Cheap Skates


Story By Per Schroeder

Everybody loves a bargain. Sure, a $10,000 Rolex is guaranteed to impress, but won’t that old Swatch or Timex keep you on schedule just as well?
When it comes to tires for our cars, sometimes that same thriftiness pays off. While a professional racer must have the latest and greatest when it comes to tires, the rest of us often need to balance performance with price.
It’s hard to discuss bang-for-the buck performance without mentioning the Mazda Miata. It does almost anything asked of it, and decent examples can be purchased for econobox prices. The Miata also takes a very budget-friendly 195/50R15 tire size.
That same size can also be found on many smaller sportsters, and they seem to have a price point right around $70 each. Check out the tire ads, and most all of the major players offer a sporty tire in that size for less than $280 a set.
Two quick questions come to mind: Are there any real differences between these various sporty, budget-friendly tires, and how do they compare to the pricier max performance offerings? Only one way to find out: We rounded up five sets of price-conscious performance tires and set out to test them.
The Falken Ziex ZE-912 is the replacement for the very popular Ziex ZE-512, while the Fuzion ZRi has scored very well in testing at The Tire Rack. Kumho’s ECSTA AST is a bargain leader of this group at $41 a pop, and the Sumitomo HTR 200 has been around for ages but still garners accolades. The Yokohama S.drive is the new replacement for the popular ES100, and at $68 it represents the upper end of our field.

Our performance benchmark would be the Bridgestone Potenza RE-01R. It’s a proven competitor in the SCCA Street Touring autocross tire wars, but that performance comes with a price: Each one retails for $105.
At $48 apiece, the Hankook K106 looks like another contender, but it’s in the process of being discontinued after a long and respectable production run—we’re looking forward to seeing updated budget tires from this Korean manufacturer. The Toyo Proxes 4 is bit out of our price range with a typical tag of more than $70 apiece, but we’ve heard plenty of good feedback on this all-season tire. Ditto the Nitto NT450.
Putting these tires out on track and just flogging them until they shred sounds like fun, but that really wouldn’t tell us how they would react to the daily grind. We needed a more real-world test.
First, we ran each tire over a five-mile test loop through Ocala, Fla. Road surfaces ranged from fresh blacktop to aged asphalt to concrete. We evaluated each tire for comfort, while a decibel meter kept track of road noise. Noise readings were always taken over the same stretch of roadway while cruising at a constant 35 to 40 mph. The tires were then run at the Ocala Gran Prix kart track for a few laps to see how they would react to an occasional autocross or track day.
The tires were all mounted and balanced at our local service station, Orlando and Sons of Ormond Beach, Fla. According to Joseph Rossi, all of the tires took minimal amounts of weight. (Balancing is often more a factor of tire quality than an issue with wheels.)
Our test wheel was the 15x7-inch Kosei K-1. Between its solid construction, wide range of sizes and fair price, it has more or less become the Minilite of the modern era.

Kumho ECSTA AST

The Kumho ECSTA AST was one of two all-season tires in this test and had the largest void areas by far. The tread design looked ready to tackle the wet, snow and dirt all year round. That aggressive tread pattern did not equate to the roar of a monster truck, as it was the second quietest tire at 92 dB.
The Kumho was clearly meant as a commuter tire, as evidenced by the very soft sidewall. While that helps smooth out the ride, it also leads to slow and vague steering response.
On track, the AST was clearly out of its element, squealing like a pig under even moderate cornering. The soft sidewall allowed for a wide slip angle, and we found it amusing to chuck the Miata sideways with this tire. These actions also led to some tread chunking.
The AST might be a good choice for a person who is competing in a stock rallycross class where rally tires are not allowed. This rubber will soak up bumps and appears to be able to chew through any season with its winter-friendly tread. We also love the $41 price tag—that makes up for a lot.

Sumitomo HTR 200

The HTR 200 has been around for quite a few years—we remember friends running these tires back in the late 1990s. Age is catching up with the HTR 200, however, as it didn’t exhibit quite the polish that some of the other offerings did. For example, the HTR 200 is the only tire we tested that didn’t have a rim protector band, a helpful design feature that can save a wheel from curb rash.
The HTR 200 was comfortable on our street loop with good composure over both small and large bumps. The steering response was a bit slow as the carcass reacted to input, but not vague at all—we had to wait for it, but we knew it was going to get there.
The Sumitomo was a little loud, however, with both a high-frequency, bacon sizzling-like component as well as a lower-frequency hum at certain speeds. We measured sound levels at 94 dB, the second highest reading. While a little loud on the street, the Sumitomo was actually pretty quiet when pushed hard on the track. It didn’t start squealing until we were generating significant amounts of slip angle. The lap times were fourth overall among the bargain tires, about three hundredths ahead of the Kumho.

