I love low profile tires and a tightly-strung suspension. My long-term project FIAT 500 has been a great deal of fun to see how far I could take the retro-designed econo-box. The car has been tracked, autocrossed, and served as a daily-commuter car for short and long journeys alike. Some 80,000 miles of highways and short trips — all spirited driving — in “Luigi,” as the late champion racer Tony “a2z” Adamowicz named my little steed, has given me intimate appreciation of tires.
The beauty of the low-profile tire is undoubtedly performance. Mixed with the Eibach Sportline lowering springs (3 inches!) I installed, the car handled with amazing efficiency. Turn-in through exit of a corner was responsive and precise. But then there are the drawbacks of a daily so dialed in: an abridged lifespan of less than 20,000 miles a set (to the cords), rock-hard feel (every bump in the road is like a punch in the kidneys) — not to mention the “bottoming out” on a regular basis, and almost deafening road noise.
In a recent conversation with my peeps at Toyo Tires, I explained those detriments and asked if they had a solution. They replied they had a set of high-performance, all-season tires just being released to market that could solve those issues with virtually no performance degradation. Needless to say, I was skeptical, but took delivery of a set of Extensa HP II Toyos to try to prove them wrong. I would be pleasantly surprised with the comfort and performance of the V-rated performance tires.
According to my friends at Toyo, “much like its predecessor, the Extensa HP, it is a value-based alternative to more expensive all-season, high-performance tires. It targets folks who don’t actually realize they own a car equipped with high-performance tires until it is time they are faced with replacing them.” A set of these shoes will cost under $600.00.
The sidewalls on a my set are about three quarters of an inch taller than the low-profile tires I used previously. This was because Toyo did not immediately have an OEM match, and I was fearful of rubbing in the wheel wells. The taller tire certainly filled the wheel space where the low profile Yokahamas did not. Certainly, they don’t look as “cool” compared to my tuner brethren, zipping along the urban streets of greater Los Angeles and Orange County. However, from the moment these Extensa HP II tires were mounted, my life in commuting has changed dramatically. It certainly made me reach for my writer’s bag of adjectives.
Comfortable. Yes, I said it! Perhaps it is my advancing age or bruised kidneys, but the first drive with the new tires was noticeable. The road feel was still there, but without the perpetual gut-punching. Amazingly, the tire fit perfectly and there was no wheelwell rubbing. The Extensa HP II tires are designed for performance and comfort. In the end, the typical places on my routes where “bottoming” was happening virtually disappeared. This all without feeling “bouncy” like some tire/suspension combinations. Thankfully, the Eibach springs are designed to keep contact with the road and adjusted nicely to the tire change. So far so good.
Sporty. Time to do some hard cornering. Would the taller tire lead to bump-steer? Understeer? Surprisingly no. The tires held up well. The sidewalls are very stiff. There was some slight understeer, but not much more than the understeer typical of any front-wheel-drive car. In autocrossing the car, there was always a need for a quick straight-line tap of the brakes to gather some grip for the entry to a corner — even with the low-profile tires, this was needed. Astonishingly, the Extensa HP II reacted in a very similar way to cornering — I was not having to adjust my driving style. Turn-in was fine, while apex and exit shaved little from my momentum. Again, I was pleasantly astonished with a tire I thought would require more acclimation. The V-speed rating is plenty for highway driving as I only occasionally hit the over-three-digit-mark on my commute.
Quiet. Probably my biggest complaint about the FIAT 500, from the first day of ownership, was road noise. The OEM Firestone Firehawk GT and subsequent Yokahama S-Drive were very decent performance tires, however they produced loud white-noise-like grinding sound everywhere — on track or on highway. The Extensa HP II is a far quieter option. As a spirited driver, I love engine, braking, and tire noises, as these are all part of the sensory feedback a car provides. However, the tire noise in this particular car was seriously over the top — until now.
Did I give up performance for a more comfortable tire? Very slightly. To me — and my perpetual “banzai” driving style — there was a noticeable difference, but not enough to want to go back. If I plan to track the car again, I will probably shoe it with some Toyo R888R racing tires. I used those on a Porsche race car I had, and loved them. But for my spirited commute in Luigi, I plan to not only stick with these, but in 40,000 miles (wow, that’s a nice guarantee!), I will probably re-shoe the car with the same.
Peeps at Toyo: You win!