On the topic of Low Limits

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Low limits are what make light, tossable sports cars great.  The Dodge Challenger R/T, however, is not a light, tossable sports car.  On the contrary, it’s a big, heavy grand tourer with more visual brawn than balls.  And yet, with a Hemi V8 up front and moderately grippy tires at all four corners, its limits do extend beyond the magical threshold of what can be fun on the street within the letter of the law.  Logic says that lowering the Challenger’s limits would make it more enjoyable, and I have just the remedy for that as well as for the ever-present issue of cars being just too much for the street: snow tires.

There’s a reason why people rave about hooning cars like the Miata and BR-Z/FR-S twins, and (spoiler alert!) it’s not because non-enthusiasts think they look cute.  No, it’s because from the factory they have low limits in their overall performance threshold, from cornering grip to acceleration.  This enables the car to feel fun, like you’re using every last bit of its potential and are working on the ragged edge, while still driving like a reasonably sane person.  Said limits can be many things, from one’s own driving abilities to the track you’re driving on, or even the law enforcement’s maximum allowed speed. Regardless, these limits are as much a restrictive factor to what you can do on the street safely and legally as they are what you and the car are capable of on a closed course.
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Like most other cars that are reasonably sporty or enthusiast-minded, the Challenger is among those that, while not a full-fledged sports coupe, does have some decent chops.  It’s not the quickest, fastest, or best handling, but translate its capabilities well to street driving, which is where most cars like this spend the majority of their time. You’re stuck with performance that well exceeds the speed limits that have remained largely unchanged since the previous generation of muscle machines were prowling the streets.  This in turn means that really pushing the car on a public road can be illegal or downright dangerous.
Enter rubber designed for the winter months. Snow tires are knobbier than their all-season or summer counterparts, with deeper, more open lugs designed to keep the vehicle moving safely in inclement weather.  When you’re not driving on the cold white stuff, this creates questionable performance dynamics (which can be a good thing!).  It’s inherit in the snow tire’s characteristics that it eschews its fast-driving properties in favor of getting you safely home from the supermarket after you stock up on nine loaves of bread and eighteen gallons of milk just in time for the blizzard to begin (when, of course, you should have been stocking up on beer, whiskey, and pizza bites instead).  When it isn’t snowing, however, these tires can make a car fun in sketchy, hysterical ways.  And while there’s a very fine line separating sketchy-fun and sketchy-scary, allowing the driver to dabble with a car’s performance limits on the street is something highlighted by a set of snow tires deficiencies in the realm of handling any spirited driving whatsoever.  The combination of a smaller contact patch and a harder compound results in madness: acceleration worsens, braking suffers even more so, and handling becomes a test of finding the balance between unwelcomed understeer and throttle-induced, much-welcomed oversteer.  It’s like creating your own drama, but it works and it’s great fun.
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Let’s say you have a favorite corner that you usually take at 50 MPH.  On a standard performance tire this particular bend is mostly calm; you brake going in, lightly get on the gas, moderate throttle inputs through the apex, and slowly roll onto the accelerator until your back end is straight and the chassis and traction limitations allow you to go full-bore.  Knowing the car ate up the corner properly puts a smile on your face, but your heart rate isn’t anything extraordinary.  You’re happy, but mostly unexcited.  Attack the same corner at the same speed on snow tires and the wail of the rubber will be drowned out entirely by your laughs and screams as you and the car fight for every bit of the corner, battling physics in a match pitting your driving aptitude against a lower level of physics.
Another amazing snow tire transformation turns your normal rear-drive car into a full-blown drift machine, especially in the rain.  Low lateral grip allows the breaking free of the rears with just the smallest bit of Scandinavian flick or with an otherwise insignificant stab of the throttle, allowing boring to instantly become exciting.  If sideways is fun, sideways at ultra-low speeds is hilarious, juvenile bliss.  
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Powerslides on snow rubbers are predictable, controllable, and mostly guilt free, due entirely to deep treads made of an extra-hard composition.  As a lover of going sideways, this is the true key to happiness, especially in the snow where the deeper, more aggressive outer lugs help you control your slides quite easily.  Oh, and being able to drive around safely when you need to also makes a winter-specific set worth the time and money.
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It’s come to the point that, for the street, the normal run-of-the-mill sporty enthusiast vehicles have become just a bit too much.  It’s the old slow-car-fast, fast-car-slow mantra in which going full-out is always more fun than being restricted by your surroundings; the difference here is that it’s limits-down, fun-up.  Like it or not, you cannot legally use a standard Mustang GT to its fullest potential on the streets, let alone a 911 Turbo.  People love cars like the Miata and Toyobaru twins because their performance is “accessible,” as in you can explore their relatively low limits without going totally bonkers-illegal.  But if your car does have limits that might not be street-friendly, a snow tire is the best way to start enjoying it to its fullest.  
It drastically improved my Challenger’s fun factor, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t do the same elsewhere.  One nice, long slide should be enough to convince you…

