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May 2007 Willies Workbech Tire Testing

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on May 1, 2007
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Wow, are there ever a lot of new tires available to pick from for your vehicle. It sees like every time I pick up a 4x4 magazine and look at the ads, I see a new tire design or size. There are not only just more tires from the standard names we immediately recognize, but new names and new manufacturers (OK, I'm sure that they have been in the tire business for some time, but the name is new to the off-road market) seem to show up about every year for the past five or six years now. Tread designs range from nice and tight to so gnarly, it looks like it would bite your arm off.

In no way am I a tire expert. I will admit to over the years having had the opportunity to use more tires than the average off-highway vehicle enthusiast. Then again, I'm also a lot older, having bought my first 4x4 vehicle back in the archaic time of 1960. I even bought tires from Dick Cepek before he had a store and was working out of his home garage. The point is that, I, and especially people like co-journalist Jimmy Nylund, can pretty much look at a tire, read the specs off the sidewall, and tell you if it's going to work well in what type of terrain.

Several years ago when out on the trail, I made a point of asking every driver I had contact with (ones who I didn't know) what they thought of the tires that they were using. While I never kept a written account of their answers, they pretty much went something like this: "Oh, they're great," or "best tire I've ever used," or "I love 'em," or "fantastic traction." Not once did I hear anyone say something along the lines of the tires "sucked," or "Boy, I wish I hadn't bought them!" Why do you think that I got such answers?

Well, first off, most people just don't have the money to go out and buy several different sets of tires to play with. Yep, tires are darn expensive. They have to base their opinion on what they are using over a given time period with very little comparison ability. Secondly, a lot of their opinion comes from two things: What everyone else is running, and what they read in magazine tire tests. The third thing is what I want to call braggadocio. Do you really think that after they've laid out anywhere from 600 to 1,600 dollars for a set of tires that they're going to admit that they made a mistake in their choice?

Every off-highway vehicle publication does so-called "tire testing." In reality, these are nothing more than the tester's personal observation of the tire's performance over a very short time period and perhaps putting less than 1,000 miles on said tires, so our so-called tire testing is very subjective and should be taken that way. Generally, due to the short time we have the tire, we have no way to determine things like tire wear, noise levels at different wear periods, or how well the sidewall will flex or even hold up over a given time period.

We also all use different vehicles that vary in overall size, weight, suspension design, and wheelbase-all of which can affect the tire's performance, both on and off the highway. Just for instance, you can't expect a 33x12.50-inch version of a particular tire to perform the same as a 39x14.50 on the same vehicle. Not only are tires "tested" under different driving conditions, but by "testers" with different driving skills and styles. Some writers will never take the tires over 55 mph, even on the pavement, while others among us like to play Robby Gordon in the dirt. Even the variety of terrain the tires are tested in can vary. The sand in the Oregon dunes is different than that at Glamis. The caliche mud in New Mexico is different than the muskeg of Alberta, Canada. The sandpaper-type rocks of Moab are different than the smooth wet rocks of Washington. The crushed gravel roads in eastern Montana are different than hard-packed dirt of South Dakota ... OK, you get the picture. Even the pavement from one road to another can be different in regards to adhesion and noise generation.

What it comes down to, and what I really am trying to get across, is to read all tire tests for what they are. It's one person's opinion of that tire, on that vehicle, and in the terrain tested, so take it at that. Take a good look at the tire's tread design and read the sidewall specs to see if it really matches your intended use. Don't pick a tire like an Interco Bogger for your wife's Chevy Tahoe daily driver, for instance, simply because they look cool. Like I said before, tires are expensive, and you really don't want to make a mistake. Think what your needs are for the greatest percentage of time, and match the tire to those needs.

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