HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C.—There is no such thing as a perfect tire, according to Eugene A. Petersen, tire program manager of the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center in East Haddam, Conn.
But most tires are good, and some are very good indeed, Petersen told the audience at the 30th annual Clemson University Tire Industry Conference, held recently in Hilton Head.
“'Who makes the best tire?' is a popular media question, and it's not that easy to answer,” Petersen said. But with its annual comparison tests, Consumer Reports magazine tries its best to answer that question, he said.
CR has tested 50 to 80 tire models annually since 1992, representing about 25 brands, according to Petersen. Currently, 173 tire models are listed at www.consumerreports.org. Typically, the tested tires are flagship replacement models that are sold nationally, he said.
“This year, we're testing SUV and pickup tires,” he said. “Next year we'll concentrate on family, performance and winter tires—especially performance winter tires that come in sizes that fit performance cars.”
CR generally tests for safety-related characteristics in tires, Petersen said—braking, handling, hydroplaning resistance, winter grip and treadwear. “A tire that wears out quickly won't have all-weather grip,” he said.
Its test priorities veer somewhat from the priorities of consumers, according to Petersen. People shopping for tires value availability, price, tread life and performance above all, he said.
“Performance is a given,” he said. “Some consumers don't understand that performance can vary model to model.”
Whereas in the past original equipment tires were chosen primarily on price, today they drive all high-technology improvements in tires, Petersen said.
“New sizes are always being introduced, and this presents something of a problem,” he said. As tire sizes proliferate, availability on the replacement level becomes an issue, he said.
Of all the qualities auto makers seek in OE tires, rolling resistance has by far the highest priority, according to Petersen. “There is no easier way for a car maker to improve fuel economy than reduce rolling resistance.”
CR ranks tire brands based on weighted-average overall testing scores, with a minimum sample of four tires per brand, Petersen said. Though some brands perform better on average than others, there is no tire maker that CR considers “excellent” across the board, he said.
“To be excellent, you need to score 80 or above,” he said. “Michelin and Continental, the highest-ranked models, both get 68.”
Michelin places twice as many tire models in CR's Top Five categories as any other brand, with 16, according to Petersen. It is the only company that places in the Top Five in every CR category, he said.
But Conti, Nokian, Goodyear, Pirelli and Bridgestone are in a five-way tie for second, with eight each in the Top Five categories, he said. “This shows how competitive tire makers are.”
CR editors recommend tires to consumers based on testing results. Michelin has the highest number of recommended models with 10, Petersen said.
“Michelin distinguishes itself from other companies with its treadwear performance,” he said. “They seem to be in a league by themselves.” However, the company's premium pricing is a drawback, he said.
Based on its testing, CR takes the DNA of every major tire manufacturer, according to Petersen. Here are its profiles of each brand:
• Continental General: Conti boasts reasonable prices, impressive grip and handling and good value, especially in the General brand, he said. But there are some problems with uneven treadwear on Conti's UHP tires, some aging product lines because of long product cycles and supply shortages. “The biggest problem with these tires is trying to get them,” he said.
• Goodyear: Goodyear has competitive models overall, and some of them ace CR's tests, Petersen said. But Goodyear's product cycles are often out of whack with CR's testing cycles. “That's our loss,” he said.
• Nokian: Nokian is the master of winter grip, and its all-weather tires are attractive to tire buyers who want a winter tire for all-year use, according to Petersen. But Nokian is a regional player, and its prices are prohibitive for some consumers, he said.
• Pirelli: Pirelli is excellent especially in the high-performance field, with superb handling and grip in both wet and dry conditions, Petersen said. But treadwear performance has been problematic, as has winter traction in some all-season models, he said. Some truck tires also haven't performed up to expectations. New models should address these problems, he said.
• Yokohama: Yokohama tires are designed to perform well on both dry and wet roads, and some of its focused products do well in CR tests, according to Petersen. But truck tire performance has been uneven, as has winter traction for Yokohama's all-season radials, he said.
• Hankook: Hankook boasts balanced performance within its favored categories, he said, and is strong in truck tires but only about average in the all-season category. He complained about Hankook's cryptic model names, though he added, “The same can be said of other tire companies.”
• Cooper: “Cooper has been on a roll in recent years with the Cooper Zeon RS3-A, the Discoverer CTS and the Discoverer A/T3,” Petersen said. The company is strong in all-season performance, he said, but the Zeon RS3-S is only so-so among summer models.
• Bridgestone/Firestone: The largest tire company in the world has impressive resources, and is a real winner in the winter tire market with the Bridgestone Blizzak WS70 and DM-V1, Petersen said. But its all-season performance has been mediocre, he said.
“Bridgestone is the Dallas Cowboys of tire companies,” he said. “On paper it's one of the best tire makers—modern, energy-efficient, with extremely talented people—but it's more of a .500 club. Its metric of manufacturing tires is not well-aligned with our test metric.”
CR will continue to emphasize core safety performance characteristics in its testing, according to Petersen. But consumers can be assured that most tires provide at least a minimum level of good performance, he said.
“For most consumers, the perfect tire is a well-maintained product, and one that suits their level of performance priorities,” he said.