DETROIT—Michelin North America plans to introduce its MXV4 ZP (zero pressure) run-flat tire to the aftermarket sometime in July for family sedans including the Mazda 626, Ford Contour, Saab 900 and Honda Accord. The replacement market version of the MXV4 ZP will be pricey, and motorists will have to equip their cars with add-on tire pressure monitors. But if aftermarket demand is strong enough, Michelin hopes some automakers will adopt the tires as original equipment.
``Our own research has shown that interest in the tire runs across all demographic groups,'' said Steve White, Michelin marketing manager. ``Interest among consumers seems to be across the board.''
The marketing potential is obvious. A motorist can drive a vehicle with a flat up to 50 miles or so before changing the tire.
Ford Motor Co. offers Michelin's run-flat as an option on the Lincoln Continental. Michelin has not signed contracts to supply the tires as original equipment to other automakers.
But Michelin's aftermarket gambit seems certain to raise the stakes in its battle with Goodyear. With North American market shares of 37 and 30 percent, respectively, Goodyear and Michelin are struggling to establish technological dominance.
Goodyear unveiled its Aquatred tire, and developed a run-flat tire for the Chevrolet Corvette and the Plymouth Prowler. Michelin countered with the ``green'' tire, which provides superior fuel economy through lower rolling resistance.
Given the tire industry's price competition—original-equipment tires typically are priced under $30 apiece—such innovations are the only way suppliers can maintain healthy profit margins.
``The lead time on new products has shrunk,'' said Harry Millis, an industry analyst in Cleveland. ``Everybody is trying to differentiate their tires, but it doesn't take long for competitors to come up with a comparable product.''
Michelin is making its move in the wake of the successful debut of its run-flat tires in March 1996 on the Lincoln Continental as a $750 option.
A built-in pressure sensor warns the driver if a tire is losing air. The motorist can drive up to 50 miles at 55 mph after getting a flat.
However, the Continental requires special wheel rims for the tires. Michelin's new tires can be mounted on ordinary wheel rims.
The new tire will cost about $45 to $50 more than a conventional tire. An aftermarket pressure sensor—dubbed Smartire, built by Unicom Signal in Vancouver, British Columbia—will cost $300 to $400. At those prices, it's not clear how many consumers will buy Michelin's run-flat tires.
By contrast, Goodyear markets its run-flat tires as high-performance products for low-volume sports cars. Goodyear's tire debuted as an option on the 1994 Chevrolet Corvette, which no longer carries a spare tire or jack.
Goodyear scored another coup when Chrysler Corp. decided to install run-flats on the upcoming Plymouth Prowler.
But Goodyear account executive Bill Aldendifer predicts run-flats will be limited to low-volume vehicles for the next five years or so.
With their extra-stiff construction, run-flats offer a somewhat stiffer ride than conventional tires, Mr. Aldendifer added. That does not matter so much for sports cars, but sedan owners might object.
Most mass-market tires have high sidewalls. It's difficult to design such a tire with sidewalls stiff enough to survive the loss of air pressure. The tire's high cost and added weight are two more negatives.
However, sport-utility vehicles might offer a promising market for run-flats, according to Mr. Aldendifer. Full-sized spares eat up a lot of space, posing a major packaging headache.
With run-flat tires, automakers could eliminate the spare, freeing up more room for luggage and passengers.
But it might be a while before the majority of motorists are ready to give up their spare-tire security blanket.
``It would be convenient not to have to change flats, but motorists like the security of a spare,'' said Chevrolet's Fred Gallasch, assistant brand manager for the Corvette. ``You have to evaluate the market very cautiously to see if customers want a spare.''