More UHP tires are turning up at OE, but dealers say replacing them isn't always easy: Inventory, sticker shock and size proliferation make them a hard sell in some cases

Feb. 1, 2004

Last month's Detroit Auto Show was the forum chosen by several tire manufacturers to announce major ultra-high performance tire original equipment fitments.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. announced it will supply both the 2004 Cadillac CTS-V and 2005 Corvette with UHP Eagle run-flat tires. (In the photo: The 2005 Corvette will ride on Goodyear Eagle F1 GS-2 EMT run-flat tires in P85/35ZR19 for the rear and P245/40ZR18 for the front.)

Michelin North America Inc. (MNA) declared it will provide two different BFGoodrich brand UHP tires for the 2005 Mustang GT.

And Pirelli Tire North America Inc. revealed it will supply its P Zero Nero UHP tire for the 2005 Mustang GT.

A stroll through any auto show or new car dealership will confirm that more cars are coming from the factory outfitted with UHP tires than ever before. This trend can mean big bucks for prepared dealers.

Thirty-three-percent of drivers replace their OE tires (any type) with the same tire brand and model at first replacement, according to Mike Martini, president of consumer original equipment for Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire LLC (BFNT).

The rest are open to suggestion. "Consumers are ready for someone to tell them how to match their driving needs and wants," says Martini.

Precision products

The list of tire manufacturers with UHP tires on model year 2004 domestic and imported sports and luxury cars continues to grow. Here are just a few:

* Bridgestone Corp.'s Bridgestone RE050 has fitments on the 2004 S-Class Mercedes (P245/45R18 front, P265/45R18 rear); Enzo Ferrari (P245/35ZR19 front; P345/35R19 rear); and the BMW 6-Series (P245/45R18 front, P275/40R18 rear). The P235/45R17 93W Bridgestone Turanza EL42 also is OE on the 2004 Acura TL.

* Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s Eagle RS-A has fitments on the 2004 Monte Carlo SS (P235/55R17 98W), Pontiac Grand Am (P225/50R16 91V), Mini Cooper S (205/45R17 84V), Mitsubishi Eclipse (P215/50R17 90V), Infiniti FX45 (P265/50R20 106V), and Lexus RX330 (P235/55R18 99V).

* Groupe Michelin's Pilot Sport ZP has won positions on the 2004 Dodge Viper (P275/35ZR18 front, P345/30ZR19 rear). MNA's Pilot Sport PS2 is OE on the 2004 BMW Alpina Roadster Z8 (P255/35ZR20 front, P285/30ZR20 rear), the Audi TT (AB) Quattro (P225/35ZR18) and the Porsche Carrera GT (P265/35ZR19 front, P335/30ZR20 rear).

* Pirelli Tire North America (PTNA)'s P Zero Rosso has fitments on the 2004 BMW 745Li (P245/45VR19 front, P275/40YR19 rear) and Mercedes CLK (P225/45WR17 front, P245/40WR17 rear). PTNA's P Zero System can be found on the 2004 Jaguar XJR (P255/35ZR19) and Jaguar S-Type (P235/50ZR17).

Last June, Hankook Tire America Corp. announced a light truck tire fitment on the Ford F-150 pickup and, more recently won fitment on Ford's Econoline van. But Hankook has yet to snag a UHP car position.

Supply vs. demand

The proliferation of UHP tires at the OE level is mainly being driven by auto manufacturers, according to Tom Chubb, MNA vice president of marketing for OE. "They want a certain level of performance and often find that a UHP tire provides that."

OEM demands vary from company to company, says Kevin Kramer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. vice president of original equipment. "But they're always looking for a bridge across all variables -- traction, wet and dry braking, even rolling resistance. And of course, price is still a significant issue."

Balancing the wants of auto manufacturers vs. tiremaker profitability remains an endless struggle. Several years ago, then-Goodyear Chairman, CEO and President Sam Gibara told investors that Goodyear would become more selective in the OE fitments it pursued with auto manufacturers in order to ensure maximum returns. That policy is still in place at "Big Blue," says Kramer, even when it comes to performance vehicles.

