A pothole more the size of a cauldron appeared from beneath the bumper of the Ford van I was following several car lengths behind onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The driver ahead slammed on his brakes and swerved to avoid it. He failed—and so did I.
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When the right front rim violently struck bottom, it felt and sounded like a shotgun blast. A bag on the seat next to me leapt into the air and spewed its contents all over the passenger footwell. Still rolling forward, I found myself in the middle of fast-moving traffic on a busy New York City highway, a $180 front tire tugging at the steering wheel as it quickly deflated.
This ordeal—which I muddled through by limping home on a flat that miraculously stayed intact and on the rim—is the unfortunate result of what some car designers and engineers call progress.
And it’s only one of several unfortunate trends in automotive design that are making cars less practical, less comfortable and in some cases less safe.
Wheels have been getting increasingly larger and wider, and not just on sports cars—regular ones, too.
They look cool and make the car grip the road better, so it can take turns faster and stop shorter. But the tradeoff is a pricier tire with a smaller sidewall that is less resilient to bumps and potholes.
What’s worse is that many new cars, including budget-minded ones like the Hyundai Elantra, are sold without a spare tire and jack now, to save weight and cost. You can usually add them as an option, though.
Others, like the BMW 3 Series I drove a couple of years ago, have “run flat” tires with beefed up sidewalls. In theory, they, allow you to keep driving when the tire is punctured.
I wasn’t a fan of them until hitting a huge pothole in that BMW, this time on the Grand Central Parkway. The reaction was as violent as in the Audi—a coffee tumbler got launched into the air on this occasion—but the tire stayed inflated.
When I got home, I found a two-inch gash right above the edge of the rim, much like on the Audi A5’s tire, only it didn’t go all the way through the rigid sidewall. You could see the tough woven fibers had kept it intact.
But there’s a downside to run-flats too: They create a more jarring ride. And on that 3 Series, which was already tightly sprung to begin with, the teeth-rattling discomfort started to overshadow the car’s otherwise stellar driving dynamics by the end of my week with it.
It wasn’t until driving an Infiniti G25 sedan recently that it struck me how truly stupid this trend toward larger wheels is. The G25 has 17-inch wheels with tires that have only half an inch more sidewall than the Audi A5’s.
What a difference that half inch makes.
Sure, the steering was sharper on the Audi, but the Infiniti’s slightly taller tires easily absorbed holes and bumps in the pavement that I would’ve had to dodge in the Audi. For the peace of mind taller tires bring, I will gladly give up the minor improvement in steering feel on a daily driver.