Auto Tech

Tire tech: Getting grippy with Bridgestone's new Potenza RE-71R track tire

We find out just how much better the Scion FR-S sports coupe can be get with a vital upgrade where the rubber meets the road.

scionfrsbridgestonere-71r-228.jpg
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I've spent quite a bit of road and track time developing a small love affair with the Subaru BRZ and the identical Scion FR-S. And each time I've evaluated the coupes, I've stated that a tire upgrade would make them significantly better drivers' cars. Tires are, of course, where the rubber literally meets the road and one of the most important elements of how a car performs.

Recently, I was given an opportunity to test out Bridgestone's newest ultra high performance track tire, the Potenza RE-71R, on the Scion FR-S to find out firsthand how my reckoning lines up with reality.

The Potenza RE-71R is the manufacturer's newest ultra high performance tire for road and (mostly) track applications. The tire's tread features a wide center rib that's designed to improve steering response and feel, wide grooves cut into the outer tread blocks that Bridgestone claims improves wet performance, and an improved track-ready rubber compound that conforms to the texture of the road better, improving grip.

Bridgestone says that this is basically a racing slick with a tread pattern cut into it to make it street legal, so it's no surprise the manufacturer claims that the RE-71R boasts better wet and dry lap times when compared side-by-side with the current Potenza RE-11A ultra-high performance tire. The RE-71R's symmetrical design is also a move away from the purposely asymmetrical RE-11 tread pattern.

scionfrsbridgestonere-71r-10.jpg
The newest Potenza's designation harkens back to the original RE-71 tire that debuted in 1985. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

To demonstrate the difference that a true race tire can make, Bridgestone put the track-focused RE-71R head-to-head with its Potenza S-04 Pole Position -- a performance summer street tire at the entry level of the current Potenza series -- on an autocross course at the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Phoenix, Arizona. I was presented with two nearly identical cars. A black FR-S that had its stock P215/45R17 rubber swapped for wider, stickier P255/45R17 Potenza S-04s and a white car with the even stickier RE-71Rs in the same size.

Luck of the draw had me taking my first few laps in the RE-71R shod example. Around the cone course, I found that the normally tail-happy FR-S was suddenly super grippy and neutral. I was able to push the coupe much faster than I expected, based on my experience with the stock rubber, and found it nearly impossible to get out of sorts on the relatively low speeds of an autocross cone course. The rear-wheel drive coupe stuck to the driving line like it was on rails.

scionfrsbridgestonere-71r-173.jpg
The RE-71R's grip outperformed even the Scion's stock suspension setup, creating extra body roll when pushed hard. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However, while the tires seemed to be limitless, the Scion was not. As my confidence and speed grew, the RE-71Rs seemed to outperform even the stock suspension setup's ability to keep the chassis flat under high Gs and I noticed more and more body roll. The FR-S' playful, drifty character was also missing in action; the RE-71Rs are serious about the business of speed.

During my next session in the black FR-S wearing the Potenza S-04s, I was surprised to notice that I was having significantly more fun on the entry-level street performance tires. The S-04s felt like a much better match for the car's capabilities. The upgraded rubber still stuck to the road better than the stock 215s did in my previous tests, but the improved grip wasn't overwhelming and limitless like the RE-71R. The car slipped rather than rolled when asked, which made it feel just a hair more predictable for my driving style.

More importantly, I was able to playfully get a bit of progressive slide from the rear S-04s when I wanted the car to rotate. When the whole point of the FR-S is a playful rotation, that counts for a lot. Many of my fellow drivers at the event seemed to agree when comparing notes.

scionfrsbridgestonere-71r-217.jpg
I was surprised when I had more fun on the entry-point Potenza S-04 Pole Positions. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Of the two Potenzas, either would be an excellent upgrade over the stock rubber, but I would lean towards the less expensive, less hardcore S-04 Pole Position if this were my personal weekend autocrosser. The tire feels like a better match for my personal driving style and the tail-happy character that makes the FR-S so loveable. When it comes to fun, there can be a such thing as too much grip.

Picking a tire is almost as much art as it is science and that often means choosing the right tire for the application rather than the "best." The RE-71R is an amazing tire -- and, technically, the "best" tire of the day for those looking for absolute, unrelenting grip -- but I felt it was a bit too amazing for a mere Scion on a parking lot cone course. This RE-71R demands a more powerful car with a stiffer suspension on a faster course to reach its potential and feels a bit wasted on this lesser application.

Of course, your mileage (as well as driving style, preferences and application) may vary. Be sure to check out our full review of the Scion FR-S and, more recently, the Subaru BRZ Series Blue for even more details, photos and videos.