Hot wheels, cool tires
There are two kinds of people who buy high-performance wheels and tires. One is looking to improve the appearance of their vehicle, or to customize it so they can stand out in a crowd. The other is doing something that will enhance the performance of the vehicle.
“To upgrade appearance, a lot of people will choose more aggressive looking tires and sportier looking wheels,” says John Rastetter, director of tire information services, The Tire Rack. “Wheels are very much a fashion and a function market. Lighter-weight wheels can enhance a vehicle’s performance because it doesn’t take as much energy to make them go, make them stop or hold the road around a corner.”
Rastetter says that for people who want to enhance vehicle performance, the wheel itself in many cases is the first determining factor. Then they’ll add the tire to the package. If their vehicle came with a passenger or a touring tire as original equipment, going to a high-performance or ultra-high performance (UHP) tire can take them to a new level of responsiveness, cornering and stability. That makes the car more fun to drive. And this market is about fun.
“Cars are so much better today than they were last year or the year before,” says Greg Hathcock, president of Vogue Tyre. “Car manufacturers have done such a phenomenal job of building a great product; cars that are fun to drive, responsive and efficient. UHP tires really just accentuate all the great benefits of these new cars.”
As OEMs improve product offerings, many are getting in on the UHP tire/custom wheel act.
“From our perspective, the market is leveling off,” says Rastetter. “That’s partially because so many manufacturers are offering more options as original equipment. Today, if you buy a version of a vehicle that’s got a sport package or a performance package, the wheels and tires tend to be a very important part of that. A vehicle might come with a 17-, 18- or a 19-inch wheel and tire rim diameter that is used as part of a sport package. Camaros will go up to 20-inches from the factory as part of their performance packages.” These more extreme performance packages appeal to a more extreme group of consumers. In addition to enjoying driving their cars on public streets, they will participate in autocross competitions or high-performance driver’s education events held at racetracks. Many belong to car clubs.
For these consumers, the wheels and tires help the vehicle maximize what its engine, suspension and brakes can do. For the aftermarket, if a car comes with 20-inch wheels, the consumer is less likely to want to further enhance them. Just a few short years ago, that same car might have come with 16- or 17-inch wheels.
“That is affecting our business,” says Rastetter. “We’re in the tire and wheel business. While many people will buy one set of aftermarket wheels for their car, throughout the life of the vehicle they’ll be buying several sets of tires.”
Vogue Tyre also offers tires and wheels packaged together. Hathcock says that generally, these consumers want to go with plus-size applications. He says this is becoming more common because there are more cars coming from the factory with higher speed rated tires and lower aspect ratios.
“Custom wheels are still a niche,” he explains. “I would say that the percentage of those packages that can be characterized as UHP is growing, simply because OE applications that can be characterized as UHP are growing.”
Hathcock says if you talk to several different people you’ll get several different definitions of what UHP means. He says that at Vogue, the perception of a UHP tire is anything V-speed rated and above. However, the definition keeps getting broader. UHP tires used to be purely summer tires. Now there are UHP all-season tires, and also winter tires for UHP.
“For the person who buys a vehicle that has the optional custom wheels and UHP tires on it, if they live in the north, trying to get through winter with very low-profile, very wide large rim diameter tires can be more of a challenge,” explains Rastetter. “The person who has the vehicle in the north, that’s fully optioned from the factory, may have their UHP needs met, but they’ll come to us for a winter tire and wheel solution.”
As this segment evolves, tire and wheel suppliers must keep up. As they do, there is reason for optimism in this market.
“I think it’s still going to remain strong,” says Rastetter. “No matter where you have a vehicle and original equipment, there’s always going to be a group of enthusiastic drivers who want to personalize their vehicle, to make it theirs.”
“Projections for new car sales are getting better,” says Hathcock. “The average car on the road today is almost 11 years old. So there’s clearly pent-up demand for new cars with performance wheels. When exactly that demand hits the market remains to be seen.”