Sunday, February 01, 2009
The problem with most big tire companies is that they're so big they already know what's good for you and your car without living in your world or even asking your opinion. By the time most ultra high-performance tires come to market, they've been focus-grouped and dumbed-down to the point where no meaningful performance remains.
That scenario is about as far away as you can get from Nitto's philosophy and its new NT01 R-compound tire. As we've grown to know them, the small group of dedicated enthusiasts who make up Nitto Tire is there for the "true" enthusiast. Nitto engineers visit road courses, dragstrips, and shops across the country; the company asks customers what they want, and then, surprise--give it to them. Heck, Nitto even regularly asks us what we think--the only manufacturer that's ever asked for our two cents before designing a new tire. And Nitto has been busy lately with its latest toroid concoction, the NT01, and it's sure to make you sit up and take notice.
The NT01, in short, is going to revolutionize life for a select few enthusiasts who value extreme grip. Posers need not read on. The NT01 is a DOT-legal road-race tire designed for track days, autocrossing, Pro Solo, and amateur road-race competition. Brave souls like us also prefer to use a tire like the NT01 in daily driving, but don't look for spectacular mileage--this is a take-no-prisoners competition tire. The NT01 occupies the rarified air occupied by tires such as the Yokohama Advan 032R, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup, Kumho Ecsta V700, Hankook Ventus Z211, and Pirelli P Zero Corsa. Anyone who's ever been in the market for a tire like this knows the financial hurt it can bring, but if the NT01 gets priced along the lines promised, it will bring a spring to your step and leave a lot more dough in your pocket than comparable tires.
The NT01 is ideal for the track enthusiast due to its high-modulus carcass, which improves steering response and driver feel. We quickly became addicted to the NT01's sure-footed turn-in, aggressive grip and great feedback near the limit. The tread compound is rated at an ultra-soft "100," which gives it the kind of grip surpassed only by full slicks and Spiderman. That soft compound is engineered for multiple heat cycles (thanks to less cross-linking of polymers through the tire's life), giving it the kind of life expectancy required by weekend track enthusiasts on a budget. So, while you may be able to find a slightly less expensive track tire (by $10 or $20) in a Kumho, you'll find those tires loosing grip long before their tread is gone. How do we know that? The NT01 uses the same tread compound as the NT555 RII, Nitto's first road-race tire (which will remain in production). We've used several of these sets on street cars over the last four years and they held up over repeated heat cycles far longer than our Kumho Victoracers. Score one for Nitto.
We recently got a chance to sample that grip at California Speedway in Fontana, California, experiencing NT01's capabilities first-hand in our real-world '76 Camaro, Project g/28. Fontana's 13 turn, 1.45-mile in-field test track is tight and technical--the perfect venue for putting the NT01 to the test. Prior to test day, Nitto sent us a set of NT01 tires, size 275/40ZR17. We had those mounted, balanced, and a performance alignment performed on Project g/28. Having just tested Nitto's NT555 RII in the same size, we had a really good baseline on which to make comparisons.
This was our first track outing with Project g/28, so we slowly got it up to speed. Our alignment had been set up with factory specs for caster and toe-in, but we did go aggressive on the camber with -1.2 degrees dialed in. That's a nice compromise between a limited-use street car and a weekend track car, and it seemed to work well with the Nittos. Our only problem area was rubbing on the inside of the left rear wheelhousing. A quick trip back to the paddock and an extra wheel spacer behind the offending wheel alleviated the problem. Back on track, we got g/28 back up to speed, this time really leaning on it hard.We were impressed with the NT01's great feel in the braking zones. Threshold braking was easy, thanks to great communication through the tread and carcass. The NT01 gets with the program quickly during trail braking too--the high-modulus sidewall construction eliminates the floating sensation you sometimes get with other tires during transitional periods. Turn the wheel, and the side load quickly builds and the prodigious grip kicks in. We found ourselves dialing in throttle very early, even before the apex, due to the tire's predictable handling and tremendous grip. Corner exit normally is tricky with street tires as care has to be taken not to apply too much throttle. The Nittos, however, liked plenty of throttle, which made for great exit speed.
Deliberately give the NT01s even more throttle, and you are rewarded with a nice controllable slide that breaks loose in a comfortable, progressive manner.As we discovered, it's really fun to explore the limits of a street machine with a tire as good as the NT01. Normally, the main objection to running race tires on a street car is that it grips a ton, then when you're hung out way beyond your skill level, the tire abandons you in the blink of an eye as you go over the edge of traction. The Nitto is no such fickle animal. Its stable belts, flexible sidewall and grippy, squirm-free tread combine for a predictable, novice-friendly driving experience. It rarely lets you get in over your head (unless you're a complete moron) and if you take it to the edge, it helps you come back safely.
