on the front straightaway, on hopelessly lost and one out of fuel. Apparently the second time this happened one of the directors of the facility was on the phone giving a live radio interview when the plane lined up to use his test track as an emergency field. What he actually said to the interviewer remains classified.

Before going into the Tire Testing Center at the far end of the track, we were first treated to a highly enjoyable session of what our guide David Champion referred to charmingly as "testing how benign these cars are when right at the limit."

Gene Peterson, the Tire Program Leader, then told us about what he does all day. CR's tire program tests on a three-year cycle. Their results for light truck/SUV tires are just out, and their all-season tire reviews will come out next year. Gene puts each tire through a battery of tests, including:

Gene Peterson talks about his specialty.

Photo © Sean Phillips

  • Dry Braking
  • Wet Braking
  • Hydroplaning Resistance
  • Dry and Wet Cornering
  • Ice Braking
  • Snow Traction
  • Comfort and Noise
  • Steering Feel
  • Emergency Handling
  • Wet Slalom
  • Rolling Resistance
  • Tread Life

Fully half of Gene's $600,000 budget goes into testing tread life, which is done offsite. CR tests tread for 16,000 miles, twice the number of miles as for UTQG federal tests. Gene doesn't think much of the UTQG treadwear ratings system, pointing out that the rating is based on the manufacturer extrapolating wear patterns after a relatively few number of miles. How manufacturers do so is up to them. Gene noted that the longest-wearing and shortest-wearing tires in his experience had almost 100,000 miles of wear separating them. Both had the same UTQG treadwear rating.

Gene talked for quite a while about the many disadvantages of runflat tires, a subject which is near to my heart, and which requires a full article to discuss.

Gene also spoke eloquently about his personal wish for "logical, intuitive information on tire sidewalls" including easy-to-understand tire pressure labeling and an expiration date.

"Inflation is the lifeblood of the tire." he said, "The vast majority of people get inflation pressures wrong." I cannot personally agree with him more. The air pressure embossed on the tire sidewall is the absolute maximum cold pressure that should ever be put into the tire, a confusing label at best, since it is almost never the actual correct pressure that should be used. The correct pressure is generally found on a plaque on the inside of the driver's side door.

As for an expiration date, although the manufacturing date is included in sidewall information, very little attention is paid to the point at which a tire is too old to be used. Tires do lose volatiles over time and can begin to dry-rot, but where that process becomes unsafe is very unclear. Gene suggests somewhere between 6-10 years, and I agree.

Afterwards, on behalf of a reader, I asked Gene what he thought about testing snow tires on ice rinks. He was dubious about the idea, pointing out the difficulties of controlling for temperature and humidity at the surface of the ice, as well as the inability to perform anything but low speed tests.

The old drag strip timing tower.

Photo © Sean Phillips

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