Retail

The Consumer Reports report: Tire dealers were curious about how CR ran its tire tests. MTD brought them together

Bob Ulrich
Posted on November 1, 2007
Pictured from left to right are Ryan Pszczolkowski, tire technician, and Gene Petersen, lead tire test engineer for Consumer Reports; John Donovan and Paul Sullivan from Sullivan Tire Co.; Jennifer Stockburger, senior tire test engineer; Frank Malin and Mike Mellen from Town Fair Tire Centers

Pictured from left to right are Ryan Pszczolkowski, tire technician, and Gene Petersen, lead tire test engineer for Consumer Reports; John Donovan and Paul Sullivan from Sullivan Tire Co.; Jennifer Stockburger, senior tire test engineer; Frank Malin and Mike Mellen from Town Fair Tire Centers

Consumer Reports says it puts the "independent" in independent comparison testing. The magazine accepts no advertising, no free samples of the products it reviews, no free trips, nada, nada, nada.

Two full-time engineers oversee all tire testing, which is done most of the time at the magazine's 327-acre Automotive Test Center in rural East Haddam, Conn. However, until recently, there was a "disconnect" in the tire comparison testing. The engineers frequently talked with tire manufacturers and consumers in the course of their testing. But what about the independent tire dealer point of view?

Modern Tire Dealer helped bridge that gap. With full cooperation from Consumer Reports, five tire dealers representing three dealerships traveled to Connecticut last February to tour the facility and participate in a forum with lead test engineer Gene Petersen and senior test engineer Jennifer Stockburger.

Not two minutes into the opening presentation, Petersen displayed a list of 19 tires brands tested by CR. "These brands cover about 75% of the passenger car tire replacement market," he said.

"You don't have Toyo listed," said Michael Mellen, executive vice president of Town Fair Tire Centers Inc.

"That's an omission," said Petersen, who added that Toyo had performed very well in past tests.

The give and take had begun.

Tire test procedures

Mellen and Frank Malin, retail sales coordinator, drove in from Town Fair Tire's headquarters in East Haven, Conn., to be part of the seven-person forum. They were joined by Paul Sullivan and John Donovan, vice presidents with Sullivan Tire Co. Inc. in Norwell, Mass., and Jerry White, co-owner and president of White Tire Supply Inc. in Beaumont, Texas.

In part, the dealers were chosen because they believed CR's tire comparison tests had an impact on the tire-buying process.

According to Petersen, the tire tests are based on tire performance, particularly "safety-related characteristics" like wet and dry traction and handling.

"We are doing testing that's not on the level of product development. This is a statement of confusion that we see with tire manufacturers. They are developing products using very precise, very specific tests. We're doing testing that we feel will show an outcome that a consumer might experience.

"There are 12 or 13 tests that we do," he said. "The overall score is based on a weighted average on all those tests. Certain elements of that test are weighted more heavily than others, like dry and wet braking and hydroplane resistance.... Obviously, you'd go a step further if it's a winter tire, in which case, snow and ice elements would be weighted most heavily.

"Rolling resistance, noise and ride comfort are things that people care about, but are not necessarily an element of safety."

The testing has evolved over the years. Performance characteristics have been added. So has subject matter.

For example, tread wear testing (using specifications mandated by the federal government) was added three years ago. It is performed by an independent laboratory in San Angelo, Texas.

A new wet-pavement test geared toward ultra-high performance tires was used to evaluate summer and all-season UHP tires this year. The results were combined with the magazine's standard wet-cornering test (see related article).

"If you listen to a consumer, one of the first questions they will ask is, 'How long is the tread life?" said Mellen.

"Testing tread life is an expensive proposition, but it is a necessity because people are always asking about tread life," said Petersen. "We don't consider tread life to be a performance feature. It's more of a value-related feature in a tire. So it doesn't work into our overall score in rating tires."

Petersen admitted, however, that the effect of tread wear on all-season performance is a performance feature, and something CR is going to examine. "As a tire wears, it loses its all-season capabilities. So if a somewhat mediocre tire has a long tread life, is that a better tire further out than a tire that started out better but wore out quicker?"

Since joining CR in 1995, Petersen has been instrumental in broadening all-weather testing. Snow and ice testing was introduced, which led directly to comparison testing for winter tires. Hydroplaning resistance and rolling resistance test procedures also were added.

Although original equipment tires may be used as a baseline, the magazine only tests replacement passenger tires. "We look at things we believe our readers are interested in," said Petersen.

"We don't test light truck tires yet. We don't have the capacity to get into that field at this point. Our readers are people who own personal cars."

Great expectations

"I noticed you used the words safe or safety a couple of times," Sullivan said to Petersen, "but you haven't demonstrated safety."

