SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — I must admit to never quite understanding either off-roading or the appeal of SUVs, but after spending a day taking Jeeps through Cooper Tires’ obstacle course in Texas, I’m forced to recognize the appeal of getting nearly vertical in four-wheel drive as you ascend a wet and rock-studded 30-degree concrete wall. And mud. Mud is fun, too.
Cooper is the fourth largest tire maker in the U.S., focused not on selling tires to automakers for new cars but on the replacement market. Since off-road tires are a specialty, it has to convince shoppers looking for a bargain that these new and rugged-looking Discoverer A/T3 and Discoverer S/T Maxx tires are the baddest on the block for going beyond the trailhead. So the press event attracted reporters from 4X4 magazines, outdoor publications like Field & Stream…and me, for some reason.
I was the green spoiler in the bunch, sure to point out that off-roading damages natural environments, but luckily we encountered only manmade obstacles — no actual streams were traversed or damaged. The snail darters, had there been any, seemed safe.
We started by driving a high-lift Jeep over a boulder course. Since it was quite easy to drive around the boulders, it was never clear why we had to drive over them, but that’s what we did. It looked insane, since the stones were huge and jagged, but with a spotter pointing us forward, it proved to be easier than it looked. Take a look at the video:
The wet concrete wall had a rocky side and a side polished to make it even more slippery. We went up easily enough in four-wheel-drive low, though a running start was definitely helpful. The combination of Jeep and off-road tires made most challenges fairly mundane — it would have been fun to face obstacles that sent most aspirants down to dismal failure.
We competed against each other on a wet cone course, pitting the Cooper tires against competition from Toyo and B.F. Goodrich. I got the fastest times on the Cooper rubber — yes, I did — but that may be in part because they were third in line and I got more confidence. But they did feel very grippy. I’m usually death to cones, but I only knocked over a few in Texas.
We also did what are known as “hot laps,” with professional drivers at the wheel. In a tricked out Baja-ready Ford F-150 piloted by a grinning Ali, we hit nearly 100 mph with nary a trail in sight. I am notoriously ill-equipped for such adventures, getting carsick on roller-coasters and even Ferris wheels, but Dramamine came to the rescue.
A second session with race driver Johnny Unser at the wheel of a hot Mustang GT sporting Cooper Zeon RS3A performance tires was impossibly vertiginous — around a short road course, he demonstrated the concept of four-wheel drift, which is a form of ultra-controlled skidding. Again, there’s video proof:
Later, ex-Indy competitor Unser offered that in five minutes, we’d taken the equivalent of a year’s wear out of the brand-new tires, simulating 20,000 miles of wear. He also told entertaining stories about stunt driving for commercials, including the CBS spot in which a following helicopter got too close and ripped the roof off his TrailBlazer. Adventure seems to run in the Unser family.
Oh, and then there was the mud. A square field had been turned into a pit of thigh-deep boot-sucking muck. And we drove right through it. I did everything I could to see if I could get the Jeep stuck, including stopping right in the middle of the thickest sections. But in each case, the car simply powered out. Cooper told me its earlier generation of all-terrain tires would have gotten bogged down, but we certainly didn’t, though the Jeeps ended up looking like they’d spent a week in the Libyan outback.
I now know more than I ever thought possible about chip and cut resistance, and stone retention in tire design. I know that there isn’t much profit in selling tires to automakers, though you may get consumers’ next set because they recognize the brand name. I know that most Chinese consumers have never purchased a set of tires — because they’re still on their first car’s original set. And I know it’s actually possible to drive over a field of boulders, though I’m still more likely to drive around it. (Why invite trouble?)