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Are touring tires old hat? Not by a long shot: Size, speed rating changes super-charge touring segment's growth

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Are touring tires old hat? Not by a long shot: Size, speed rating changes super-charge touring segment's growth

Touring tires don't evoke images of excitement like performance tires. And they don't have the staid, workhorse reputation of broad-line tires. Touring tires fill a niche somewhere in-between, and that's why they are more popular than ever, according to tire manufacturers and dealers.

Active segment

Touring tires, like broad-line and performance tires, are engineered for specific vehicles -- namely, sedans that are sportier than standard daily drivers but not as potent as sports cars. "The concept of the touring car is age-old, going back to the birth of the automobile," says Bob Toth, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. brand marketing manager for Goodyear performance tires. "It's a car that isn't performance and isn't just for transportation."

Goodyear introduced its first officially designated touring tire, the Eagle GA, in 1987. "At that point, we described it as 'the performance tire with manners,' and that captures (touring tires). They're sporty, aspirational and fun."

However, Toth says that some people over the years "have forgotten that the term 'touring' is supposed to define the type of tire that's supposed to go on a touring vehicle. People started slapping the touring label on just about everything and it became diluted. But touring tires still have a strong presence in consumer segmentation."

Tire manufacturers, particularly "The Big Three," certainly believe so. In January, Michelin North America Inc. unveiled its Uniroyal Tiger Paw Touring line, which is available in 36 sizes. The tire is designed for popular cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, plus mini-vans like the Dodge Caravan.

"The four major passenger car and mini-van categories -- luxury touring, near luxury, progressive mass market and traditional mass market -- accounted for approximately half" of the replacement tires sold in the United States during 2002, according to Michelin statistics. Touring tires account for roughly one-third of all mass market tires, says Thom Peebles, marketing director for BFGoodrich tires.

Two months ago, Goodyear introduced the ComforTred, which is part of the company's new, all-season Assurance line that also includes the TripleTred. (The TripleTred is more of a broad-market premium tire, according to Toth.)

The ComforTred comes in 20 sizes covering nearly 95% of the luxury car segment. It targets the Pontiac Bonneville, Lexus LS 430, Chrysler 300M and similar vehicles. Goodyear is pricing the ComforTred roughly 20% higher than similar products. The Akron, Ohio-based company has made a major commitment to its Assurance line, earmarking more than $50 million for advertising.

Also new is Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire LLC's Granadier PLE, an associate brand product that's available in 21 sizes. The domestic car market "has moved upscale a little bit," says Bill VandeWater, consumer products manager, sales and engineering, for Bridgestone/Firestone. "And tires have moved along with the market."

Trends, wants and needs

A growing number of vehicles fit the touring category, according to VandeWater. In turn, touring tire characteristics are changing in several areas, including:

1. Aspect ratios. Touring tire profiles are shrinking "but that's the way the whole industry is going. Five years ago, (it was) 70-series working toward 65. Now we're looking at 65-series being prevalent and even some 55- and 50-series on more mainstream cars."

2. Diameters. Diameters are getting bigger all the time, he says. "Fifteen-inches is definitely going down from a volume standpoint and 14-inch (tires) are virtually gone."

Sixteen-inch tires dominate the touring segment right now, according to Goodyear's Toth, with P225/60R16 being the most popular size within that range. "Sixteen-inch makes up 33% of the touring segment."

3. Speed ratings. T- and H-rated tires make up the majority of touring tire offerings, says Toth. "Part of it depends on where in the world the vehicle is sold. Some world-class touring tires (on vehicles) like the Jaguar come with maximum speed ratings. Then there are people with touring tires who think 112 miles per hour (S-rated) is plenty."

"I see S-rated tires going out of style," says VandeWater. Just about every tire that passes new TREAD (Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation) Act tire testing standards will be able to be designated as T-rated, he explains.

According to Michelin research, T-rated touring tires are growing at a rate of more than 20% a year.

That's being fueled by OE fitments that have been out for a few years," says Tim Jamison, director of Uniroyal brand marketing.

John Pecoraro, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. product segment manager, house brands, won't be surprised if V-rated tires are eventually herded into the touring fold. "H- and V-rated touring tires are already original equipment on some of the top-selling automobiles in the country, (like) the Camry and Accord, just to name two. And there are many others."

"Touring tires are primarily used as OE replacements today," says Pecoraro. "OEMs started equipping their cars with touring tires many years ago because these OE sizes were only available in touring-type tires."

Consumer expectations also define touring tires, according to manufacturers. High performance and ultra-high performance vehicle owners place considerable emphasis on handling, responsiveness and other factors that help propel their cars to maximum levels. Other factors, like tread life, are more important to downscale, broad-market car drivers.

"To a degree, tread wear is important (to touring car owners)," says Toth, "but not as important as in the mass passenger car market, which is not as passionate about driving. It's a value/economic situation. As you move from the basic economy tire on up, the importance of tread wear decreases."

Real-world benefits

David Ross, president of Ross Tires, a three-store dealership based in Lafayette, La., says tread wear is important to his touring tire customers, but so are factors like low noise levels and good wet traction.

Touring tires make up 40% of Ross Tires' total tire sales. He says consumer attitudes toward the products have changed over the years. In the past, some of his customers balked at replacing touring tires with the same products due to their cost. They would instead buy less expensive, broad-line tires. "We lost some sales."

However, Ross has won skeptics over by promoting the features and benefits of touring tires, "and that problem is now behind us. We tell them what we recommend and why we recommend it. They aren't accidental buyers anymore."

Ross also has used touring tires to quickly and inexpensively "upgrade" broad-market vehicles. "With a lot of these cars, some (mechanical part) performance isn't that good." But touring tires can help even the score. "I love the responses we get from customers who were apprehensive about putting slightly more expensive tires on their vehicles," he says. "They may have paid $150 to $200 more per set but I've never heard any complaints."

Touring tires comprise nearly half of Chicago, Ill.-based Ashland Tire & Auto Clinic Inc.'s total tire sales, according to Ashland Tire co-owner Jack Gordon. Ashland Tire caters to upscale drivers, and "most upper-level sedans like BMWs, Audis and Volvos use touring tires."

Some of his customers who are driving on touring tires try to jump to high performance and even ultra-high performance tires when replacement time rolls around. "For the most part, they're happy with their ride quality," says Gordon. However, the majority doesn't realize that going from one type of tire to another sometimes involves trade-offs.

Gordon and his partner, Ken Papas, tell customers that putting an HP or UHP tire on a car that uses touring tires may result in a stiffer, less-comfortable ride. "The average driver -- when you start explaining the difference between touring and performance -- will pick a touring tire."

Future growth

Tiremakers and dealers agree that the touring tire market will continue to grow. As in other segments, trends at the touring tire replacement level are an extension of what's happening at OE. With traditional sedans, OEMs are getting squeezed because of the ongoing growth of SUVs and other product segments, says BFG's Peebles. "They are having to differentiate these sedans and are trying to make them more sporty. We're seeing that element being played up."

Rim diameters will continue to get bigger ("you've been able to buy minivans for quite some time with 17-inch rims," says Peebles) and speed ratings on touring tires will get higher.

"The challenge for dealers will probably be SKU proliferation; it's going to continue."

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