The NT01's grip seemed to have no end in sight, so toward the end of our session, we threw smooth out the window and deliberately tossed g/28 around pretty violently, trying to discover a weakness. What we discovered was a tire with such incredible poise and competence that we were a little disappointed that we couldn't uncover the flaws we knew were inherent in our car. Suffice it to say that the grip limit of the NT01 is sufficiently high that we were unwilling or unable to find its true limit with a 29-year-old car.As far as comparison with the NT555 RII, we found the two tires almost identical in handling. The only difference we found was that the NT01 has more grip due to the increased tread-to-void ratio. The NT555 RII has more tread blocks and more rain grooving, which makes it a better candidate for wet weather than the NT01. In the dry, we prefer the NT01, which probably is good for another second per lap on a track like Fontana.
If you've always wanted to take your g-Machine to the track but were afraid to, the NT01 makes a great dance partner. The quality of this American-made tire (they're made in Georgia), along with its high level of grip and modest cost (we suggest you check Discount Tire Direct) is a model that is sure to be copied by others. For now, however, Nitto is the tire with the bull's eye on its back.
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The Nitto NT01 competition...
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The Nitto NT01 competition tire has an asymmetrical non-directional tread pattern, allowing it to be mounted on either side of the car. The tread pattern is 6/32-inch (as molded), but can be shaved down to 2/32-inch to reveal a slick with two circumferential rain grooves. As molded, the NT01 is street-legal, but don't plan on racking up tens of thousands of miles on the street--it's a max-effort, track-day tire. Still, we wouldn't have anything less on a serious street car.
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The NT01 features a jointless...
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The NT01 features a jointless cap and edge ply, two steel belts, a jointless bead wire, a high-modulus casing and hard bead filler. The racing tread compound has an ideal operating temperature between 160 and 220 degrees. Nitto says 200 degrees is optimal, which is what we measured in the pits with our pyrometer.
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The great thing about a tire...
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The great thing about a tire company that gets involved at the grassroots level is that you invariably end up with sizes that are just right for your market--as opposed to a bunch of exoticar sizes nobody needs. (You won't find "bling" sizes either.) A look at the NT01 size chart reveals that this tire is designed predominantly for heavier bread-and-butter musclecars. Besides the 10 sizes currently being offered, Nitto plans to offer an additional 10 sizes next year, including the 315/35ZR17, which is a popular step-up size for Fourth-Generation F-bodies and C4 Corvettes.
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We started our test session...
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We started our test session with 32 psi (cold pressure). By the end of the day, we were around 40 psi (hot). We elected not to change tire pressure, but we did periodically check tire temps across the tread of each tire and found the numbers to be fairly even across.
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The NT01 loves to be worked...
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The NT01 loves to be worked hard, as we found out with Project g/28. When these tires take a set, you can really feel it. With each successive lap, we pushed harder and were rewarded with more grip. The limit of grip is so high, in fact, that it takes a while to get used to. Once you try it, however, you can't go back to a lesser tire.
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Naturally, the Nitto tire...
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Naturally, the Nitto tire girls were hanging out in our paddock. Unless you are a magazine editor, they do not come with the tires...
Drift Versus Grip: The Inside Story
There is a distinct split in the aftermarket tire business. Two philosophies stand at seeming odds and occupy roughly two camps: "grip" and "drift." Drifting is the sport of sliding a car artfully, and is enjoying popularity with the import culture. Tire manufacturers like drifting because it's hell on tires, and that makes sense because the more you drift, the more tires they sell. The big players in the drift segment are Toyo (Nitto's parent company), Yokohama, and Falken, with others also getting into the action. But the most important thing about drifting that effects our evaluation of tires here is that "drift" tires are essentially designed to slide, not grip. We're not here to dis drifting, because how a tire slides is very important to a drifter and achieving the right formula in a drift tire is not easy at all.
Grip is just the opposite. Here, the objective is to generate the most g-force, be that in a straight line, braking, or cornering. In a nutshell, sliding is not good for lap times, although it helps to have a tire with a manageable limit of adhesion. Manufacturers traditionally in the grip-tire business include Nitto, Michelin, Pirelli, Hoosier, and Kumho.
Nitto does have a modest presence in drift, but a long time ago it decided to strongly align its product with "grip" racers in the domestic market--that's us. The release of Nitto's Extreme Drag radial almost 10 years ago was the beginning of that "grip" philosophy (on the drag-racing side), and it continued with its Extreme RII road race tire about 5 years ago. The NT01 just extends Nitto's place in the road race market further.
To vet its place in the grip market, Nitto will sponsor the American V-8 Series (AV8SS), a new domestic musclecar road-racing series that will feature Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, and Firebirds of all vintage. The sizes in the NT01 lineup will support these cars in door-to-door racing at some of America's finest road courses. (For more information, contact AV8SS at www.av8ss.com.)One thing that we see as editorial insiders is that Nitto is fundamentally different from other tire manufacturers in the grip market. While racing tires are an important side proposition for large companies like Pirelli, or Michelin, specialty performance and competition tires are the core of Nitto's business. From an insider's view, Nitto is arguably the most involved with its users because a greater percentage of its business is at stake financially, and that has had a profound effect on the quality and selection of its tires.
Looking forward, Nitto will move even further into the domestic grip market with a complete line of drag-racing slicks. Testing is ongoing, and we expect Nitto's forthcoming Extreme Drag tire to set off more than a few alarms at Goodyear, Mickey Thompson and Hoosier.