Hold the Rubber: Why Big Tires Are No Fun

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Mar 08, 2011

As a car tester I pretty much drive the biggest, baddest rubber of all time -- all the time. Low, wide and fat (the tires, not me; well ... not really me; ok, sorta me), I put my life in their care at some point most every day. Yet modern tires still kind of blow my mind because they are so, well, big, compared to the way they used to be, and I notice this especially when I'm driving old cars. As you'll soon learn, driving old cars is my most favorite pastime, followed by driving new cars on the same roads, only faster, to make up for their bigger tires' higher limits and bigger engines and the need for more speed to achieve an equivalent amount of fun. Fun being the main objective, rather than any single-minded devotion, academic or sophomoric, to ever increased speed.

To someone like me, a number like 225/45R17 reads like it's the national debt or the size of General Motors' cosmic shame; that is, too huge to comprehend. It's a relatively humble shoe size today, but to me, the standard 17-inch gumballs fitted to my 2006 Audi A3, a glorified Golf after all, still seem freakish and weird (these being two things I was accused of recently when I was calling around looking for some 145/R12's for my 1966 MG 1100). But at least I found those 12-inch tires. The 145/14s I spent three years looking for, once the workaday province of Renault 16s, Morris Minors and V4 Lancia Fulvias like mine, became the rarest form of un-obtainium years ago.

All of which probably proves that I am an old fart, though it doesn't make me wrong. Most enthusiasts today think that anything with a section width of less than 275 (mm), an aspect ratio of more than 30% and a rim of less than 20-inches, is fit for use only on baby carriages and shopping carts. And I suspect research would also show that a majority of us believe one might as well walk if a car takes any more than five seconds getting to sixty miles per hour.

I disagree strongly on both counts. So perhaps what I am experiencing these days is really a wider disconnect with the larger car culture. Am I marching to the beat of my own drum machine? I just think it's kind of silly when we could have more fun driving smaller cars slower, the way we used to. When people were shorter and lived near the water. When cars were lighter and wheels weren't so big. When neckties were skinnier and tires were, too.

Congested roads, speed cameras and hyper-active police departments with new and improved revenue-raising functions require us to go slower and slower and our environment demands that we reduce our consumption, yet we keep making cars that go faster and faster, which means our cars are almost always thirstier than they have to be. Being American, I get the part about plentitude loud and clear, and raw horsepower and monster rubber is of a piece.

Now I like a 42-ounce T-bone with all you can eat salad and dessert bars, bottomless coffee urn and personal beer keg as much as the next guy and I like 422 horsepower Camaros. But personally I'd prefer to see more, healthier automotive fare being served, including more 1000cc and 1300cc cars, tuned for hysterical fun, with small tires. Big engines and big tires are swell at track days, but, kids, take it from me: When you're rocking 145/14s, everyday is a track day, as the outer limits may be easily accessed at ordinary speeds, anywhere. When you can get your Morris Minor sideways at 17 miles per hour, what's the hurry?

There is no hurry, most of the time, but car makers can't help making cars more powerful, just because they can. And, after briefly resisting, they followed the fool youth and caved permanently to the fashion's demand for bigger rubber. I remember driving the famous Buick Y-Job show car from 1938 around the GM Milford, Michigan, Proving Ground a few years back. Struck by its tiny 13-inch wheels (with big balloon tires), I asked the senior engineer riding in this land yacht with me, like, what's with the tiny weenies? "Unsprung weight," he said, as if I was some kind of idiot. "Everyone knows that cars ride better on smaller wheels, with taller sidewalls." Politely, I nodded, ignoring the fact that we had ridden into the track in an Escalade sporting honkin' 22-inch rims.

As a national diabetes epidemic attests, excess weight -- sprung or unsprung -- has not only been tolerated, it's been elevated to an acceptable lifestyle choice for a growing number of ever-growing Americans. But it is against this reign of conspicuous over-consumption and fashion over function that young Americans should be rebelling. Just as with the iPod (which flies in the face of 100 years of audio engineering directed toward achieving higher fidelity), we lose something for whatever it is we've gained.

In less than half a generation's time, it seems, hi-fi has flown out the window in a quest for compactness and extreme-portability at all costs. And in the automotive realm the battle to excise unsprung weight has been ceded. It's not like I'm making the case for crank starting or mechanical brakes, or arguing against earbuds and iPods. What I'm talking about is science. Reality. No one seems to care about sound quality any more, no one prizes ride quality. Like a wise old fart once said, before burning out in a cloud of bias-ply tire smoke, "What is this world coming to, anyway?"

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One