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Is plus-sizing on life support, or worse?

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Is plus-sizing on life support, or worse?

At the height of the tuner craze, plus-sizing was, well, crazy. Never mind the Honda Civics, the original car of preference; owners of Cadillac Escalades fitted with 265/70R17s might go Plus-Five to 275/45R22s.

Eventually, tire manufacturers developed 32-inch passenger tires. Given enough room in the wheel well, the right adjustments to the suspension system and a deep understanding of the laws of physics, they could lead to Plus-15 fitments!

In the last 10 years, however, vehicle manufacturers have taken the hint that bigger is better, which has affected the plus-sizing trend in the aftermarket. Of the top 10 original equipment passenger tire sizes in 2002, there were seven 16-inch sizes, two 17-inch sizes and one 15-inch size. In 2011, three 16-inch sizes, five 17-inch sizes and two 18-inch sizes filled up the top 10.

American Honda Motor Co. Inc. introduced its Honda Factory Performance package at the 2011 Specialty Equipment Market Association Show. “The Honda Civic was instrumental in the first import-tuner movement in the U.S. during the ’80s,” says Bruce Smith, vice president of service and technical operations.

“The all-new Civic Si builds on that proud history by offering inspiring performance, improved fuel economy and a great platform for personalization.”

Add a lingering recession to the growth in tire sizes at the OE level, and you have a formula for a major shift in tire-buying habits.

Does that mean plus-sizing is dead? Hardly. Does it mean plus-sizing trends have changed? Definitely.

California tuning

Import car owners in California who wanted to modify or “tune” their vehicles with the help of aftermarket parts didn’t invent the concept of plus-sizing, but they embraced it. A whole industry grew up around the tuner market in the late 1990s and early 2000s as it spread eastward across the United States. That industry is still in existence, but it has evolved.

Hank Feldman, owner of the Performance Plus Tire and Auto Superstore in Long Beach, Calif., says plus-sizing has divided into several segments.

SUV/truck. “This area has probably taken the biggest hit when it comes to plus-sizing,” he says. “We have seen a major slowdown as the volume of new cars has been impacted dramatically to CUV’s. Many of the CUV’s already come with larger diameter tires and wheels that we did not initially see with the SUV/truck category.”

Import and domestic high performance vehicles (such as Camaros, Mustangs, BMWs and Chargers). “This is probably still the strongest plus fitment, in my opinion. We see robust sales in this category.”

Hot rod and vintage muscle  cars. “This is an interesting category that we do a lot of business in. Several years ago, plus-sizing was very popular. We have seen a noticeable shift back to traditional 15-inch fitments.”

Economy tuner (Nissan, Toyota, Mazda, Ford Focus, etc.). “We still see strong sales in this category. It tends to be very price sensitive.”

As for the traditional Honda Civic market that started it all, Feldman says it seems to have disappeared, based on his sales. “I do believe it will re-emerge again in the future.”

Robert Abram, product planning manager for Yokohama Tire Corp. based in Fullerton, Calif., does not think plus-sizing is dead.

“Living in Southern California, you get to see the aftermarket. I look around here and see plus-sizes all the time.”

However, the tuner market now is radically different compared to what it once was, he says. Honda Civics are not the vehicle of choice anymore. There are less extreme sizes: “At one point we had a 32-inch tire (315/30R32) as the ultimate plus-size on a Hummer, but that size is no longer active.”

And vehicle manufacturers have caught up to the market. For example, the 2002 Toyota Camry SE came with size P215/60R16 tires. On the 2012 model, the standard size is P225/45R18.

“The auto manufacturers have taken some of the steam out of the tuner market with bigger wheels. But I think plus-sizing is always going to be here.”

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One question, many answers

“Is plus-sizing dead?” That is the question we posed to a number of automotive industry professionals.

Matt Edmonds, vice president of The Tire Rack: “It’s kind of in a transition. Some sensibility has come back to the market. They are not going from 18s to 26s.