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  1. Borkwagen Avatar

    I downgraded my MR2’s rubber from sticky 15″ summers to more ordinary 14″ all-seasons partially for this reason; that, and I wanted JDM-tyte basketweaves, but that’s secondary.

  2. Tanshanomi Avatar

    On this topic, I have to bring up the Morgan 3-wheeler and the Sub G1, both of which are supposedly mind-blowing to drive — not in spite of having super skinny antique/motorcycle tires that keep the cornering limits low, but because of them. In both cases, it was a deliberate choice to make sure the tires were the limiting factor, not stability or chassis dynamics.

    1. Roody Avatar

      I approve of that decision entirely. Nobody needs to be doing insane speeds or tearing faces off in hard cornering with either of those; for them to be fun all the time, especially at low speeds is most important.

  3. kogashiwa Avatar

    I’ve given thought to replacing my IS300’s tires (will need it before too long) with low-rolling resistance tires partly because of this.

  4. Maymar Avatar

    I’m partially inclined to agree because snow tires are just awesome you guys, and I’m an occasional proponent of lower limits.
    On the other hand, I think part of it depends on how the car is set up to react. My little Mazda, at least in sane urban driving conditions, is most fun in a point and shoot kind of way, so it sort of sucks that my snows are low-grip in the wet, and I can spin the tires from a stop easily. Also, I took a quick spin in a RAV4 Hybrid (so, low-resistance tires, I assume?) a month or two ago, and pulling out of the parking lot a little enthusiastically resulted in wheel spin, plowing, and the resulting crossover wobble as I let off the gas and everything tucked in, going where it should. Again, not the most fun.

    1. crank_case Avatar

      I think that’s the key really, how the chassis is setup and not just low limits. If it’s just a case of very low grip on tarmac (snow is hilarious in most things), then all you’re going to get is frustrating and sometimes unexpected understeer that you have to reign in before you get the oversteer, you want some confidence in how much you can lean on the front end and then a predictable, linear shift to oversteer. It’s this that makes a stuff like MX5s/Miatas or Toybarus fun, not simply low grip. I had a Fiat Cinquecento (the boxy 90s one) and it was sort of fun in its own way at very low speeds due to limits that make a Miata look like a McLaren P1, but on any sort of decent road, felt a bit out of its depth and the fun evaporated as you went a little faster. I think a car that illustrates what I’m talking about is the 205 GTi, it’s got a wider front track than rear so you could hammer into a tight corner, tuck the nose in and bring the tail round with some lift off oversteer, all very adjustable for a FWD car.

      1. Roody Avatar

        Right– good points. Something I left out in the article that I should have mentioned is that the gap between understeer and oversteer is pretty annoying, but once you overcome the understeer the fun starts almost immediately. It’s not like I go into exit ramps at speeds which could plow me into a guardrail should the car push rather than grip, but it just takes one quick stab of throttle to get to the oversteer now…

        1. crank_case Avatar

          These folks have the right idea, perfecting high speed techniques like momentum and twin drifts..at walking pace. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fnzb-CVXM0A

  5. nanoop Avatar

    This is somehow the slow-car-fast thing, I guess – I hardly drive at the limits, but when I do, it’s indeed on snow.
    (putting stickler committee hat on)
    “… a harder compound…” Winter tires are softer than summer tires. Summer tires loose grip at low temperatures since they freeze hard and can’t adapt to the road surface any longer. At “high” temperatures, winter tires are too soft and smear (and wear) out.
    (hat off)

    1. salguod Avatar

      This is the first year I’ve bought winter tires, for the Prius and the Mazda3. As spring approaches and we get the occasional warm day, you can feel the tread squirm as the winter tires go soft. Looking ahead, it seems I’ll need to get them off soon as highs in the 50s and 60s are going to be common.