Petersen said even though the overall tire test scores emphasize safety-related tests, defining safety in the eyes of the consumer is not an easy task. "Safe tires" are expected by consumers, according to CR research. "Quite often people will say I want a safe tire. Well, what is a safe tire?

"We look at a tire that performs well as one that you might consider (safe). A safe tire to them might mean one that has good (hydroplaning) resistance, good durability, resistance to blowouts, wears a long time, grips well -- it means everything, and many different things to different people."

Consumers also expect the following, based on CR research: low price, long tread life, excellent grip and handling, low rolling resistance and comfort.

Long-term durability and skid resistance as the tire wears are additional concerns, said White. "I think that is extremely important for the motorist to know."

Petersen said durability issues are complex. "We had discussions with some tiremakers on the durability aspect. We have actually done a limited amount of durability testing with regards to how tires age. We will continue to look at that aspect.... We may also look at an indoor wheel durability test."

The retail price CR pays for the tires it tests is included in each story. However, like tread wear testing, it is not included in the overall test score. Petersen says the price paid is just that, and does not necessarily represent the price a consumer should expect to pay. He calls this a weak point because it doesn't satisfy the basic, often overriding expectation the consumer has for "low price."

For example, the tires are purchased some 10 months prior to the date the comparison test story is published, and doesn't take into account any price increases that went into effect during the time lag.

Town Fair Tire's Mellen pointed out that pricing is "very regional" -- another reason why the price listed in the story is not a fair representation of the actual price of the tire. "We looked at the pricing you're using and we feel (it's unrealistic)."

At issue with issues

In an attempt to give its readers more than comparison testing, CR often looks at complementary tire issues and trends. There has been a long-term air-loss study, the effects of siping on a tire ("marginal gains" in snow and ice grip, according to Stockburger), and tire gauge testing.

Four of the hottest topics in the tire industry were addressed by both sides in the forum.

* Plus-sizing. According to Town Fair Tire's Malin, plus-sizing "is more of a style business than it is a performance business. When someone does a plus-sizing, generally they are looking for a look versus performance."

In January 2004, the magazine looked at plus-sizing, specifically Plus-One, Plus-Two and Plus-Three. It measured what was gained and lost in the size upgrades.

Petersen: My first impression is we don't condone plus-sizing, but people do. On the cars we went Plus-One, Plus-Two and Plus-Three, I believe, and on the SUV we went Plus-Four and Plus-Eight up to 24 inches. We found that you probably plus-size One or Two tops. After that you are in no man’s land, particularly around here where you're apt to fight the winter elements, (and suffer) a lot of pot hole damage. In the case of the SUV, we actually got lots of grip... and fairly stable handling. But we did notice the braking effort was way off.

White: Did you receive any feedback from your readers about decreased brake pad life with plus-sizing?

Petersen: No, but that's not what our readers do. But you're right, it is definitely there. Places like Tire Rack... sell brake components to counteract some of the (drawbacks) of its larger packages.

* Run-flat tires. CR ran a story on run-flat tires in its June 2007 issue. Its conclusion was succinct.

"Despite the disadvantages (harsher ride, premature wear, high replacement cost) and inconveniences of run-flat tires for many... the safety benefits can outweigh the downsides. And the technology behind them is improving while prices are coming down."

Malin: "When my friends ask me if they should buy a new car with the run-flat package, my answer's always no.... The benefit of the run-flat doesn't outweigh all the problems.

Stockburger: Do you think that's how women perceive them?

Malin: That's a good question, because my wife likes two things: Mobil stations because they have clean bathrooms, and the idea of run-flat tires because if she has kids in the car, she can get off the highway and drive somewhere to where at least it is safe.

* Tire pressure monitoring systems. The magazine, which recently tested pressure monitoring systems, has publicly supported the direct TPMS and its wheel-mounted sensors. "Such systems are a step above indirect monitors."

Petersen: We believe in the direct pressure monitoring system. I know it's not the perfect system, but the indirect system does not tell you... (when) all four tires are losing air at the same rate. It's never going to see the discrepancy.

Malin: The problem is there is no standard -- everybody's (system) is different. There is a whole dynamic between the service end of it and the consumer end of it that's brand new. There's a whole lot of education involved."

White: TPMS is the best thing since sliced bread if they get it right. I think it will have the same effect on the tire business that the introduction of the radial did, because if people start inflating their tires because it's going 'blink, blink, blink' (on the dashboard), the tires are going to last longer.

Petersen: It's a good thing, but more progress in technology needs to be made.

Stockburger: I'm worried about the 'cry wolf' aspect.

Petersen: What happens in the mounting process when you break a sensor?

White: You cry.

* Nitrogen tire inflation. "It's based on good technology," said Petersen. "We are looking at some of the hype." CR bought a nitrogen generator from Parker Hannifin Corp.

