Tire Torture Test

Sometimes, to build a better tire, you have to tear ’em up!

Andy Bolig - November 08, 2012 10:00 AM


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Cooper Tires

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1 Before pointing us to the pushbutton start on the C6 Corvettes, Ali Aljibouri tells us what characteristics to look for when evaluating the drive.


2 You can see the amount of water displaced by the tires, getting the contact patch back down to the road surface where it needs to be.


3 The red ’Vette wears the Cooper RS3-S tires. Even as wide as the factory-sized tires are, they shed water like a red-hot cast-iron griddle.


4 Ali Aljibouri was then offering to stress test the seatbelts in his Mercedes during a drifting ceremony that was sure to please.


5 As our shoes dried out from the wet course, we strolled over to the dry handling circuit. Designed to put a set of tires through the wringer, we were willing and able to do our part.


6 Putting the Mustangs (and RS3-As) through the paces.


7 If you look closely, you can see how the water has been displaced from the road surface, allowing the tire to make better contact. This isn’t special water and it will react the same way on the highway in your home state.


8 The RS3-A’s laterally oriented shoulder grooves provide even wear while the wide, sweeping elliptical groove promotes better winter traction performance.


9 The RS3-S’s large intermediate tread elements promote stable cornering and reduced noise while large shoulder tread elements allow exceptional dry handling and cornering ability, the continuous center rib promotes “on-center feel” and high speed response.

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The requirements that we have for a “proper” automobile today are quite high.

We expect our daily drivers to be reliable, trouble-free and in many cases, capable of higher performance levels than was available in many performance cars just a decade or so ago.

Such haughty expectations by consumers will invariably push manufacturers further in finding ways for their products to stand out in a sea of options. One such area where the competition is stiff for your hard-earned greenbacks is in the tires that you choose to roll around on.

We had an opportunity to join Cooper Tires at their tire testing facility near San Antonio, Texas, to see just what it takes to ensure that the tires you put on your auto not only meets the standards that you require, but also the scrutiny of their engineers and test drivers. The 1,000-acre facility features several courses designed to aggressively give any tire a workout, both on the road and off, and their team of tire advisors know how to put these cars through their paces, pushing the tires to the very edge — and beyond.

While we wouldn’t have the well of talent that their test-driver/advisors might have, we did bring a varied level of commonality that would put the tires to the test under more “uncontrolled” situations. Experiencing the tires for ourselves not only gave us a greater feel for how they respond, but it also highlighted the tire’s recoverability to those instances of over-application of steering or whatever non-professional maneuvers a typical driver on the highway might encounter.

It’s easy to build a tire that performs well on a flat, dry surface, but as the envelope of environments in which the tire performs broadens, its complexity increases dramatically. That’s why Cooper Tires has installed a 14-acre wet handling pad, which keeps a sheet of water very similar to what you would find on a typical road surface during a severe rainstorm. We were set loose with a pair of C6 Corvettes, one fitted with BFG’s Sport Comp 2 tires and the other with Cooper Tires’ Zeon RS3-S ultra-high performance tires. As the water flowed over the flat surface of the test pad, we worked our way through the cones, weaving and dodging between them as best we could.

We set out first in the Corvette wearing competitor’s shoes and then tried on the ’Vette with the RS3-S tires. I’m always amazed at the difference that you’ll notice when swapping from a used set of tires to a brand-new set and while both sets of these tires were new, and the difference wasn’t quite as dramatic, there WAS a difference. We took several laps around the course to acquaint ourselves and then swapped cars to find the differences.

Immediately, the RS3-S tires set themselves apart. We were still driving on a slick surface, but somehow, the Cooper tires made it “feel” less slick. They retained generous feedback through the wheel, so there was no guessing what was going on where the rubber met the road. And for those moments when things did go from stick to slide, recovery was a simple unwind of the wheel and the car became one with your will almost instantly. Overall, lap times increased by an average of one second for most drivers when they swapped over to the Cooper RS3-S equipped Corvette.

After we experienced what we could do with the RS3-S tires, we were handed over to two of Cooper Tires’ test drivers, Johnny Unser and Ali Aljibouri, who both took turns slamming us up against the door skins of the test cars as they exhibited the tire’s controllability during some drifting maneuvers. While not a good test for the ZEON’s tread life, it was an exhilarating display and the smell of smoked rubber lasted almost as long as the smiles on our faces.

For the afternoon session, we were carted off to the 1.3-mile dry handling circuit where again, the pair of Corvettes awaited. The course wasn’t designed for all-out speed, although you couldn’t tell as each one of us Andretti-wannabes strapped ourselves in, ready to tame the twisting course. There are a couple of situations that have the potential to force a vehicle into situations well above its limit, reacting to bad situations on the highway, and egos.

There wasn’t a highway in sight, so, we needed to rely on the second scenario. Wanting to do our best, we all delved into the pot whose bottom is slightly over our heads, some more than others. Even being subjected mercilessly to these scenarios, the RS3-Ss would reaffirm our grip with the asphalt as soon as we would step back over that line we had crossed. No doubt it would do the same on the highway when there’s more than sagebrush and sandy soil all around.

Not all tire needs are alike, and the same goes for cars. That’s why Cooper Tires also offers their RS3-A, an all-season, ultra-performance tire. While the envelope of operation for the RS3-A includes the white fluffy stuff, it still retains the ultra-high performance status and enjoys a higher 40,000-mile treadwear rating over the RS3-S’s 20,000 miles. There are some other considerations as well that may make the RS3-A more appealing. It’s available in more sizes than the RS3-S (38 as opposed to 25) and its multi-faceted tread pattern helps it wear more uniformly over the life of the tire.

As we were unleashed back on the cone-ridden wet course in a duo of Mustangs, the ride characteristics of the two tires again became apparent. This time, we were trying out a set of Toyo Proxes 4 tires to the Coopers. Coming back from the dry track took a little bit of getting used to; we needed to rein in the speeds as the course is much tighter, and wet. After the first lap or so, we all regained our sea legs and got a good feel for what the Toyos had to offer. Then, it was into the Cooper-equipped ’Stang.

Using terms like “Response” or “Feedback” can help those who use those terms repeatedly, but in the real-world, where most of us live, we prefer “uneventful” or “sure-footed”. That’s what we got from the Coopers. Not that the Toyo tires didn’t deliver, just that the Cooper tires did it without as much fanfare about doing it. The link to the surface (even a wet one) was more seamless. It was like the Cooper tires didn’t have to let you know how much work they were doing; they just did it. On several occasions, when I did exceed the grip levels of even the Cooper tires, I could easily counter the skid and direct the Mustang through the set of cones controllably and regain my position without having to look through the side glass or rearview mirror. In a field of 14 acres of wet pavement, that may not seem like much, but it can make as big a difference as your insurance deductible in the real world.

Altogether, the time spent at the Cooper Tires Test Facility was a good one. We had the opportunity to try out a few cars in various scenarios and really test a set of tires to their fullest extent. We had an opportunity to speak with some talented test-drivers and look through their face shields to see what they look for when shopping for tires. It’s helped us become better buyers when the time comes and our baby needs a new pair of sneakers. Hopefully, it has helped you too. If you would like to see a video of the event, go to: