Rain. It's not what you want when you're driving the boss man's pristine '57 Bel Air in traffic-especially when his last words to you before handing over the keys were, "Make sure you bring it back in one piece."
This, of course, wasn't just a little shower. It was a deluge, the kind of Florida storm that comes from out of nowhere on an otherwise sunny day to flood the roads and cause the typically inattentive driver to do especially stupid things. Like crash into an otherwise-perfect black '57 Chevy.
On the other hand, I had a long haul ahead of me and was testing the new Nitto NT05 ultra high-performance tire. Dry traction is but one aspect that needed evaluation. Wet traction is perhaps more critical because it can save your car and your life. I was motoring from Gainesville to Tampa (a 143-mile trek) after completing the dry-handling portion of our testing at the beautiful Gainesville Raceway test track. The reality is those who drive their classics often get stuck in the rain. When this happens you'd better be on tires that can channel water.
Nitto Tire entered the American market over a decade ago with its 555 line (which it followed with a drag radial version and then a DOT-legal road-race variant). The "Triple Five" soon became one of the most popular tires in all of hot rodding. It was available in a myriad of sizes and was a hands-down winner. It was priced right, wore like iron and offered exemplary dry traction.
It's not everyday that a tire company rolls out a new UHP tire line. The cost for research and development is astronomical, so is the marketing and advertising budget. Then you have to hope you reach your traditional buyers while snatching new customers from your competition.
But a decade is a long time in the tire business. Power levels have soared and suspensions (both from the factory and the aftermarket) offer way more grip (and potential grip). Nitto recognized the need in its lineup for a tire line that offered more performance than the 555 (300 treadwear rating) and yet was not as radical as the race-derived NT01 DOT-legal road race tire (100 treadwear rating).
The answer is the new NT05, which offers nearly as much dry performance as the much-vaunted NT01, but without sacrificing streetability. The NT05s won't pick up every stone, pebble or nail on the road and throw them into your wheelwells. Not only were the new NT05s way ahead of the 555s in the dry, but their behavior in the wet was better, which struck us as surprising. As you can tell from the pictures, the NT05s have a very aggressive tread pattern and they don't look like they'd be all that great in the rain. Well, looks are definitely deceiving. These tires were confidence-inspiring in all conditions.
If the '57 you see here seems familiar, it is because over the years it has been featured in numerous tech stories and build-up articles. It has a full TCI suspension, 383 small-block and rolls on polished American Racing rims (17x8 all around. In previous testing for another story, it went through the cones in 41.68 mph (6.87 seconds) on Nitto 555 tires (size 245/45ZR17). We had no before skidpad numbers.
From the minute we put the 255/40ZR17 Nitto NT05s on the American rims, we noticed a difference. The ride quality actually went up and the new sidewall design improved steering feel. Turn in was crisp and they were quieter on the road than the 555s.
On the skidpad, the NTO5s were given quite a workout. (It should be noted that Gainesville has a 300-foot-diameter skidpad, as opposed to the 200-foot pad we've employed in the past.) Despite having two tons of vintage Tri-Five crushing down on them, we averaged 0.873g clockwise and 0.83 counter-clockwise. Frankly, had the '57 had a shoulder harness or a bucket seat, the CCW number would have been higher, but it was all we could do to stay on top of the bench seat. At least going clockwise we could brace ourselves against the door and keep two hands on the wheel. In the opposite direction I had to brace myself with my right hand on the seat while steering with the left! To put that two-way average in perspective, it's nearly the equal to the new Camaro on 20-inch summer tires, which clocks in at around 0.92g.
In the 420-foot slalom, the NT05s trumped the 555s. We picked up 0.74 mph through the cones (to 42.42 mph), reducing our time from 6.87 seconds to 6.75. The grip was simply outstanding.
More than numbers, however, was the way they felt on the street and during instrumented testing. They responded beautifully to steering inputs and were predictable up to and beyond their limits.
We were not expecting the NT05s to evacuate water the way they did. Their performance in the wet was beyond what we've come to expect from the 555s. Even at speeds approaching 80 mph, the car was glued to the road (no, we don't recommend this). The Bel Air was remarkably sure-footed. Hydroplaning was simply not an issue. The only thing that slowed us down was the 52-year-old wipers. Sometimes they'd work, sometimes not. This is not what we think of when we hear the term "intermittent wipers."
The 555 is still an excellent tire and will offer longer tread life, but for those looking for more aggressive sneakers, Nitto's NT05 might be what you are looking for.