"At the end of the day, it has to do with making money at OE. We need to make sure the economics hold together to make it a good proposition for us."

Ricardo Cichi, PTNA vice president of sales and marketing, is more blunt. "We're doing what the car manufacturer requests. If they want a pink tire, we'll do a pink tire! They are the driving force."

18 and legal

"We're seeing a trend toward larger sizes," says Chubb. "And that extends beyond UHP tires."

Sixteen-inch passenger sizes have reached critical mass, he believes, and "17-inch (sizes), interestingly, will be plateauing in 2004 or 2005."

Eighteen-inch car tires are still more popular than 20-inch tires "and we see the trend going up," according to Kramer.

When one OEM successfully makes a bold tire move, the others usually fall in line, says Kramer. "They all chase each other."

Ultimately, the tires -- UHP or otherwise -- that do end up on vehicles are based on consumer preference, says Kramer. "The OEMs do a lot of work in benchmarking across the competition and with focus groups. They have to get grounded on what the end user wants. And they have to make it work within the architecture of the vehicle itself."

Price, inventory issues

Jim McHugh, owner of Tire Town, a single-location dealership on the west side of Chicago, is seeing more ultra-high performance tires on factory direct cars, "and we're not even that close to an affluent area."

Many of the cars are expensive European models like BMWs and Audis, he says. The proliferation of UHP tires "is making it tougher to stock all the right sizes. It used to be you could stock 12 different sizes and cover 90% of the market, but that's not the case anymore."

They cost how much?!

The impact of the OE UHP tire trend on Denver, Colo.-based Meadow Creek Tire Wholesale Inc.'s retail sales has been minimal at best because the tires are pricey, according to Meadow Creek General Manager George Osborne. "The biggest problem is that the average guy who buys these cars has no idea what (replacement) tires cost. These people are having coronaries" when they are told.

Many of the UHP tires coming out on OE cars "are burning up" after just 15,000 to 20,000 miles, says Osborne, whose dealership sells Falken, Sumitomo, Yokohama and Nokian brand UHP products.

"But the car salesman isn't going to tell customers that because he wants to sell a $40,000 car. It's always the tire shop's fault. They think we're trying to rip them off." Many of his customers opt for less expensive replacement tires.

As a wholesaler, the multiplication of UHP sizes at OE can be frustrating as well, says Osborne. Retail or wholesale, "all I can do is give customers the best price I can. We're winning some and we're losing some."

More in store

The trend toward more UHP OE tires will continue, according to manufacturers.

BFNT's Martini points to Europe as a template. "If we reflect on the European market vs. North America, the European market has utilized higher speed ratings for quite some time and the North America market is doing the same."

"In North America, we can't travel at (European) speeds," but the handling properties and other qualities that UHP tires offer make the products attractive to domestic buyers.

From UHP replacement to UHP OE?: 'No plans right now,' says Cooper, despite UHP sales success

It's been nearly a year since Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. jumped into the ultra-high performance market with its Zeon 2XS line.

"Within two years, we'll be innovators in this field," Carl Casalbore, Cooper vice president of high performance development and retail sales, told dealers at the time.

The Findlay, Ohio-based tiremaker certainly is making a concentrated effort. Cooper plans to add 17 UHP sizes to its Zeon XS2 line, which is already available in 30 sizes, in 2004, including 19- and 20-inch sizes.

Earlier this month, Cooper launched its Sport SLE summer UHP tire. The W-rated product comes in 10 sizes up to 17 inches in diameter. "Over the course of the next two quarters, we'll probably add another 18 sizes," Z-rated and up, with a maximum size of 18 inches. Cooper also is rolling out the Cooper ZPT, an H-rated product with 17 sizes that targets the sport compact tuner market.

"As the UHP market unravels, we're keeping our finger on the pulse." Cooper is currently selling out of its UHP tires, according to Casalbore.

Will the company's UHP success push it into the original equipment market, where it does not have a presence? While Cooper communicates with OEMs to keep on top of trends, it has no plans to enter that arena right now, says Casalbore. "At least at this point, we're holding off on it. It's very difficult to make money at OE. You have to justify what it's going to do to (your) company."