      1. Alff Avatar

        I’m just going to leave this here for you…

        1. salguod Avatar

          That works surprisingly well, except for the bed opening and the awful paint. Or maybe it’s just hideous. Probably both. Either way I can’t look away.
          Got a link to where you found it?

          1. Alff Avatar

            Showed up in the Ugly and Oddball Auto Appreciation page on FB.

      2. salguod Avatar

        Highs in the upper 60s, lows around 50 for the next 10 days, so the Prius tires came off today. I’ll let Discount Tire do the Mazda tomorrow. The Prius tires were on for 2 months and 3K miles. I picked the mildest winter to start buying winter tires.

    2. Roody Avatar

      Fair point, I stand corrected. In all honesty my summer tires are up a shelf and I haven’t touched them since they came off the car…

    3. ol shel Avatar
      ol shel

      It’s a miserable, poorly-researched article. Web journalism is becoming a little too populist, with very little journalistic or writing training required.
      There’s also no mention of what happens to your much-siped winter tread when pushed hard on asphalt. You’ll quickly knock the edges off the tread, reducing the tires’ traction when the roads are icy.

  6. Dabidoh_Sambone Avatar

    OTOH – years ago I installed the stickiest, widest Falken summer tires that would fit on my 4WS equipped 3rd gen Prelude and constantly frightened myself with the amounts of lateral G that it would reliably pull. One day I was hooning through interstate traffic in Orlando and this guy in a Mustang GT became offended by my 20mph-faster than everyone else antics and began drafting me, totally too close for comfort. I exited on a long sweeping 360 degree decreasing radius turn that merged with surface streets with hm still glued to my bumper. About halfway through the turn I watched him saw ineffectually at his steering wheel and fly off into the tall weeds and mud of the recent rainstorm in a big splash of brown muck.
    In that sense, I vote for higher limits.

    1. ptschett Avatar

      I’m reminded of the driver of a Probe that was behind me in my ’96 Thunderbird, years ago on a snowy/slushy late-winter day. We were on a 4-lane highway where the driving lane was a bit difficult and the passing lane was almost unusable; I was close enough to my destination that I was happy to just cruise along in the driving lane with the rest of traffic. The Probe driver had apparently reached their patience limit and pulled out to the passing lane, and almost immediately went into the median sideways.

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      This is the most to-the-point-comment on how I’d feel about the topic, too. I happen to have perfectly standard tires on all my cars, but I wouldn’t opt for choices with less friction. After all, in a situation of emergency, I’d want 11 out of 10 just to stay on a chosen course. Limits testing is not an in-traffic thing.
      @ptschett, passing lanes are hard to reach with the slush accumulating between wheels and lanes. That’s one very basic lesson Russian dash cam videos teach. He took the hard route.

    3. Roody Avatar

      Driver competence is likely a factor in there too…

    4. Vairship Avatar

      On the other hand, if said Mustang driver had had, say, 4 space saver spares as tires he would have a) never started to try to keep up with you, and b) if he had still reached the point where he started to slide off the road, would have done so at vastly lower speed.

    5. Preludacris Avatar

      Out of curiosity, what size?

      1. Dabidoh_Sambone Avatar

        Funny that I still remember the details from 20+ yrs ago. 225/60-14 on stock skinny alloy wheels. I could afford good tires but not new rims, and certainly not both. As a result I’ve been a convert that + sized wheels don’t offer real world benefits. Sadly, my second set of Falkens were out-of- round and I’ve avoided them since then.

        1. Preludacris Avatar

          That is a beefy tire! And not commonly available anymore. Tirerack has just the classic BFGoodrich Radial T/A.
          On my Prelude I have run 195/55-15, 205/50-15, and I’m about to try 205/45-16 or maybe 205/50-16 for a bit more sidewall. I’ve never been able to run 14’s because I have 4th gen brakes up front, but that’s fine with me because there are so few tire options in 14″. The step up to 16’s will be just for looks.