Petersen: Some tire dealers appear to be offering this as a way to make some extra money and to get the customer back in to have their tires checked routinely and topped off with nitrogen when they need it. We want to see if nitrogen will really offer the true benefit that it promises. We know it works in the mining and racing car fields, and the airlines use it.

White: We have been doing this since 1971. We don't use generators; we use pure nitrogen tanks. What you are trying to do is eliminate the oxygen from inside the tire. To me, the biggest advantage is the tire stays (properly) inflated longer. Also, the tire is not degrading from the inside out, and because you have a bone-dry gas in there, you don't have the temperature variations that you would with (oxygen). That is especially true in our part of the country (southeast Texas) where it is very humid. You really want to get the oxygen concentration in that tire under 1%, and to do that you have to purge it.

Petersen: We purge our tires several times. Oxygen analyzers check to make sure we got as much oxygen out as we could. This generator is only good for 95%, which is typical of what is being sold to dealerships.

Limited access

In the November 2005 issue of CR, the Michelin X Radial and Goodyear WeatherHandler LS were two of the 18 all-season tires tested. Footnotes indicated that the tires were only available through "shopping clubs" and Sears, respectively.

The dealers questioned whether it was fair to everyone involved, especially themselves, to include tires with limited distribution in comparison testing.

"When we bought the (X Radial) tire, it was commonly available," said Petersen. "After we got done testing it, Michelin said, 'Guess what? It is available only through these particular club stores.'"

"But over in the tire building you had Avon tires, and that tire is not available through the dealer channel," said Mellen. "When you come back and say Avon tire is a great tire, you are really weighting the advantage to Tire Rack. They are the only ones who sell the tire.

"Same with the Goodyear WeatherHandler. You are really being biased against the independent tire dealers when you include tires that are exclusive to a national chain."

Mellen said a good score by CR makes the tire a "demand tire," which can be confusing to consumers who aren't aware that it has limited availability.

It works both ways, according to Stockburger. "We'll get the letter that says, 'You didn't cover any tires from Sears.'

"Sears is not a manufacturer. Tire Rack is not a manufacturer. They are retailers/wholesalers," said Mellen. "You're not calling White's Tire or you're not calling Town Fair Tire and we are not giving you a tire to test for your magazine.

"In my opinion, you should be testing strictly tires provided by a manufacturer that are available through the whole network of dealers throughout the country."

"You can't shop for the best price when that's the only price you can get on the tire," said Malin. "There is no open competition for that tire. You are almost doing your consumers a disservice because there is no price competitiveness."

Exclusivity also limits where consumers can get the tire serviced, said White.

Petersen conceded some of the points. "At the very least we should let consumers know where the tire is available. And then we ought to re-examine some of (these issues) in the future. When we come up with a list of tires, could we talk to you guys about them?" The response by Mellen was echoed by the others: "Absolutely."

One request

As the forum was winding down, the dealers asked Petersen and Stockburger for their help in enlightening consumers about the value of tire dealers.

"The only thing they know is the high quality product reduced to the lowest price," said Sullivan Tire's Donovan. "They should be informed this is a professional business, that we are selling a quality product and we maintain it and we know it.

"We do a free checkup and find something wrong with the car, and they think we're trying to rob them. You go to the doctor for the same reason."

Malin said selling tires, especially with the arrival of TPMS, is more complicated than it was even five years ago.

"Your magazine treats tires like an iPod or a radio, something you plug in. But tires are really a service business. It's not just a commodity. And that's something you could talk about."

"We've learned a lot about that aspect today," said Petersen. "Selling the service, you happen to get a tire in the process."

"We are just giving a perspective from the other side of the street," said Mellen. "You're the engineers. You're doing the testing. We're trying to do the selling."

"The survival of the independent business person has always been they are the experts and they're willing to adapt, whether it's the education process or investing in resources or addressing changes in technology," said Sullivan. "I don't know that other business models are going to be able to do that, quite honestly."

At one point during the forum, Petersen asked if the dealers could come up with a list of tire topicsConsumer Reports could write about. "Consumers are better off knowing what they're getting themselves into," he said.

How about it, readers? If you have any ideas for Petersen, please send them to me at bob.ulrich@bobit.com.

Forum biography

Michael Mellen, executive vice president, and Frank Malin, retail sales coordinator, Town Fair Tire Centers Inc. Headquarters: East Haven, Conn., 67 retail stores. Mellen and his older brother, CEO and President Neil Mellen, started out selling automotive parts at a flea market in Stratford, Conn., on the weekends. "It was called the Stratford Town Fair," says Michael. When they opened their first tire dealership 40 years ago, they capitalized on the flea market's name recognition.

Paul Sullivan, vice president, and John Donovan, vice president, Sullivan Tire Co. Inc. Headquarters: Norwell, Mass., 60 stores. With the recent purchase of Berlin Bandag Inc., Sullivan Tire entered the Connecticut market for the first time. The 52-year-old company also has retail and commercial outlets in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island. President Bob Sullivan, Paul's oldest brother, oversees the family business, founded by their late father, Bob Sullivan Sr.

