Analysts at ConsumerReports.org say many drivers are gravitating towards high-performance and even ultra-high-performance tires, in part because of their better handling and heat resistance. Federal investigations cited heat buildup as a contributing factor in the 270 deaths and 800 injuries tied to tire failures of Firestone tires in 2000. High-performance tires, which are often W-rated (up to 168 mph) or Y-rated (up to 186 mph), get better grip, can brake and corner more precisely, and won't get as hot on long highway trips in warm weather as standard all-season tires. But the advantages usually come at the expense of tread life and higher prices.
For peak performance on all road conditions, experts and users prefer the new Bridgestone Potenza RE970AS Pole Position (*Est. $185). In the latest TireRack.com comparison test, it squeaks by three recent champs in this category -- the Continental ExtremeContact DWS (*Est. $160), Michelin Pilot Sport A/S Plus (*Est. $190) and Pirelli P Zero Nero All Season (*Est. $150). It's a close call, but the Bridgestone's outstanding wet handling and braking, as well as its rich driver feedback, give it the edge.
"Our team really liked the balance and communication of the Potenza RE970AS Pole Position, as the driver always knew exactly what the tire was doing, and what it was capable of," testers write.
No experts have tested this tire in the snow yet. The tire it replaces, the Bridgestone Potenza RE960AS Pole Position, gets good scores for snow and ice grip in one major test, but when TireRack.com experts took five performance all-seasons to the Arctic Circle in 2009, the RE960AS finished next-to-last and testers concluded that "this tire is for drivers who experience only moderate amounts of snow." The new version promises better wet, dry and winter traction and longer wear, thanks to an improved footprint shape and silica-enriched rubber. It carries a 40,000-mile tread-wear warranty.
Owners debate the new RE970AS's winter performance: Most say it's served them well in its first winter ("I couldn't feel more secure in the slush, ice and snow," says one Honda Accord driver from Colorado at TireRack.com) but others say that although it grips great on cold roads that are wet or dry, they think it's too slippery on ice and snow. But owners give it such stellar scores for everything else -- wet and dry grip, steering response, ride comfort and noise -- that it tops the charts as their new favorite ultra-high-performance (UHP) all-season tire.
For proven winter traction, consider the runner-up Continental ExtremeContact DWS. This former all-around champ now trails the Bridgestone Potenza RE970AS in TireRack.com's latest wet-and-dry test; experts say the Continental's burlier tread doesn't handle quite as well as the Bridgestone. But in the Arctic Circle test, the Continental dominates -- testers say it's "in a league above" the other tested tires on snow -- and more than 1,900 owner reviews at TireRack.com give it average ratings of "excellent" or "superior" on all road conditions.
Reviewers particularly like a simple but unique feature of the ExtremeContact DWS (which stands for dry, wet and snow). Continental has molded the letters D, W and S into the tread. When the S wears off, you know the tire has lost the ability to perform optimally in snow. When the W goes, you've lost your best wet-weather traction, and so forth. The Continental ExtremeContact DWS tire carries a 50,000-mile tread-life warranty.
For performance on a budget, experts like the Yokohama Avid Envigor (*Est. $140). Despite their markedly cheaper price, the Yokohama tires rise to the top of the high-performance all-season class in reviews -- the H- and V-rated versions, anyway. The faster W-rated version matches or bests its pricier UHP peers in one top test (except on ice), but not in TireRack.com's test, where experts detect "gentle" to "moderate" understeer on both wet and dry test tracks.
But in its lower performance class, the H/V-rated Yokohama wins TireRack.com's most recent shootout, beating the Dunlop SP Sport Signature (*Est. $145), Firestone Firehawk Wide Oval AS (*Est. $140) and Goodyear Eagle GT (*Est. $125). The Yokohama not only grips better on both wet and dry roads, but testers also find it quieter and more comfortable. Owners agree, rating it second in its class only to the Michelin Pilot Exalto A/S (*Est. $175) -- largely because the Michelin gets better traction on snow and ice -- but the Yokohama beats the Michelin tire in an earlier TireRack.com test on wet and dry pavement.
Like the Bridgestone Potenza RE970AS Pole Position tires, the Yokohama tires get traction from a silica tread compound backed by dual steel belts and jointless, spirally wound nylon reinforcement. In H and V speeds, the Yokohama Avid Envigor carries a 60,000-mile tread-life warranty. W-rated versions carry a 45,000-mile warranty.
All-season tires are always a compromise. Tire professionals say all-season tires can never match the speed and handling capabilities of ultra-high-performance summer tires, nor can they move through snow and ice like dedicated snow tires. Depending on the type of driving you commonly do and the climate in which you live, a more specialized tire may be appropriate.