          1. Dabidoh_Sambone Avatar

            If you keep a blog on all things 3rd gen Prelude I’d like to read it. I owned my ’88 for five years, bought used at 112k miles and sold at 212k. Only thing it ever needed was brake pads. A world class car, despite being the first year of a new chassis and the first use of all-wheel-steering too. Back then Honda was nothing less than perfect. If I could buy that exact car today as new, I would.

          2. Preludacris Avatar

            I don’t have a blog, but I do have a forum thread to keep track of the maintenance and upgrades on my car: http://www.preludepower.com/forums/showthread.php?t=415786
            I plan to keep on driving this car until something breaks that I can’t fix, and then buy another one if there are still any to be had!

          3. Dabidoh_Sambone Avatar

            After familiarizing with all 12 pages of your forum posts I’ll chime in with empathy for wrenching without a garage: it sucks. My university dorms were the worst: a Spitfire, a trunk of tools and a cloud of mosquitos while a rainstorm and/or night approached.
            Re. your stereo, we recently put a JL Audio Sub CP108LG into the wife’s B2300. For a tiny box it really pounds out the bass. I’m getting one for my ’99 Legacy soon. Should be perfect for you.
            Chilliwack eh? I recently saw this: https://youtu.be/z6LaDJYOTvg – hope it’s atypical!
            Headlights? Get Truck-Lite LED 27450C units. If you can’t afford them then get generic 7″ housings that will take H4 bulbs and install these: http://www.headlightrevolution.com/category_s/1963.htm
            I really like the post ’90 refresh fog lights and clear turn signals on the Prelude. My ’88 Si looked dowdy in comparison. I also had the trunk spoiler though some of its LED’s were dead. I did have one slight problem towards the end: sometimes the ignition would not provide spark, only when hot. Engine would turn over but no fire. Wait five minutes and worked like a champ: the kind of problem no mechanic wants to troubleshoot.
            Your Enkei 15×7 junkyard wheels FTW! Lucky score. My 225 width wheels were installed WAY before stancing was a thing. I had to ever-so-slightly roll the fender lips, then it was perfect. Sears mounted and installed them and the manager agreed he’d be willing to install them and exchange them if they didn’t fit! Took all the worry out of that transaction.
            For a very choice spare tire, get one from a 1st gen Insight: it’s beautifully forged aluminum, yellow and made to a high standard. It should free up space and weight in your trunk. I have a stock 1st gen Insight, green and with a new self-installed IMA battery. That sucked btw. Also in my garage is a 2000 Insight with a 200+ hp K20 6-speed LSD. What it lacks in refinement it makes up for by being outright scary. I’m considering selling both Insights btw …
            Re. 3d printing resolution, use Acetone to blur/soften the ridges? I read somewhere that people do that. Obviously once you print the horn button 2mm larger. While your Momo steering wheel is nice, my Prelude had cruise buttons in its wheel, so no upgrades. But the stock wheel was close to perfect anyway, with the AWS logo too.
            Now I’m following in your footsteps: the Legacy gets its timing belt and water pump tomorrow. I’ve never done one. I’m dreading it. Mazel tov!

          4. Preludacris Avatar

            Wow, thanks for reading all that!
            A sub is definitely still on the wish list, if at the bottom of it. I’ll look into that JL one. At a quick glance it looks like the perfect option. Just enough to make music sound way better.
            Chilliwack? Some parts of it are really nice, thankfully including where I live. The area around that intersection – I’ll just say there’s a reason the homeowner put those cameras up.
            Your ignition problem sounds like it could have been the main fuel relay. It’s a common problem. I am not certain, but I think the ECU may be smart enough to not give you spark if it knows there’s no gas.
            I like that spare! It wouldn’t clear my front brakes, but it’s a cool piece. Not as cool as a K-swapped Insight though. Did you do the swap?
            Honestly I’ve kinda given up on the homemade horn button… all I have is Photoshop and it’s just not designed for this type of work. I’m close to caving in and ordering the NSX horn button, even though the price is dumb. Good idea about the acetone though!
            My steering adapter hub has cruise buttons on it, so I actually still have full cruise control functionality – the best of both worlds. The stock steering wheel is nice, but after having used the 350mm Momo it feels too big. That’s just personal preference.
            Best of luck with the timing belt job!

