Time to Re-Tire
I was in Scottsdale whining about the Ford’s tires to my bud Matt when my eyes fell on an even more pronounced tread loss than I had been lamenting all this time. I had been telling him how I need just one more year over the seven that these tires have already provided, since there is still some usable and legal tread left on them all.
But time has not been kind to the original equipment tires. Looking decent in the upper Midwest, they took on a parched, cracked appearance the first month they spent some time in the Great Southwest. A week or two (or three) of inactivity didn’t help, since frequent rolling usage circulates compounds in the rubber that keep it healthy. Sitting unused in the strong sunlight simply finished off the process begun before I ever left home.
I was okay with that, within reason. The main thing to be dreaded with losing chunks of rubber is exposure of the steel cords underneath.That can lead to rust and disintegration of the tire’s structural carcass. Under 75 or 80 pounds per square inch of pressure, the tire goes out with a bang instead of a whimper, flailing a lot of heavy rubber that can do plenty of damage at speed. But how often does a tire see rust-accelerating moisture down here? Even so, budget or no budget, it became obvious even to me that I’d be nuts to keep pushing these tires. They’re cooked.
I was never very enthusiastic about the Continental ContiTrac TR all-season rubber that the factory had mounted. 65,000 miles-plus on an eight or nine thousand-pound 4WD truck is pretty darned good wear, being the result of a full street tread design mimicking a passenger car tire. Finding traction in light snow or on wet grass proved disappointing, however. Sometimes, alarming.
Once I gave up my dream of another year on the Continentals and accepted another heavy hit on my fragile budget, what tires to replace them with became the issue, and where to buy them.
Big-O Tires is very big out here, probably the largest tire franchise in the country. Big-O is owned by TBC Retail Group, who is in turn owned by Sumimoto Corporation of America, “the largest wholly-owned subsidiary of Tokyo-based Sumitomo, one of the world’s leading traders of goods and services”. Unfortunately, Big-O appears to be the largest because they are the most profitable for franchisees, and they are the most profitable because franchisees are encouraged to make it a point to recommend additional work on each car that comes in. That’s the end goal of offering free lifetime alignments and tire rotations. The upside view of this practice is that neglected items can be caught before they become big repairs.
The downside of this is that much of the recommended work is unnecessary, done incompetently, and is badly overpriced relative to the competition (in my opinion). Frankly, as a mechanic, you work for a tire franchise when you don’t really qualify for a job anywhere else – including an independent tire shop. It’s a great place to begin a career, but not to advance one. I would no more allow an oil change or tire franchise to work on other aspects of my car than I would a CPA. Okay, I’d let a tire shop replace shock absorbers, but that’s it. A simple shock change is tough to screw up. McPherson struts, no chance. All other work goes to a trusted repair shop or even a dealership.
“Oh, too expensive!” is the usual assumption there. In actual practice, I’ve found that to be incorrect, much like the blanket assumption that Amazon is the cheapest Internet source for most products. Even new car dealerships can be less expensive for repairs once they have the freedom to order aftermarket replacements like everyone else. The best way to find a good, trustworthy repair shop: ignore price as the indicator. Ignore ads, sales, and discounts. Look for people not in a pressured frenzy, who take the time to have an actual conversation and try to understand your situation and priorities, and who openly do the best they can to communicate and do the best quality of work that they can. I don’t think I’m alone in being able to sense when a shop is trying to minimize my wait, and when they’re rushing to make way for the next profitable victim. Good shops are not cheap, and you will not save money – at the register. What you will save is aggravation, return trips, frustration, and a not-so-vague feeling that you’ve been taken advantage of.
I also priced the tire models I was considering through Discount Tire, a less predatory franchise. I priced Walmart, too. Everyone was within a few bucks of each other.
I wanted a tire that, first, would resist the cuts and tears that gravel promotes. I still remember a guy complaining at a water fill station in my first year of RVing, “Boy, these gravel roads down here eat tires fast.” True enough. I found just two tire models that promised survival: the Michelin LTX A/T2 and the Cooper Discoverer S/T Maxx. Each boasts of using rubber compounds that resist “cuts and chipping”. I figured tread wear was down my priority list somewhere, because I’d never get to take advantage of the extra tread life if it was missing chunks all over, like the existing Continentals.
The Michelin had more of an all-season tread on it, but it still seemed a bit more aggressive than my ContiTracs. Plus, it had a tread wear warranty. The Cooper S/T Maxx was overkill in the aggressive tread department and as a result had no wear warranty. But it did have the right compound and seemed very likely to perform better off-road, where I was often busy trying to control slippage and prevent damage.
I noted down the two tires I was considering and headed toward Phoenix, where the Discount Tire dealers were who had various tires in stock. On a whim, I first turned and went to the local independent tire dealer where I got my trailer tires last year, Wickenburg Tire. No way he’d be able to match a bulk-buying franchise, but it would save a considerable amount of fuel and wear & tear to buy locally. Never hurts to ask.
