Tire companies the world over are very sensitive about their test tracks. They guard their like a fat kid hides cakes. The friction coefficient () of their tracks is apparently a key ingredient in what makes their tires work and they imagine everybody else wants to copy their . Therefore, it's unusual for blabbermouth writers such as ourselves to be invited to a tire company's test facilities in case we measure the .
Until recently, we'd only ever visited one test facility but our friends at Continental Tire aren't so precious about their friction coefficients. They'll allow almost anybody to get behind the wheel and put rubber to asphalt. In fact, they run an annual event where we get the opportunity to experience a variety of Conti tires as well as those from their General tires subsidiary.
The 5000-acre proving grounds located near Uvalde, TX has been in existence since 1959. It provides ten asphalt areas for wet and dry testing, as well as ten off-road areas for SUV and truck tire development.
During our visit, we were able to experience the dry handling road course, wet handling pad and dry braking area, as well as a Baja-type course in the Texas dirt. With cars like the BMW 328i, Mustang and F-150 available to us, all we had to remember was "don't piss in the grass, there are snakes out there!"
Stop!Probably the most enlightening exercise we undertook was the wet brake test. Accelerating to 50mph, we were asked to jump on the brakes at a designated point, and a series of cones plus a digital readout indicated how long it took to stop.
The first thing we learned was that if you have to stop in an emergency, you should do it in a BMW rather than a Ford Edge or Mustang!
While we often discuss the fun that can be had on a good set of tires, we shouldn't forget that they can save lives too. To ram home this point, we were invited to compare new tires with full tread depth against shaved tires - these had more than the minimum legal tread depth, but the difference in stopping distances was horrifying. The new tires on the BMW would pull up in about 100ft, but the shaved ones sailed on for another 30ft or more. And on a freeway at 70mph, that represents the difference between a near miss and a ride in an ambulance.
So don't allow your tires to wear down to the canvas before replacing them. Saving a few dollars could cost you a whole lot more.
Splash!A second test took place on the wet handling pad, where a course had been laid out with cones. Again, we had BMWs and Mustangs to choose from as well as different tires. After driving everything, we were again grateful we don't drive Mustangs in the rain. We also saw the benefits of the ultra-performance ContiSportContact3 tires (in the Guiness Book of Records as the fastest production tire). These are the flagship tire for the company and we know they work well in the dry but were astonished to feel the tread biting through the deep water that's piped onto the surface to provide a uniform depth.
We were invited to take part in a timed challenge on the wet handling pad using a BMW equipped with the ContiSportContact3 and inevitably we took first place. Experience driving BMWs helped, but it was the confidence gained from the tires that made the difference. We couldn't believe how hard the car could attack a slalom course in the wet. Even in fast, sweeping turns and sudden lane changes, the tread bit deep into the asphalt and ensured the car did everything you asked of it. We genuinely felt you couldn't go much faster in the dry.
The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate the grip Continental's technology provides in the wet and dry. This in turn indicates the safety margins you'll have in the most extreme conditions, such as avoiding debris on the freeway where you need to swerve violently to miss it.