Are Premium tyres worth it?

Posted on June 1st, 2015 by Rob Marshall

bridgestoneAfter replacing my cold weather tyres with all-season covers, ready for summer motoring, I was left with the difficult decision of determining which brand I should fit. Internet forums, as always, are full of conflicting advice and even tyre labels at my local supplier showed that several tyre brands, with wildly different prices, appear to perform in much the same ways. Surely that cannot be true?

Coincidentally, during this period, I was invited by Bridgestone Europe to visit its technical centre and proving grounds in Italy, to discover the difference in performance between an average low-cost imported tyre and a mid-range premium alternative. Incidentally, I have not received a set of free (or discounted) tyres from Bridgestone and so I am not being at all biased. However, as a natural critic, I was happy with the company’s methodology.

To maintain fairness, the company selected a set of four Chinese-made HiFly HF201 tyres, which were chosen not because of any issue with Chinese products but because HiFly’s range represents an average low-cost range in terms of price and capability, plus 45% of all low-cost, or budget, tyres in Europe are produced in that country. While my host could have used its most expensive product, the mid-range version was chosen instead, the Turanza T001, a set of which was fitted to one Volkswagen Golf, while an identical car was shod with HiFlys.

The breaking difference

The first exercise involved me accelerating both cars, at Bridgestone’s off-road proving ground, on dry tarmac, to 52mph and braking heavily. Once the company’s engineers had consulted the GPS and analytical hardware that was fitted to both Volkswagens, which compensated for any delayed reactions and pedal pressure variations, the result was that the Bridgestones had stopped the car four metres sooner than the one wearing Chinese-made rubber.

More worryingly, at the point at which one car stopped, the other one was still travelling at 18mph, a speed that would have caused significant damage to the car and whatever (or whomever) it struck.

Going round the bend (or not)

Although the braking test was deeply scientific, it is known that many drivers tend not to depress the brake pedal sufficiently enough in an emergency situation and, therefore, the only option available is to steer around the obstacle.

To see if I could detect any noticeable differences, I was invited to drive both Golfs around a prescribed, coned course, designed to replicate sudden high-speed motorway avoidance manoeuvres, as well as a slalom. The differences were considerable. The HiFlys not only made the Golf understeer considerably more but also the rate of understeer was less linear than that of the Bridgestones. The cheaper covers also blunted the reaction of the normally responsive steering of the Golf.

Having said this, the Chinese tyres could not be considered as dangerous; however, I found that their performance was significantly inferior to that of the Bridgestones. In terms of the Euro price rate, the difference was found to be enough to pay for a moderate meal for two but, after my test experiences, I now appreciate that the money is better invested in higher specification tyres.

What about the labels?

All of this did not answer my questions about whether, or not, EU tyre labels can be taken as true representatives of tyre performance. While Bridgestone agreed that they are both important and useful, the company’s engineers told me that it would be possible to engineer a tyre to perform well for the parameters mentioned on the label, at the expense of everything else. Therefore, a tyre that had good wet braking, low rolling resistance and noise could suffer from terrible dry braking, questionable dry handling, poor lateral grip and high wear performance. Premium tyres tend to strike an optimum compromise but this may make them appear to perform similarly too, when the EU tyre labels are compared with a low-cost import. The exercise proved to me that the tyres are not equal but you only tend to find this out, when it is too late.