As to the franchises, the Michelin tire had been nowhere to be found out here, but the Cooper Tire came to $1,240 out the door at Discount Tire, who was as cheap as anyone. Wickenburg Tire couldn’t get the Michelin from their wholesaler either, but surprised me with $1,171.94 out the door on the Coopers, and I asked them to order a set. Again, I should note that much cheaper tires with my size and load rating are available, one of them coming to “only” $900 out the door. I agonized over them for awhile before deciding to get what appears to be needed, rather than what might get me by…or not. They were Cooper Discoverer ATP’s, an otherwise decent design made for and sold only by Big-O, to their specs. Could I trust them and their specs? The specter of game playing did not appeal. Other tire options simply resembled cheaper versions of my existing ContiTracs. Been there, done that. Being barely able to exit wet grass just doesn’t do it for me.
The Coopers arrived the next morning, and I had them installed the day after that. If you can stand another wandering aside, I’ll tell you that I’ve bought Cooper tires before, a couple of decades ago. After having some problems with them, I wrote off the Cooper brand for awhile. In the meantime, Cooper appears to have pulled up its big-boy pants and ironed out a lot of its issues, deserving another chance in my book. Why Cooper at all? They are one of only two tire companies that are still American-owned and manufactured. The other is Goodyear. Michelin was on my A-list because they have a reputation for quality and harder rubber compounds that wear longer. Moot point, out here.
The Discoverer S/T Maxx in my 275/70R-18E size swings as far to the opposite side of functionality as the street Continentals are to theirs. The S/T Maxx’s grip improvement in difficult rock and gravel situations is almost startling. I took the same trail to the north of Wickenburg that last year promptly required 4WD to ascend, but this time took it in 2WD with virtually no tire slippage. Soft, deep gravel or sand? I wouldn’t press that. With careless use of the throttle, that aggressive tread could probably dig its way down deep in a heartbeat! I’m sure it’s not bad, but you’d need to exercise momentum and practiced judgement. I can tell you, preventing every speck of unwanted tire slippage in something capable of delivering some 650 foot-pounds of torque at just 2,000 RPM can be tricky. Newer diesels are even stronger, and at even lower RPM. And with fuel injection, the response time is in nanoseconds. If you’re losing momentum, just barely tipping in the throttle is damn near impossible, especially if you’re bouncing along on uneven ground. This is the one situation I can think of where the relatively spongy low-end response of most gasoline engines becomes good news, as the sense of “feel” with a diesel just isn’t there at all when it comes to wheelspin. So, overkill on traction is not a bad idea, because you’re not going to finesse your way through with a diesel.
The only thing I can really relate the Coopers to is old-style winter tires, but with a more closed tread, radial construction and a better-protected sidewall. The S/T Maxx’s tread design puts a lot more rubber on the road however, and it is more continuous as a spiral, ending the traditional winter tire howl on pavement. In fact, the design works so well that noise is only barely discernible below about 35 MPH. Above that, powertrain noise and wind turbulence take over. The depth of the tread rubber is mighty generous at a full 5/8″ tall, but I wouldn’t expect these to wear much past 5o,000 miles when cared for. Tall rubber = more heat = faster wear. The other side effect is a noticeably smoother ride offroad, even on washboard. It’ll be a different story as the tread wears, but for now, it’s delightfully squishy.
That generous tread depth aids traction in difficult conditions too, but the downside is that the tires can feel quite squirmy compared to thinner street treads. In a straight line or in gentle maneuvers, the Ford still tracks solidly. You’d never know you were on rubber stilts. Jerk the wheel or demand a sudden change in course though, and the tires will comply but not without some shifting around while they try to take the new force and add it to the mix. That tall rubber is flexing. The feeling is vaguely like easing a small outboard boat up to a dock the first few times: you spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out where it’s wanting to go now and how you should try to counteract it.
To me, that dictates a little extra caution next time I hitch up the trailer and hit the road. The once-commendable directional stability even in gusty sidewinds will be decreased, but the question is by how much. Fortunately, the tread flexing has limits before pure traction takes over, so this combo may feel worse than it really is. Try to road-race through a turn now and you’ll still make it, but will stay pretty busy with minor wheel corrections all the while as the truck fails to take a definite set. I would use the term “feels nervous”, but nine thousand pounds can’t shift around quickly enough to qualify for that term. “Unsettled”, perhaps. But mind you, all this is only when you’re playing rocket boy and trying to push things past normal.
Overall? Me happy. It’s not a good feeling in the back of your mind to know (and see) that your tires are definitely on their last legs, especially when you’re down some sharp-rock trail farther than you can reliably walk out. Now, I can think more about the scenery than my tires. Offroad, they are a revelation. They’re grippy and tough as hell, with the bottoms of the sidewalls protected by shoulder protrusions (which have already come in handy). On pavement, they are well-mannered until pushed hard. Experience and some tread wear will take care of that – my sole background is standard and high-performance street tires.