Understanding the Contact Patch
The contact patch is the only connection point between your vehicle and the road. As such, the size and shape of the contact patch play a pivotal role in your vehicle's performance.
The tire contact patch, or tire footprint, is the area of the tire that directly connects the vehicle with the driving surface. The design of the contact patch is an engineering feat that is specific not only to each manufacturer, but for each individual tire. The design of the contact patch can affect traction, handling, and treadwear.
Many variables affect the contact patch and the results it provides. The most critical factors for drivers to be aware of are vehicle load and air pressure. A tire's maximum operating pressure will be molded onto the sidewall of the tire. However, it is recommended that tire air pressure be set to the vehicle manufacturer's specifications, generally found on a placard on the door panel.
Learn more about Air Pressure.
For performance vehicles, wider tires may often be used. This does not necessarily increase the size of the contact patch, but rather, changes its surface shape. This reshaping of the contact patch makes it more efficient for accelerating, braking, and handling. In some cases, certain performance vehicles will utilize a staggered tire fitment. A staggered tire fitment, or staggered tire application, is the use of wider tires on the rear of the vehicle and narrower tires on the front. While this practice is often adopted for cosmetic purposes, it is recommended for performance purposes only.
A staggered tire fitment should only be used when the rear axle is heavier or when the vehicle is rear-wheel drive. In either of these scenarios, handling issues can occur. The staggered fitment is one solution. For vehicles with a weightier rear, the wider contact patch on the heavier end will generate neutral handling behavior. If a vehicle is rear-wheel drive, even with an even weight ratio, the drive axle can apply additional forces on the tires, which will lead to handling issues. Having a wider, shorter tire contact patch on the back end will allow for more traction under acceleration than a non-staggered fitment.
In some scenarios, drivers may wish to widen their contact patch to increase traction. The most common reason for this is when off-road enthusiasts air down their tires for a wider contact patch to increase traction in extreme off-road situations, such as deep mud, gravel, or rock climbing. Keep in mind that tires should be properly inflated during standard uses, on the pavement and at high speeds.