The Washington Times - May 20, 2008, 02:56PM

I happened to be looking over my latest test vehicle, a luxury sedan, when it arrived the other day. It’s normally my habit to get in and immediately set the seat and mirror positions and also some favorite FM and sattelite radio (if equipped) stations. After doing so I moved the car to its normal position in the driveway and walked around it to note any dents or scratches - a routine learned long ago that helps avoid being blamed for things I didn’t do. As I walked past the rear passenger door I saw the sticker below.


It read: “This vehicle is equipped with high-performance tires that may experience less than 15,000 miles of tread life, depending on driving conditions. NOT TO BE REMOVED EXCEPT AFTER SALE OR LEASE TO A CONSUMER.

Hmmmm. The future owner of this car is being warned that his/her 245/40-series, 18-inch Z-rated tires aren’t going to last very long because they are “run-flat,” high speed tires. These tires are designed to safely move the car at sustained speeds of 149 to 186 mph, after which the tires must be specially designed for higher speed and so marked, but who really cares at that point? Anyone caught running at a sustained 149 mph on the US interstates is shortly going to become a regular bus passenger, so the whole thing is rendered academic.

The “run-flat” feature means that the tire can be punctured but can still be driven at reasonable (60 mph or so) speeds for about 50 miles, thus obviating the need for immediate repair. It also obviates the need for the manufacturer to provide a spare wheel/tire, thus saving money and reducing weight which helps toward Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements.

From my point of view, what the customer gets with these big wheels and low profile high performance tires is little more than bragging rights and a stiffer ride, although some would argue that the style is hip and trendy. The customer also gets to replace these tires - at $350-$400 each - at appallingly short intervals.

I realize that low profile, high performance tires yield better handling and braking but most drivers wouldn’t notice the difference or even care about the “driving feel.” I didn’t mention the make/model of the car because I don’t want to blame the company for foisting short-lived tires on the public. After all, they are warning the buyer about the tires and they are clearly listed as optional equipment that can be rejected.

I test a lot of vehicles equipped with big wheels and low profile tires and rarely enjoy the experience in everyday driving. On a track or on twisty country roads these cars are a hoot to operate, but how often do you get the opportunity to do so? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t buy 18, 19 or 20-inch wheels and skinny tires if they like the looks, but I stronly urge them to take a test drive on them before getting out their wallets.