STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.—Spotted in the Rocky Mountains: a flurry of new Blizzak-technology tires from Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. The tires will be available in three versions: the Blizzak WS-50, for snow and some ice; the low-profile Blizzak MZ-01, which—like the MZ-02 introduced earlier this season—is designed for those who encounter more ice than snow; and the Bridgestone Winter Dueler, a light truck tire with Blizzak technology.
That's welcome news for dealers like David Price of Ziegler Tire in Canton, Ohio, who joined about 180 tire dealers and journalists Jan. 19 at Bridgestone/Firestone's Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs for a preview of the newest-generation Blizzaks.
Heavy snow storms in Ohio in January coated roads with ice an inch thick—a marked difference from the two previous mild winters.
``We hadn't sold a Blizzak in two-and-a-half years, and then we had that storm in mid-January and nobody could get anywhere,'' he said. ``We sold a ton of them (Blizzaks) in two weeks. In fact, I put them on my car.''
Mr. Price, who is Ziegler Tire's retail sales manager, explained the Blizzaks' appeal. ``People are coming in because they can't get around on their all-season tires. If you put a set of Blizzaks on a front-wheel-drive car, it's like a tank. Even the guys with the four-wheel-drives who think they're invincible are out there sliding around on `all-season' tires.''
Bridgestone said the new Blizzak WS-50 generates better snow and ice traction, thanks to a new tread pattern featuring an enhanced type of multicell tread compound. That compound, called ``tube multicell,'' works by creating millions of microscopic tubes and pores that better displace the thin layer of water that forms on snow and ice. In addition to better grip on ice and snow, the new tread pattern also improves wet and dry handling.
The Winter Dueler and MZ-02 get their own compound, called ``link'' multicell. This offers the same advantages as the tube multicell but is slightly softer, which increases ice traction.
No matter which form of multicell, the Nashville, Tenn.-based company said even the edges of the tiny structures get into the act by biting into snow and ice. To demonstrate, Bridgestone product managers set up their own version of ``Reality Bites.'' Identically sized strips of three different tire-surface compounds were placed on boards. Hand-held, illuminated microscopes revealed the tiny ``landscape'' of each surface. The effect was graphically demonstrated when ice cubes, rubbed into all three strips several times to form a bond, almost all stuck to the WS-50 strip the longest when the board was tilted.
Impromptu ``science fair'' exercises may be a fun way to drive home a point, but what's it like from the driver's seat?
To find out, WS-50s (nicknamed ``The New WinterBiter''), Winter Duelers and MZ-02s (a.k.a. ``IceGripper'') were fitted to a mini-test fleet of Toyota Camry sedans, Isuzu Trooper SUVs and BMW 3 Series.
The Camrys were used to evaluate the WS-50s' acceleration, handling and braking against the current equivalent, the WS-15. The showdown took place on the Winter Driving School's track. Onboard computers generated the relevant numbers from ``hot laps'' consisting of drag-race type starts, a slalom and a braking area. Results showed performance generally improved with the WS-50s.
The Winter Duelers were put through their paces using the Troopers fitted with either the Winter Duelers, which are scheduled to ship to dealers in September, or Bridgestone's older SUV winter tire.
Company officials said the Winter Duelers will help four-wheel-drive owners who often ``have a false sense of security.'' Four-wheel-drive helps to launch the vehicle but does not improve braking or provide increased cornering ability, they said.
The Winter Duelers' soft tread compound is designed for snow and ice on streets and highways—not off-roading, said Phil Pacsi, product marketing manager for BFS.
The BMWs were put through their paces on a local ice rink. Fresh MZ-02s were first run against similar Michelin Arctic Alpins, which, Bridgestone officials said, come closest to the Blizzaks' performance. Braking and acceleration were better with the MZ-equipped BMWs.
Both the MZs and WS-50s will have winter tire compound in the last 45 percent of the tread. Previously, that portion of tread consisted of an all-weather compound, a detail Michelin took some pokes at in marketing its Arctic Alpins.
The new MZ-01/MZ-02, WS-50 and Winter Dueler are purpose-built winter tires. They are meant to be put on at the beginning of the winter and taken off in the spring. The tires' normal tread life is three seasons, officials said.
Several dealers present at the Steamboat Springs gathering said most motorists opt for swapping winter and conventional tires seasonally instead of buying four extra wheels. Many dealers offer Blizzak buyers coupons good for three years of free changeovers.
``It's a good service and an opportunity,'' said Max Maust of Jensen Tire, a 13-store independent dealership in Omaha, Neb. ``We even keep a record of the customers, and we call them in the fall and tell them to come in for their free change-over. It works out real well.''
In 1994, Mr. Maust said, he put a set of Blizzaks on his wife's then- new Ford Crown Victoria. ``She's a school teacher, and she has to go out even in the winter. She was always apprehensive, and the Blizzaks changed everything. Now she goes to work and the store and doesn't even worry. She's my best salesman. And these new Blizzaks are even better.''
Bridgestone devised braking tests using MZ-02s and Michelin Arctic Alpins that had been shaved of about 75 percent of their tread. The BMWs pulled to the side shod with the Bridgestones when the brakes were applied, demonstrating the tire's grip after being worn.
The lower layers of tire material, however, are relatively unimportant, said Mark Cox, executive director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School. Drivers, he said, have to remember that the tread pattern, depth and the sipes do the lion's share of the work in a winter tire. When they're gone, so is the best braking and handling. ``Performance equals safety. Period,'' he said.
Mr. Cox said Blizzaks have revitalized the winter tire market. ``In the early '70s, the concept of the all-season tire was born,'' he explained. ``Some of the early all-season tires were pretty decent. They had an aggressive tread, which gave a rougher ride and more road noise. But the (automobile) manufacturers wanted a quieter, smoother ride. So the tire industry was kind of a victim of its own hype. Winter tire sales started dwindling.''
In 1993, when Blizzaks were introduced in North America, snow tires accounted for less than 2 percent of the U.S. replacement market, Mr. Pasci said. Currently, it's approaching 5 percent, thanks, in part, to the Blizzak.
In 1993, BFS sold 164,000 Blizzaks in Canada and the United States. The next year, the number shot up to 472,000. In 1997, 828,000 were sold.
Bridgestone apparently is banking on increasing its market share by developing a ``multi-sell'' approach: Blizzaks to match distinct type of driving, vehicle and driving style.
That sits well with tire professionals like Nelson Diaz, from the Bridgestone/Firestone store in North Wales, Pa. ``A lot of people who drive performance cars don't have a second car. Now there's a tire for them. Wet traction is going to be a lot better,'' referring to the 50- and 55-series MZ-01s, which will be distinguishable by a wider center groove.
Dealers said they could sell even more Blizzaks if they and Bridgestone did more advertising. ``We've got to get the word out,'' said Dan Griffin of Portland, Ore. ``A lot of people don't know about them. They'll come in asking for a studded tire and I'll show them the Blizzak.''
The light truck/SUV Blizzak, he added, can't get here soon enough.
``Light trucks are a lot more prevalent than cars," he said. "People are buying those things left and right. Before, we really didn't have a product for them. Some of my store managers were screaming a little bit about not having a light-truck Blizzak.''