Fuzion ZRi

Fuzion might not be the most common brand among hardcore driving enthusiasts, but this Bridgestone/Firestone product offers several budget-friendly tires that make some big promises.
The Fuzion ZRi felt very sporty on our test loop, exhibiting quick steering response and a firm but controlled thump over expansion joints. The carcass of the tire felt very firm, and it clearly leaned toward performance versus comfort.
On the noise front, the Fuzion was the quietest tire that we tested. It showed with very little susceptibility to the aggregate in aged asphalt, and the sound meter recorded a 91 dB reading over our test road.
The Fuzion’s sporty design was evident when put on track, demonstrating quick transitions and good grip. The stiff sidewall made the tire easy to lock up under braking because there was less compliance. We were surprised by the lap times, however. The tire felt most like the max performance Bridgestone RE-01R, but the lap times were only third fastest.
The biggest downside to this tire might be the brand, since Fuzion is one of the few tires we can name that has no real motorsports connections. We’re not sure about the marketing logic that created this moniker instead of going with the more established Bridgestone or Firestone names.

Yokohama S.drive

The Yokohama S.drive was the most expensive tire of this bunch at $68, but it was also clearly the best mix of handling, comfort and noise level. We’re not sure how exactly Yokohama did it, but it made our 200,000-mile Miata feel much, much newer.
Steering response was impressive, with quick transitions and a nice, sporty feel. This tire felt a touch jiggly over certain road irregularities, but it was very controlled over larger bumps—much less crash-through over potholes. The noise levels were good at 93 dB, with no major resonance or whines over course pavement.
The S.drive pretty much tied the Falken for the fastest lap and also exhibited good turn-in and mid-corner grip. It was easy to hit the apex with this tire and it felt at home being pushed hard. The cornering limit was a bit narrow, but a careful hand could keep it balanced there lap after lap. The Yokohama S-Drive had the second fastest average lap at 40.58 seconds.
As much as we love Miatas and beaters, we’d be happy with this tire on a classier car. You could put it on a Lexus IS 300 or BMW 3 Series and not feel like you’re slumming it.

Falken Ziex ZE-912

Falken’s old Ziex ZE-512 was a great tire overall. It had all-season traction that could even handle some snow, yet it was both fast and reasonably quiet. When we heard that the new Ziex ZE-912 was released at a very budget-friendly price of 46 bucks apiece, we knew that it had to be a part of this test.
The new Falken took to our street loop easily, getting good comfort feedback over a variety of surfaces. It didn’t seem to jiggle the car too badly over little bumps, and it soaked up the larger ones. It was the most comfortable tire of our test, and its noise levels were mid-pack.
On track, the Ziex’s steering feel was a bit numb on-center, but it quickly firmed up once the car took a set in a corner. It was a tad twitchy at the limit and did appear to get a little overheated by our fifth lap—which ended in the only spin of the day. That said, it also just beat out the Yokohama for the fastest average lap, just six-tenths behind the RE-01R control tire.
For the money, the Falken offers a great value in terms of comfort and performance with no real downsides. Factor in its $51 price tag, and we’d have to call it the best value in performance tires available today.

Bridgestone Potenza RE-01R

The Bridgestone RE-01R is the reigning champ for Street Touring autocross competition. It’s not the cheapest at $105 a pop, but it rewards drivers with razor-sharp handling and grip. The Bridgestone is not an all-season tire, nor can you expect it to last 40,000 miles—half that distance is more likely for most drivers.
During our road drive, a slight resonant hum accompanied the tire at about 35 mph. The stiff carcass and belt package made for a jiggly ride over bumps, but that design also contributes to the tire’s amazing transitional response. The Bridgestone RE-01R was the loudest tire of our test day at 95 dB, with most of those readings happening during that resonance point at 35 mph.
As expected, the Bridgestone displayed superb track manners and posted quick times lap after lap. The average lap time was 39.89 seconds—only the last lap clocked in at more than 40 seconds. There was ample lateral grip and it sliced through transitions like an R-compound tire.
At $420 for a full set of tires, the RE-01R won’t really break the bank, but it is a lot more expensive than our other test tires. Compromises in tire wear and noise are made up for by outright grip and response. Frankly, we’d be drooling for them if our cars didn’t see so much street use. The RE-01R would make sense for a machine that sees more weekend and track use.

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Comments
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MR_UGLY
MR_UGLY None
7/6/11 3:47 p.m.

I appreciate your doing a test of "everyman" tires however, you missed one important point. Availability ! I've been running SUMI 200's since they were a good tire. Now I run them on the street because no one else makes a half decent 13" tire. (1980 RX-7) But you have provided some options for my wifes' Miata.

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