Nitto NT555: Three Decades of Grip

Twenty-five years ago, the divide between full-blown drag racing slicks and tires suitable for getting you back and forth to your job selling compact discs at Sam Goody was substantial. And then the early 1990s happened, ushering in the Nitto NT555, which cinched the gap some and, later, with the introduction of the NT555R, blurred the lines between everything you thought a DOT-legal street tire should be able to do.

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Nitto turned to the then-burgeoning sport compact performance market when launching its NT555 and, over the next few years, the tire’s popularity would grow nearly as much as the small-car-performance scene did. Racers and show car fans alike looked to the NT555, not just for the tire’s industry-leading, wider contact patch but also because of the variety of sizes it was sold in, including plus-sized offerings that were scarce for most small-car models of the period.

Sport compact enthusiasts were just beginning to understand the benefits of plus-sizing — the process of increasing wheel diameter without altering the tire’s outside diameter by means of a lower-profile sidewall. Lower-profile tires can make steering inputs quicker and reduce the need to introduce negative camber because of the tires’ shorter and stiffer sidewalls. Few tire makers in the ‘90s offered something like this, though, and for those that did, often times improperly sized sidewall profiles resulted in clearance issues.

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Not the NT555, though, which was the first to deliver 17- and 18-inch-compatible tires that fit like they ought to on front-wheel-drive sport-compact applications, like Honda’s fifth-generation Civic, for instance. To be sure, Nitto was the first tire maker to introduce a 215/35R-18 tire that late-model Civic owners could actually use.

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The Nitto NT555 wasn’t the stickiest tire you could get, but it continued to reign supreme throughout the ‘90s and beyond with the widest contact patch available for any tire in its class — 69.8 percent — and that’s really what led to the tire’s success that’s since transcended into its third decade.

Nitto accomplished all of this with large, reinforced tread blocks that are less susceptible to flex, which means the surface remains rigid and better retains its shape for more responsive steering. Low void areas within the tread also mean more rubber makes its way onto the road. And more rubber against the pavement means better grip and better performance, no matter what sort of driving you plan on doing. And a conservative UTQG rating of 300 means you won’t blow through a set of NT555s in eight months.

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In 1998, Nitto set its sights on the American car performance segment following a glowing editorial in "Car and Driver" magazine, where the editors praised the company’s NT555. Just as they did years before with the sport compact market, Nitto’s product development team surveyed the domestic car landscape, taking note that, here, drag racing prevailed. Shortly after, Nitto capitalized on the NT555’s success and released its NT555R — a DOT-compliant semi-race tire that was just as much a full-blown competition slick as it was a street radial.

Unlike other manufacturers’ drag radials of the period, both tires share similar tread patterns and could be used in conjunction with one another at opposite axles, but the NT555R’s construction lent itself to better dry-weather performance at the expense of being used year round. In other words, the NT555R results in the sort of launches you’d expect from racing slicks but, because of its semi-radial design, stability at the other end of the track that you wouldn’t expect from dedicated racing tire. As with the NT555, the automotive press took note of all of this and, well, two decades and dozens of applications proven on makes of all origins later, the rest is history... well, almost.

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Enter the next generation of the Nitto NT555 with the NT555 G2. Their engineers designed this summer UHP tire specifically for contemporary high-performance cars. The NT555 G2’s tread pattern pays homage to its predecessor with an aggressive directional look and steps up the performance of the NT555 on every level with regards to dry/wet handling, braking and acceleration.

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Learn more at NittoTire.com/NT555G2.

(Photos: Tim Sutton)

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