SANTA FE SPRINGS, Calif.-At first glance, the claims appear to be just more ``snake oil.'' How many times have motorists concerned with rising gasoline prices heard of products that boast ``better fuel economy,'' or a ``boost in power,'' lower exhaust emissions and improved engine performance?
All too often, some say.
In that ultra-competitive market of underhood bolt-on devices that contend they do everything and make your teeth bright, Jay Kim is swimming among skeptics.
When the president of Tornado Air Management Systems began promoting a product he'd been developing for 10 years that did the above (except the dental part), people politely smiled and said, ``Yeah, sure.''
Undaunted, in 1993 Mr. Kim began U.S. distribution of his ``Tornado'' product-invented by his brother, a Korean automotive engineer-and it appears he's begun turning some, but not all, of that dubious crowd into believers.
According to Mr. Kim, the company-a division of Cyclone USA Inc., based in Santa Fe Springs-marketed the units last year to more than 14,000 customers, including a number of new-car dealerships, tire dealerships, automotive parts distributors and jobbers.
The Tornado features a simple enough design: The blades and holes in the stainless steel turbine wheel-shaped device are said to accelerate the flow of air into the combustion chamber of the engine. The company said that creates finer particles (atomized fuel) that expose more fuel and oxygen to the spark plug firing plane, thus allowing better flame ignition and more complete combustion.
For carburated vehicles, installation consists of removing the air filter cover and placing the Tornado into the housing and over the carb. Smaller versions fit inside air intake hoses for fuel-injected systems. The company said the units come in 30 different configurations that fit 98 per-cent of the vehicles on the road today-and can even be fitted to boat engines.
Mr. Kim, who came to the U.S. in 1982 from Seoul, South Korea, told TIRE BUSINESS his product underwent ``intensive'' testing by California Environmental Engineering, an emissions laboratory fully licensed by the California Air Resources Board and recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
``Their results indicated an improvement of 7 to 24 percent on highway mileage,'' he said.
The Tornado not only boosts engine power, Mr. Kim said, but has the potential to boost profits for tire dealers and auto service shops looking for a simple device to sell customers that takes minutes to install and can help increase a vehicle's fuel economy. The unit's cost to jobbers is about $46; it retails for $69.95.
Rod Huey, vehicle maintenance superintendent for Green County, near Dayton, Ohio, installed the Tornado in only a few of the county's more than 100 vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, because it would be too costly to equip the entire fleet.
Nonetheless, he found that ``the product does work.'' The county monitored its computerized gas receipts on its vehicles, he said, and tried a ``placebo effect,'' installing the Tornados without alerting drivers. They told Mr. Huey the vehicles ``idle better, run better-`What did you do?'*''
The county's S-10 trucks with ``undersized'' 2.8-litre engines ran better and easier and saw at least a half-mile-per-gallon improvement in gas mileage, he said, and the product ``never wears out.''
Dapper Tire Co., a primarily Goodyear wholesaler with five locations in Southern California, distributes the Tornado, mainly to Fedco Inc., a mass merchandiser with nine tire centers. Best Value Tire Inc. in Huntington Beach had been buying the Tornado from Dapper, but has since stopped selling it.
Terry Hewitt, manager of Dapper's Garden Grove facility, said the company concentrates on tires, so it doesn't push the Tornado very hard, selling it for $49.99.
``I put it in my jeep,'' he said, ``and there's instant gratification for more power. And then after I got finished hotrodding around, I did find that there's better fuel efficiency when I got back to my regular driving habits.''
Barry Barsamian, a Fedco assistant vice president and tire centers operations manager, reported that one of the company's auto centers recently sold 110 units.
In his 18 years as an automotive buyer and almost 30 years in automotive repair, he said the Tornado is the first device he has ever used that delivered instant results in terms of overall performance.
``It is a product that really works,'' he said. ``A few customers asked for refunds, but then they came back and bought them again when they realized they really made a noticeable difference.''
However, at Best Value Tire it was a different story. Co-owner Steve Abersold said the dealership sent back three pairs of customers' Tornados, as well as the store's entire inventory of the units. ``We had to do four refunds to customers because they weren't noticing much if any increase in horsepower or gas mileage, which is the whole idea behind the product.''
Mr. Abersold said another shop down the street is selling the Tornado, ``and has had success with them. That's one of the reasons we tried them.
``But it just wasn't bangin' for us.''