High performance: ‘I know it when I see it’
Possibly the most famous phrase in the history of the United States Supreme Court occurred when Justice Potter Stewart attempted to explain why, in his opinion the 1958 European film festival award-winner Les Amants should not be censored as pornographic: “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Two months later James Bond uttered the same seven-word phrase in the film Goldfinger – “it” referring to gold in this instance rather than questionable motion pictures – further popularising the phrase as a sort of shorthand for the application of common sense when attempts to define a field become tedious. Some of this attitude has certainly come through to Tyrepress.com this month, after the Question of the Month queried, “Are all tyres now ‘high performance’?”
Given only two straightforward options, just 0.98 per cent of over 1,000 respondents claimed that all tyres could essentially be described this way. When over 99.02 per cent answers a yes/no question in the negative, it certainly feels like a brusque dismissal of the very idea.
While it seems the title of this section therefore still means something, the difficulty of defining what characteristics a tyre must possess to be described as a high performance product still raise questions that receive different answers depending on who you ask and how they take the question. If we argue the point in terms of perceived quality, privileging the traditionally designated premium brands and a small number of players who have broken into this club more recently through motorsport, technological development, OE contracts or even sheer weight of sales, then what of the more budget-conscious brands that have outperformed more expensive tyres on the European tyre label – even on tyres with speed ratings above V?
Likewise, if we talk about high performance indicated by speed rating, or even by size, we face the problem of shifting consumer perceptions. Five or ten years ago, the tyres sized 225/45R17 91W fitted to one Tyres & Accessories vehicle would have been noted as a high performance product without question. But now this size is almost regulation on medium-sized family vehicles (no matter what the Volkswagen Group may think, a 1.9 diesel Seat Leon doesn’t scream high performance to T&A). Similarly many models in the road-going SUV segment that could be called high performance travel on V-rated tyres. Technological progression and the demands of OEMs and motorists have destabilised the marketing-friendly definitions of segments.
One may have thought that tyre makers and consumers would be happy to shift their segment definitions along with the market trends of the times, but this doesn’t appear to be what happens. The estimable manufacturer of high-technology products such as the tyre test slaying SportContact 5/5P, Continental answered the question of these definitions with a sense of Teutonic logic and order when it briefed at the end of 2012 that tyres of 17” and above are ultra-high performance (UHP), while tyres larger than 19” represent an ultra-ultra-high performance (UUHP) segment. 16” tyres were described as “still dominant” – and presumably capable of regular old high performance. This approach both satisfies an understandable desire not to declassify part of a manufacturer’s range as high performance, and indulges a national pastime of gleefully compounding words.
On the consumer side, the site administrators of the predominant UK peer review website, Tyrereviews.co.uk have rather taken to categorisation. Ignoring the designation of summer, all season and winter products for a moment, passenger car tyres (not including SUV/4×4 tyres) are arranged in eight separate performance-based sections. In the non-track performance stakes, Tyrereviews organises products into high performance, UHP, max performance and extreme performance segments, while space is left for touring, premium touring and electric vehicle products below these four segments. With the number of buyers researching tyres on the internet continuing to rise strongly, it makes sense to have an orderly system. But it is also worth noting that a consumer review’s greatest potential strength – its subjectivity – also makes an objective assessment of which tyres belong in which category into more of a case of “I know it when I see it”.