It was a balmy 94 degrees Fahrenheit as we drove through Niceville. The welcome sign said, "Nice Town, Nice Folks, Have a Nice day." We were on the way to a massive U.S. Air Force base in the northwest corner of Florida for some winter tire testing. Yes, we were testing winter tires in Florida during the summer.
The location and season seem ludicrous, but Elgin AFB is the home of the McKinley Climate Laboratory, the world's largest environmental test chamber. Measuring 250 by 260 feet with a 60-foot ceiling, and with a total enclosed volume of 3.25 million cubic feet, it is large enough to accommodate the largest aircraft in the world. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, accompanied by 150 engineers, was inside the week before we arrived, testing everything from engine inhalation to control activation under extreme conditions.
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Goodyear regularly rents the largest of the five test McKinley chambers, which has three main refrigeration units capable of taking the temperature from outside ambient to minus-65 F within 18 hours. It also has three gas-fired boilers that can provide live steam or dry heat and temperatures up to 165 F. For the tests we were going to participate in, snow-making equipment had produced several inches of hard-packed snow over the majority of the site, while one side had been groomed into an ice surface measuring about 50 by 250 feet.
We were here to test the new Ultra Grip Ice WRT tires developed specifically for SUVs and light trucks; they are priced in the $250-$350 range depending on size. The Canadian market is important to companies competing in the winter tire market. Quebec, where winter tires are mandatory, accounts for almost 40 per cent of all winter tires sold in North America while the rest of the country, especially the Atlantic Provinces and Ontario, is a major market.
Goodyear's research shows that many people who buy light trucks, SUVs and crossovers do so because of their four- or all-wheel-drive systems and resulting superior winter grip. But there are very few choices for those who wish to maximize that potential by installing proper winter tires.
Goodyear scientists and engineers feel they have achieved a breakthrough with their new Winter Reactive Technology - a combination of features that provide improved reactions on snow-covered, icy, slushy wet and dry roads.
Those features include directional tread pattern to evacuate slush, snow and water from the tread, special "blades" in the centre of the tread with biting edges designed to enhance starting and stopping on snow or ice, a softer winter tread compound that remains soft and grippy in cold conditions and 3D TredLock Technology, a new and patented development that locks large blocks of tread together. The result is a combination of biting edges on the surface of the tread and stiffness across the tread for enhanced grip in turns.
The combination of softer compound and thousands of gripping edges is what makes winter tires so effective. But that very softness - necessary for grip when braking or accelerating - allows the tread to squirm or move around when turning. This in turn meant the tread is not maximizing its designed potential. With the TredLock system, mounds or bumps on the side of the tread blocks interlock when side forces attempt to twist or flex the tread, keeping it straight.
On packed snow, the difference between the new Goodyear and the competition was clear - steering feel and lateral performance were both decidedly superior. The initial bite when you turn the wheel was greater and under-steer or plow greatly reduced, a sure sign the tires were providing more grip. On the pure ice surface, the Goodyears maintained a noticeable and measurable advantage over the well-known competition in both acceleration and braking.
We were also given an opportunity for back-to-back comparison of the two tires on a wet course outside. Despite temperatures that were far from winter-like (34 Celsius) the superior grip and steering feel of the new Goodyears was clearly evident.