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May 10, 2011

A Learning Experience with Bridgestone Tires

I love my car. When I talk about it with my friends, I describe its sleek design, its comfortable leather seats and its smooth ride. The one feature I don't think I've ever discussed is its tires. In fact, I almost never think about those unless one of them is flat or needs to be replaced... and then, I just purchase the least expensive tire that's compatible with my vehicle.

I admit that overlooking my tires is short-sighted -- especially since I KNOW that proper inflation and care is not only a safety issue, but saves money, too.

5629217204_262e81ec13 I was reminded of the importance of tires last month, when I attended a Drive and Learn event in Los Angeles, courtesy of Bridgestone, which is inviting tire dealers and other automotive professionals to experience their latest products: by actually driving high performance vehicles equipped with them.

Bridgestone thoughtfully set up a driving course with six identical BMW 328is, each equipped with a different tire (their own and offerings from some of their competitors). This allowed participants a unique opportunity to compare the tires' driving really, really, fast.

But before we could get behind those pretty wheels, we had to spend some time in class (the "learn" part of "Drive and Learn"), where a company spokesman ran through all the features of this year's models: The Potenza S-04 Pole Position "summer" tire and the Potenza RE 970 AS all season tire. 

Tire Confessions

I hope readers of AskPatty will forgive me when I tell you that the biggest revelation I had at that event was: Who knew so much thought and care goes into the design and testing of a tire?

For instance, although I had an inkling that a tire's treads contribute to its traction on the road, I had no idea that behind every new tire is a team of engineers and designers, who use computer assistance to shape those grooves and create new rubber/silica compounds (which result in less rolling resistance, increasing fuel economy).

It's why the treads on standard "summer" tires (like the ones I use here in Southern California) differ radically from the ones on all-weather tires designed to keep their grip on snowy roads.

Bridgestone TrackThe products are put through their paces on test tracks that feature potholes, road hazards and coarse asphalt (all the same things we encounter in our daily driving). Bridgestone operates a dozen such tracks around the world, including one in Fort Stockton, Texas (plainly visible on the Google Map at left).   

Tires Tested

Bridgestone S-04The first product presented was the Potenza S04 Pole Position summer tire for sports cars and performance sedans.

Potenza is Bridgestone's “ultra high performance” line, which originated with input from Porsche and launched on the first Porsche 959.

This tire features a unidirectional tread that Bridgestone says contributes to a ride that's both responsive and smooth.

As a summer tire, it was optimized for performance in mostly dry conditions: its contours were designed for even contact pressure across the entire tread. However, even drivers in arid climates occasionally hit water; that's why this tire features an interlocking center rib and wide grooves that channel the wet stuff away.

The center groove also helps minimize noise, which gives the vehicle a quiet ride. Tapered leading edges help gain control when braking.

This tire was made with an advanced high silica content compound, which improves fuel economy. 

The S04 was designed for vehicles like the Porsche 911, Audi R3 and BMW M3, but comes in 45 sizes -- which means you use it as a replacement tire for a number of other models.

Bridgestone RE-970

The S04 tire is available in stores now, but the two product on display was an automotive "coming attraction" -- so new that at this writing, it doesn't even have an official photos on the Bridgestone website.

This was the Potenza RE 970AS Pole Position All Season Tire, which launches in 33 sizes in June, and represents marked improvements over the model it replaces. 

And with this one, I learned a new word: "sipe," which is the small incision in the surface of a tire, made to improve its traction and stability. This tire has lots of three-dimensional sipes, plus a really different tread and groove pattern emanating from a continuous center rib.

The result is improved stability and traction in light snow.

The tire's wide contour shape also results in better contact distribution.

The Proof Is In the Driving

The morning concluded with the icing on the cake: the driving demos, where we compared identical BMW 328is fitted with the Potenza RE 970 AS vs. Michelin Pilot, and the Potenza S04 vs. Pirelli PZero. A track was set up with lots of tantalizing twists and turns, with portions wetted down between drivers, so we could all get the feel for wet road handling.

I was surprised that I could really feel a difference in the ride, responsiveness, handling and braking of all four model tires, with the Bridgestone models delivering the better experience. Of course, that's to be expected -- otherwise, why would the company go to the expense of producing Learn and Drive demonstrations all over the country?

The lesson I did learn from this experience is that tires are not a product that is interchangeable. I research all my other major purchases before I shop -- I should be doing the same thing when it's time to replace my tires.

2010by Donna Schwartz Mills
Contributing Editor

Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer who also contributes to CBS Digital Local Los Angeles, the Yahoo! Motherboard and her personal site,SoCal Mom.

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