Apr 012012
 

Most people see their cars as little more than transportation from one point to another. Most people, therefore, buy a car that suits their needs and then simply use it until, for whatever reason, it no longer does. Chances are if you’re reading this site, you are not one of those people. People like us look on our cars as an extension of ourselves. To us, driving is not simply sitting in a seat and directing a machine, but an interaction between driver, car and  road. We are enthusiasts. We demand more from our cars and, as such, we are usually looking for ways to make them better at the things we use them for.

There is a vast world of options when it comes to upgrading a car. We all know of someone who has spent the kind of money on his car that would buy a small house. We also all probably know someone who has, in pursuing their performance goals, so changed the nature of his or her car that it isn’t comfortable to drive on normal roads anymore. Whether any of that is worth it or not is all in the eye of the individual, but suffice it to say that most of us do not have the luxury of devoting that much income (and time, for that matter) to such pursuits, even if we do consider them worthwhile.

What, then, can those of us with high expectations and reasonable budgets do to make our cars better performers without compromising their drivability? That, as it happens, is my specialty.

Over the next four weeks, I will take one area of improvement at a time and discuss relatively inexpensive upgrades that will change the nature of any car for the better while keeping it completely roadworthy and road legal. I will also discuss my favorite options for each.

To begin, I will focus on the most important part on any car:

Tires

As I said, no single part on a car is more important than the tires. They are (hopefully) the only part of the vehicle that touches the road and, therefore, the source of traction that is necessary to acceleration, handling and braking. They are also the single most important factor in all three of those categories. For whatever reason, though, many people overlook them when making upgrades — probably because they aren’t glamorous and can seem expensive if one doesn’t appreciate their functional importance.

Tires usually have to handle a variety of conditions on a road-going car. The average driver encounters a wide range of weather over the life of a vehicle and the tires have to be able to maintain contact with the road in order to keep things moving in the right direction. Thus, we have all-season tires. Since all-season tires usually represent a compromise in performance for their improved year-round functionality, the ideal solution is to have two sets of tires; one for summer and the seasons where light rain is the worst natural offender, and another for winter and other times when foul conditions prevail.

But since most of us don’t have the budget or space for two sets of wheels and tires (or even just two sets of tires, really), we come to a question that represents considerable angst for an enthusiast: how can I get the best possible performance from all-season tires?

Fortunately, tire technology has come a long way over the last several years and a carefully chosen set of high-performance, all-season tires to replace the cost-saving rubber installed by the factory can completely change the dynamic of a car.

Here are my three favorite options for making sure a car sticks to the road in any condition. All offer excellent performance at very reasonable prices.

Image courtesy of TireRack.com

Continental ExtremeConact DWS This is what I currently use on my car. In the dry it handles as well as any tire I have ever owned, maintaining confidence-inspiring grip at impressive speeds while still remaining quiet and comfortable on highway cruises. Where it really shines, though, is in bad weather. The ExtremeContact DWS is, without question, the best performance tire I have every used in poor weather. That may sound like a bold statement, but I have talked to other owners who feel the same way. If you want a tire that can take a beating in spirited driving, but still carry you through the winter, look no further.
For more information on this tire, check out its TireRack product page.

Image courtesy of TireRack.com

Bridgestone Potenza RE970AS Pole Position This tire is the evolution of the previous RE960AS Pole Position, which I used for a number of years before going with the Continentals. While I don’t have any direct experience with the RE970, the 960 was a great tire. It had excellent grip in the dry and was very good in the snow and rain. The set I had also wore like steel, making it a good value as well. I expect that the RE970 has taken those strengths and improved upon them. From what I have read, that appears to be the case.
For more information on this tire, check out its TireRack product page.

Image courtesy of TireRack.com

BFGoodrich g-Force Super Sport A/S I used this as the primary tire on my CRX autocross project and it was totally unflappable in any condition. Until I got the Continentals above, I viewed these as the best high-performance tire for occasional bad weather. In moderate temperatures, it even showed considerable strength as an autocross tire. The only area in which it showed any weakness was during autocross events where the temperature was over 90 degrees, when the outer edges began to show significant wear. As a street performance tire, though, there are few better suited.
For more information on this tire, check out its TireRack product page.

Hopefully that helps you as you consider upgrading your car on a budget. Remember: no choice is as crucial as your tires. Take your time and don’t cheap out. You will be happy in the end.

The Next Step

For those with a slightly larger budget, as I mentioned above, the ideal option is to have two sets of wheels and tires: one for foul weather months, and one for more hospitable months. As with anything, there are a wide array of options for both wheels and tires. What you decide will depend entirely on your intentions and your budget. If you only drive on the street, for instance, you will probably want a wheel that doesn’t bend very easily and a tire that has enough tread to handle some rain. If you are planning on tracking your car, though, that will change your criteria.  Again, careful analysis of your budget will tell you what you are capable of purchasing. Take your time and think it through, then make a decision.

Next week: Brakes.

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