“From our aspect, they are going Plus-One or Plus-Two at the very most. There are still a lot of 24-inch and 26-inch wheels out there, but they are in the fringe market.

“I think there will always be a desire by (car owners) to personalize their vehicles.”

Carl Mercincavage, retail wheel and accessory director, Jack Williams Tire Co. Inc. in Moosic, Pa.: “No. What I’ve experienced over the last five years is that the broad range of plus-sizing has slowed down, but there are still plenty of people doing Plus-Ones and Plus-Twos.

“I’ve been in the industry 35 years. The tuner market is not what it once was, but it’s still there. For people to personalize their vehicles and make them unique, they will purchase a performance upgrade, and that could be for a passenger car, light truck or SUV. By ‘performance upgrade’ I mean 15- inch to 16- or 17-inch, maybe with a slightly wider or taller tire.”

Rick Brennan, vice president of marketing, Kumho Tire U.S.A. Inc.: “The question is not whether it is dead or not, but where is it?

“The plus-sizing craze of the ’90’s spurred tremendous growth in the UHP market as import tuner and large sport-utility vehicles began adding jewelry with the likes of large diameter wheels and ultra-low profile tires. The number of tires sold in the aftermarket was staggering, with tires sales happening just because the drivers wanted the look!

“This still happens today, but at a variety of different levels. The ‘bling’ of the past has changed dramatically with the gas price increases. Large SUVs still exist, but spending big bucks on changing the wheels and tires that came on the vehicle for looks has dropped dramatically. Much of what is sold today is at a much lower price and in brand names like Sunny, Delinte, Achilles and Durun. The sales of Toyo, Nitto, Kumho, and Hankook and to some extent Falken have dropped as the lower priced imports have taken the sales.

“These vehicles also now come with 20 inches fitted as the original equipment size, so fewer people are opting for 22 or 24 inches as the difference is relatively small.

“As a result, the aftermarket growth has slowed, and the sales reflect replacement of tires that were previously plus-sized and of newer original equipment fitments.”

Scott Sulsberger, regional sales manager, southeast, Nexen Tire America Inc.: “Is plus-sizing dead? A related question might be ‘Please comment on how the tuner market has changed in the last 10 years.’

“Plus-sizing is dying due to limited opportunities resulting from the success of the tuner market and how it has revolutionized the tire industry. Ten years ago when 17-inch tires were considered exotic, the tuner market provided the catalyst for change that has led to the proliferation of UHP sizes coming on today’s vehicles as OEM fitments.

“When the tuner market began, only a few OE sizes comprised a majority of fitments of both cars and trucks. These fitments provided a very ‘stock’ look that was conservative and safe in both appearance and performance.

“The early tuners took these boring applications and created a dramatic change to the vehicles’ cosmetic appearance and driving performance. They replaced OEM touring tires with ‘ultimate high performance tires.’ The dramatic change of a Plus-Four fitment completely changes the appearance of the vehicle. The desire for these cosmetic upgrades to vehicles led to a boom in the tuner industry.

“As time has passed and the market has evolved, the OEM automobile industry has found ways to capitalize on the consumer’s desire for the ‘tuner’ look by providing these sizes as OEM fitments or as upgrade options. Consider the rapidly expanding number of OE sizes provided today when compared to 10 years ago. Also consider the evolution of wheel diameters and lowered aspect ratios that was inspired by the tuner market.

“The Ford Flex Limited, which is not even the highest trim level available, comes standard with a 19-inch tire.

“The plus-sizing market simply doesn’t have much room to grow. The majority of the plus-sizing applications in today’s market are using older vehicles. When these vehicles are gone and are replaced by the newest vehicles in the market which come standard with tuner applications, the need to plus-size will be greatly diminished. The remaining plus-size market will be limited to only the most exotic wheel diameters, such as 20 inches and greater.”

Travis Roffler, director of marketing, Continental Tire the Americas LLC: “The plus-sizing market is weakened but definitely not dead! Plus-sizing is not a ‘need’ purchase, but a ‘want’ purchase that requires discretionary income. As with most discretionary spending, the health of the economy has a significant impact.