Jerry White, chairman, White Tire Supply Inc. Headquarters: Beaumont, Texas, one store. White's father, J.C. "Jake" White, founded the dealership in Southeast Texas in 1938. Jerry started working there at age 11; 65 years later, he co-owns the business with Store Manager Tommy Reeves. White is ASE-certified in automotive and truck steering, brakes, alignment and suspension. He also is a certified Tire Industry Association CTS (Commercial Tire Service) instructor.

Gene Petersen, program leader/tire test engineer, and Jennifer Stockburger, senior automotive and tire test engineer, Consumer Reports. Petersen joined CR in 1995 after working as a tire tester with the former Armstrong Tire Co. and then Pirelli Tire Corp. Stockburger joined Pirelli right out of college. "Even then, Gene and I did a lot of ride handling testing," she says. Stockburger re-united with Petersen in 2000. "We know the language," he says. They split their time between vehicle and tire testing for now.

Timetable for testing: It often starts with legwork in Las Vegas

It takes almost a full year for Consumer Reports to test tires and publish the results, according to Gene Petersen, lead tire test engineer at the magazine's Automotive Test Center in East Haddam, Conn.

Here's a typical schedule of story events from start to finish, mainly from Petersen's point of view. (The majority of tire comparison tests are published in CR's November issue.)

November: Meet with the tire manufacturers at the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show in Las Vegas. Come up with a program of selective models that fit a category.

November/December: Buy the tires. Obtain the proper vehicles for the tires being tested.

January: Break-in the tires (approximately 1,000 miles).

February/April: Perform ride testing and snow testing. Follow up with ice testing and hydroplane resistance testing.

May: Perform braking, cornering and handling tests.

June: Analyze data with the help of CR's statisticians. Write up a technical report.

July/August: Send the technical report to the editorial staff. The story goes back and forth between the editors and the engineers. Then it's prepared for print.

October: The November issue is published. "At that point we are already thinking about next year's program," adds Petersen.

Mistakes happen: Even Consumer Reports is not infallible

In its 70-year history, Consumer Reports has made its share of mistakes. But given the number of products it tests every year -- more than 3,100 -- the percentage is both miniscule and, in the vast majority of cases, relative.

Earlier this year, the magazine was forced to withdraw its "Infant Car Seat Test Report" due to a significant reporting error in the side-impact tests that got the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involved.

CR had claimed the side-impact tests, which showed failure in 10 of 12 infant car seats, were carried out at speeds of 38 mph. However, the number was closer to 70 mph.

The tests were performed at an outside laboratory.

"We made a mistake, but we're committed to correcting it, preventing similar ones and, most importantly, continuing to serve the consumer interest," said Jim Guest, CEO and president of Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of CR.

There also have been lawsuits, the most notable Suzuki Motor Corp. vs. Consumers Union of United States Inc. in 2003. The case eventually was dismissed by joint agreement, with neither side admitting to any wrongdoing nor any money changing hands.

Major mistakes don't happen often, however. Errors have included incorrectly measuring dog food ingredients and miscalculating the depreciation rates of hybrid cars. They are the exception rather than the rule.

The objectivity of specific tests has been questioned from time to time. For example, some critics have charged that the magazine is biased against imported cars. Others say its bias is directed against domestic automobile companies.

In the past, some tire manufacturers have claimed that the results didn't measure "apples to apples."

But to its 4.2 million magazine subscribers, CR's track record speaks for itself.

And the survey said... Consumer Reports subscribes to the information highway

Consumer Reports has the ability to survey a considerable number of consumers. For its 2006 Car Reliability Survey, the magazine sent questionnaires to 6.7 million magazine and Web site subscribers, and drew responses on close to 1.3 million vehicles. Lead test engineer Gene Petersen said a tire buyers' survey is being considered. If and when it is completed, he hopes the responses will offer information on tire durability and quality.

The magazine also is looking to put more information on its Web site, www.consumerreports.org, which has 2.5 millions subscribers. "One thing we would like to do is make it easier to navigate through the Web to pick a tire," said Petersen.

Tire Rack does a "terrific job of educating and offering lots of advice (to consumers), and I really think that helps them sell tires."

(The Tire Rack claims it has the world's largest database of consumer tire reviews. Since 1997, it has collected more than 124,000 surveys representing two billion miles on www.tirerack.com. That's an average of close to 16,000 miles per respondent.)

Bob Ulrich Editor
Comments ( 1 )
  • Ronald

     | about 3 years ago

    Town Fair tires was located in Stratford Town Fair which was a discount store with different department owners and a store manager. I know because I worked there as did my father.

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