AKRON-Guarantee a product ``for life''? It wouldn't appear to be in a company's best interest to do that, but two tire makers have.
Since February, Goodyear and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. have introduced replacement touring tires that carry ``lifetime'' warranties. And Michelin North America Inc. has introduced a touring tire with a similar six-year warranty.
Michelin can lay claim to having initiated the trend toward high-mileage passenger tires with the 1991 launch of the XH4, the first tire in North America to carry an 80,000-mile treadwear warranty.
A year later, Sumitomo Tire (U.S.) debuted the SC890, the first 85,000-mile tire. Most other major tire makers also have developed tires with at least 80,000-mile warranties.
But the introduction of lifetime warranties is a significant event in tire marketing, said Jim Faught, past president of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association and owner of Northwest Tire & Service in Flint, Mich.
Mr. Faught predicted additional introductions of lifetime warranties for tires are unlikely, because they could hurt sales for manufacturers and dealers alike.
``As a financial analyst, I'm not really excited about it,'' said Harry Millis of Fundamental Research Inc. ``Longer-wearing tires do have a dampening effect on the unit replacement market.''
The introduction of lifetime warranties should lower profits per mile, but it's an excellent marketing tool and should enhance short-term profits for the manufacturers, Mr. Millis said.
Goodyear claims it fired the first shot in this marketing war by developing the Infinitred tire and supporting it with the company's biggest advertising campaign-even bigger than the Aquatred program.
``It started out with a bang,'' said Steve True, Goodyear marketing manager for automobile tires. Dealers' purchases exceeded expectations, and the company's Gadsden, Ala., plant had to catch up with the orders. And Infinitred sales outstripped those of the Invicta GS, the tire it replaced, he said.
But immediately after the Infinitred's introduction via television commercials during the NCAA Basketball Tournament last March, two other tire makers attacked with big warranties of their own.
TV commercials for Michelin's X One tire, which has a six-year warranty, also appeared during the NCAA Tournament. But it's just a coincidence the X One promotion-the firm's most aggressive launch of a tire in North America-occurred simultaneously with the Infinitred release, a Michelin spokesman said.
Bridgestone/Firestone's release of the Bridgestone-brand Turanza T with a lifetime warranty wasn't a coincidence.
The Turanza T initially carried an 80,000-mile warranty. But once BFS caught wind of the Infinitred, it released its tire with the upgraded guarantee, a company spokesman said, because BFS had no doubts the tire could carry a lifetime warranty.
For the three tires, if the tread wears down to a specified level during the first three years of the warranties, the manufacturers will provide the consumer with a free new tire.
After the three years, Goodyear and BFS will provide the replacement tire at a 50-percent discount, while Michelin offers a replacement at a pro-rated price for the final three years of its warranty.
Of course, there are stipulations. The warranties are only good if the tire is on the original vehicle with the original owner. Also, they require frequent tire rotations by authorized dealers.
While the warranties are similar, marketing efforts for the tires have different targets.
The Infinitred aims at sedan owners who want to maintain their vehicles and tires for a long time, said Mr. True.
Bridgestone/Firestone was looking at high-performance and import vehicles when it designed the Turanza T.
These consumers want performance and aren't necessarily looking for a tire that will last forever, said Art Michalik, BFS's manager of Bridgestone-brand marketing. But the lifetime warranty-and the tire's ability to fulfill it-``validates the quality of the product.''
He said the Turanza T replaces the company's most popular Bridgestone tire: the Turanza S-among the first in North America to carry an 80,000-mile warranty.
Feedback from dealers has shown they are ``very pleased with the product,'' Mr. Michalik said. The Turanza package also includes a full refund if the customer isn't satisfied within a 30-day test driv e period.
Michelin's X One doesn't offer a lifetime warranty, but it could have, Michelin officials said. When the company studied consumers, it discovered that they don't see a lot of difference between lifetime and six-year warranties, said Tom Chubb, manager of Michelin-brand marketing.
In fact, a lifetime warranty can hurt credibility, he said. Steve White, manager of Michelin touring performance added: ``(Consumers) essentially don't believe it.''
In its marketing of the tire, Michelin is emphasizing a lot more than the long warranty, believing its tire's big competition will come not from the Infinitred, but the Aquatred II.
The X One also carries a Uniform Tire Quality Grading of 620, the highest of any tire.
A spokesman for Dunlop Tire Corp., which is considering lifetime warranties, agreed that consumers might not believe a lifetime warranty.
Dunlop's highest warranty is 85,000 miles-the same as its sister brand, Sumitomo-with a 100-percent guarantee on the tire's treadlife within that limit. Hankook Tire America also offers an 85,000-mile warranty on its Mileage Plus All-Season Radial.
The longest warranty for both Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp. and Continental General Tire Inc. is 80,000 miles. A Conti General spokesman said the firm is responding to the lifetime warranty issue by initiating, beginning June 1, ``service-oriented actions such as one-year road service'' and ``30 days free trial'' for three of its tire lines.
Another problem for premium tires like the X One and its rivals is price. BFS said its Turanza T sells for $87, while one Infinitred costs about $106, and an X One sells for $95.
``Considering the Turanza T's price in relation to more expensive competitive tires and its anticipated tread wear, we believe this limited lifetime warranty will be very attractive to consumers and will be an effective selling tool for our retailers,'' said Shu Ishibashi, BFS executive director of consumer tire marketing.
The Infinitred also overcomes price with an easier warranty, said Mr. Faught. ``It's easy to sell.''
The X One and all other high-mileage tires include pro-rated refunds in their warranties, he said. ``It causes a lot of dissatisfied customers.''
But with the Infinitred and the Turanza T there is ``no muss, no fuss,'' he said, making them a simple sell for the dealer.
However, a simple sell could also be a scarier sell. Mr. Faught said he's concerned that long-term warranties may go beyond these tire lines. Otherwise, dealers may sell themselves out of business, he said.
While tire makers say they have no plans to offer such long warranties on original equipment tires, Mr. Millis said he fears life-of-the-vehicle tire warranties may eventually be available OE on upper-end vehicles.