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Sophisticated Side

15th October 2002

By David Rubie

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There's a particular, famous Australian radio personality (and car lover) who once had an advertising catchphrase few of us will ever forget. "When you're on a good thing, stick to it."

It's a rule he obviously lives by. When your hair falls out, just stick it back on. When a major sponsor tells you that your paid recommendations shouldn't be explained as such on the air, you stick by them. When you've got no comment, stick to that. I can't remember the exact product he sold with that line, but I remember the line. You can apply it to anything, from your favourite brand of motor oil to your deodorant.

I lived by that phrase with a particular kind of tyre.

The Pirelli P6000 was my tyre. I loved the things. I bought three successive sets in a row for three entirely different cars. I replaced a set of badly worn Yokohamas on my MX-5 with the first set of P6000 and I was ecstatic. The Yokohamas were beyond help: old, hardened and allowing the MX-5 to slither around like an old VW Beetle rather than the icon of handling it was supposed to be. I agonised over the replacements; they had to be perfect. I pored over brochures, bugged the daylights out of tyre shop owners, conversed with other MX-5 owners and generally turned into an irritating tyre obsessive. After carefully weighing all the available information, I finally settled on the P6000. I wasn't disappointed. They were quiet, they had a nice amount of grip and they were great at amplifying the impending release of the little Mazda's back tyres. The tyres gave the MX-5 a delicious, knife edged flickability. They didn't aquaplane in the rain and they had pretty reasonable wear. If anybody asked me what kind of tyre to fit to their car, I automatically spat out "P6000", sure in the knowledge that they couldn't go wrong. It was probably the most considered tyre decision I've made. Usually, I just front up to the tyre place with four balding carcasses and pick whatever is on special, but the delicate Mazda seemed to demand more than this haphazard approach.

When the BMW 320i came up for a set of tyres, I didn't even shop around. I just fronted up at the local tyre shop and flicked the credit card over for another set of P6000s. This time, the result wasn't quite as good but still good enough. The fat little Beemer had to be seriously abused to lose grip at the best of times but the telegraphic messages were still there, albeit a little muted by the BMW requiring a taller aspect ratio tyre. The BMW didn't have the switchblade responses of the MX-5, but it was still crisp and responsive to direction changes. They were still quiet tyres in their slightly later incarnation and I had no complaints about the wear. Given that both cars had slightly different aspect ratios (the BMW running a 60 series from memory, with the MX-5 on a 50 series with a set of aftermarket rims) I should have expected the BMW not to respond quite as well. Still a damn good tyre though.

Two good results with tyres really had me fired up. Tyres are impossible to "test drive", unless you count borrowing somebody else's similar car with those tyres already fitted. They are pretty expensive too, which makes the decision about which tyre to buy even worse. You don't want to hand over the best part of $1000 on what is essentially a random dice-roll whether the tyres will suit your car or not. Most of us waste enough time choosing the car itself without having to research what to strap around the rims. The P6000 was a winner in my eyes, a dead certainty for tyre of the century and a cure-all for various handling foibles associated with imprecise feedback. If our radio broadcaster had expounded their merits on the air, for the first time in my life I would have wholeheartedly agreed with him.

So before this starts to sound like a paid advertorial, which the broadcaster in the first paragraph became notorious for, I'd like to introduce a certain Volvo 850 T5 with four bald tyres. Once again, I toddled off to the local (smiling) tyre proprietor for a set of P6000, with unfortunately disastrous results.

Unlike the E36 BMW and MX-5, the Volvo 850 isn't really a "sporting" car. It's a big, overboosted, armour-plated sled. The car that sank Volvo's financial fortunes and led it into the arms of Ford is chronically over-engineered (and over-engined) in some places and woefully lacking in some others. Here's a car (even in automatic form) that, in theory, will keep pace with a WRX from a standing start and keep with it until you run out of straight road or points on your license. Yet, nobody at Volvo thought about how all that power was going to get through the front wheels. The obvious answer is that it doesn't. I've been humiliated a number of times now where I've shoved the accelerator to the floor and been rewarded with a cloud of smoke from the driver's or passenger's front tyre instead of a traffic light victory. Long, single wheeled burnouts are no way to impress anybody. While, when I first bought the car, I found it hysterical to throw the car into a corner and tromp the gas too early. This inevitably lead to a tyre-smoking, understeering exit that was pure British Touring Car Championship qualifying lap. As entertaining as that can be, it's a bit of an impediment when you want to get somewhere in a hurry. This particular car does have traction control, but it's relatively useless as it only engages under 25km/h. That's much too low to be an effective antidote to the stimulation of a heavy right foot. I'm convinced the computer thinks we're doing over 25 by the time those tyres start smoking.

Where does this fit in with Pirelli? I'm glad you asked. The slightly wooden, uncertain steering on the Volvo was exacerbated by the fairly stiff sidewalls. It made the wheels feel narrow, like a turn of the century buggy. That knife edged reaction that made the MX-5 a feast for your hands became an unsettling sensation as if you were attempting to drive on a pair of tightropes. The Volvo seemed to have even less grip than the motley collection of (unmatched) Bridgestones I'd just discarded. I can't explain just how disappointing this was. Maybe I was asking too much of a tarted up family hauler, but that ice-skatey steering feel made you think twice about how much boost you really needed to feed to the front wheels. Despite driving around like, well, a Volvo driver, we managed to shred the $240 a corner tyres in less than 20,000 kilometres. All four of them, although, truth be told, the tyres on the front are the ones that get the beating. That's a new record for me. Usually, the car gets sold before I wear out the tyres.

I think there's a moral in here somewhere. When you're on a good thing, make sure the application is similar enough that the results will be the same. A tyre that worked brilliantly on the MX-5 was good on a BMW and almost diabolical on a Volvo. When I fronted up with my four balding carcasses, the tyre shop recommended a Kumho Ecsta (thankfully cheaper than the P6000) and I just shrugged and signed the chit. Surprisingly, they're better, or at least more suited to the Volvo. They've got a little more compliance in the sidewalls that's taken some of the vertigo out of the steering. The tread does look rather soft though, so I suppose we'll be back in 20,000 for another set, but it won't be as financially ruinous.

All is well that ends well? Unfortunately no. Like the some of the WRX's that the Volvo shares a tyre size with (205/50-16 for you tyre nerds out there), they also share a weakness in the gearbox department. All that heroic-looking, tyre-shredding cornering managed to trash the auto gearbox. While I wasn't totally surprised at this eventuality, it was disappointing. Volvo's are meant to be tough, rugged bits of equipment that will do stupendous distances without a spanner brandished in their direction.

It might be true of the 240 series (thanks largely to an unburstable, simple engine and the old faithful Borg Warner 35 gearboxes that groan along under many other cars), but the 850 was a ground-up redesign with some questionable engineering. The Aisin-Warner gearbox was designed specifically for the 850 and supposedly beefed up for the T5, but according to Volvo themselves they rarely make it past 200,000km. Neither did mine. Volvo wanted over $5000 for a change-over gearbox, remanufactured in Sweden by naked, blonde goddesses who craft the parts by gently rubbing their rock hard buttocks on aluminium billet blocks. I wasn't having any of it (at least without photographic evidence). The local automatic gearbox specialist fixed it for half of that.

He kept his clothes on too.

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