          5. Preludacris Avatar

            Oh yeah, the headlights! I have been interested in the Truck-lite ones ever since I heard of them, which was a couple years ago now. They’ve been on my Amazon wish list for that long, and dropped from $220 to $180 each in that time. It’s probably a fair price for what you get, just hard to wrap my head around a pair of headlights costing almost as much as a set of decent tires.

          6. Dabidoh_Sambone Avatar

            http://tampa.craigslist.org/hil/cto/5643854000.html You’re the only guy I know who’d know the value of this Prelude. I’m going to sell my K20a Insight – it’s too unrefined if not outright dangerous. Wish it was already sold so I could justify looking at this Prelude. If you reply, you might cc dsanborn at g mail so that I might be aware sooner.

  7. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    the thing is, i don’t like driving cars with sketchy handling. the limits being low doesn’t need to mean they’re unpredictable or inconsistent. but maybe i just need to drive a Challenger on snow tires to understand.

  8. Clawbrant Avatar

    Back when I had my Cavalier I used to run one pair of snow tires and one pair of sporty all seasons. In the winter is have the all seasons on the back, in the summer is have the snows back there. Either way, the front end stuck and you could kick out the rear with ease.

  9. Preludacris Avatar

    I hear what you’re saying, and I do find some joy in the low limits of my winter tires, but when it comes down to it, I’d prefer the more responsive handling of my summer tires all year round if weather allowed for it. They wake the car right up. And since understeer is the default sliding mode of the car, I’d rather be gripping than sliding every time.

  10. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    I’ve never found a situation where I’ve wished for less grip. Slow Car Fast is all about exploiting the meagre limits of a machine to squeeze as much fun out of it as possible, and frequently grip is actually the last thing you run out of, even after handling.
    Deliberately handicapping a fast, capable car with non-stick tyres seems daft unless you spend all your time on a skid-pan. A Ferrari on four space-savers would be hilarious for about three minutes, then the Russian Roulette factor would grow tiresome.
    I’m lucky enough to own a reasonably fast car that has never handled or gripped especially well from new, so I’m driving it at 9 10ths even in town traffic.

    1. Roody Avatar

      Chris Harris made a great video a few years ago in which he put donuts at each corner of a C63. It looked like great fun, but would probably wear off quickly on the open road. That’s an extreme example of the grip handicap, though.
      There’s definitely a tipping point at which the car is just fast enough, or too fast, to be made fun by less grippy tires. My Challenger isn’t a “far car” compared to a lot of what’s out there today, but my daily commute (~50 miles each way, with about 30 miles highway and 20 miles a combination of stop/go and mid-speed back-roads) means that I never really get the chance to push the car hard, save for entrance/exit ramps or if I take a different, much longer route. It works out that some of the corners are not even a second thought on summer tires, but on winters they become interesting, with just a dabble of power helping to find the limits of the tires. It’s certainly not a Ferrari, but the bit of a handicap in terms of grip makes things much, much more interesting.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      I usually run out of common sense first, then ability, and eventually, maybe some physical limitation kicks in. Four donuts on a Ferrari are exactly that scenario: dumb idea in the first place, I couldn’t handle it, and eventually use a guardrail as a physical limitation.

  11. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

    When we lived in Bailey, CO, I had a dedicated set of Yokohama Guardex 600s (both taller and narrower) on a set of 1″ smaller OEM steelies for my wife’s ’95 Intrepid ES 3.5L. That car handled remarkably well for its size and purpose on the 225/60/16s which were on it, factory.
    However, being up that high, 9K feet of elevation, means the snows were on it from late-September until mid-May, sometimes June.
    In the mountains, it was always below about 45F. However, in town, Denver, it might be 75-80F, at which point, the tires which were totally killer in the snow became strangely greasy-feeling.
    It was still fun.
    I also subscribe to the logic, “it’s more fun to drive a slow car quickly than a fast car slowly”. This is in regard to their limits.

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