“The U.S. has always had a strong car culture that emphasized customizing vehicles to be unique, with tires and wheels as one of the main focal points.

“Because of this car culture, custom wheels and tires, including plus-sizing, has been and will continue to have significant market demand. We believe that as the economy recovers, the plus-sizing market (will) become stronger.”

Kevin Keefe, vice president of marketing, Hennessy Industries Inc.: “I wouldn’t say that plus-sizing is dead, but we have certainly noted a drastic reduction in plus-sizing to over 20 inches. That said, we’re seeing a lot more plus-sizing and high performance/ultra-high performance fitments in the 16-inch to 20-inch range. What’s unique about that for a tire service equipment manufacturer is that when plus-sizing was booming in the over 20-inch category, we all had to develop new models — or upgrades to existing models — to deal with the increase in wheel diameter and the challenges of servicing low profile applications.

“However, 16-inch to 20-inch applications fall right in the sweet spot of our high-volume workhorse models in terms of diameter. The challenge over the last few years has, therefore, been to continually upgrade our mainstay models to handle even the toughest HP/UHP applications... more/better assist devices, ‘leverless’ mount/demount systems, etc. And any tech will tell you that a low profile 16-inch or 18-inch tire is much tougher to mount/demount than a 20-inch-plus tire of the same aspect ratio: less distance around the wheel to allow the bead to relax, use all the necessary assist devices, etc.

“So, in our view, although tire dealers are dealing with less of the really big stuff, plus-sizing has never been more challenging from a service perspective.”

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 Its death is greatly exaggerated

“Plus-Sizing isn’t dead!” says Henry Kopacz, PR and product marketing specialist for Hankook Tire America Corp. “I just bought a plus-sized set of wheels and tires for my new VW Jetta Sportwagen TDi. The wheels that came on the Jetta were 16 inches (205/55R16). I plus-sized to a 17-inch wheel (225/45R17). I will use the stock 16-inch wheels during the winter with a set of winter tires because they have a narrower footprint.

“For aesthetic reasons, I think the 17-inch looks better on the car with the shorter sidewall. The ride is a bit more firm, and that’s a trade-off. But as an enthusiast, it doesn’t bother me. I actually like it.”

Plus-sizing may be occurring more at the OE level, but some tire manufacturers still believe there is room for extreme tire and wheel packages in the aftermarket.

Sentaida Group Co. Ltd. began manufacturing 32-inch passenger tires at its Qingdao Sentury Tire Co. Ltd. plant in China earlier this year. The company will produce the Delinte D8 and a private brand version in size 305/25R32 108W XL.

Last year, the company was building 28-inch tires. According to Maxwell Wee, director of sales for Sentaida’s Miami, Fla.-based subsidiary, Sentaida International Inc., the company also is making 30-inch tires under the Delinte brand name.

Maybe even extreme plus-sizing is alive and well.

“As we start to come out of tough economic times, before they buy new cars, owners may say, ‘put new tires and wheels on my old car’ instead,” says Tire Rack’s Edmonds. “That may be a flag that the economy is improving.” 

Pluses and minuses

The effects of increasing tire and wheel size

According to the Discount Tire Direct website, two things happen to the tire to increase performance when moving into plus sizes. “First, the tire becomes wider due to an increase in section width. This provides a larger footprint and more contact with the driving surface.

“Second, the aspect ratio is lower, resulting in a shorter sidewall. The combination of these changes offers better lateral stability and increased steering response.”

However, AKH Co. Inc., which does business as Discount Tire Centers (no relation to Discount Tire Direct) in Southern California, warns on its website that the plus-sizing of aftermarket tires and wheels on a vehicle can compromise factory components.

“Such components include, but are not specific to, suspension, brakes, steering, and tire pressure monitoring systems. Furthermore, such additions to a vehicle can also affect acceleration, performance and braking distances.”

AKH and Discount Tire Centers say they “assume no responsibility for any consequential damages due to the altering of a customer’s vehicle.”

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