ST. MORITZ, Switzerland—Goodyear, whose 1972 introduction of the Tiempo touched off an avalanche of all-season passenger tires that nearly buried the traditional snow-tire market in the U.S., now hopes to reverse the winter tire's long downhill slide. At a European gathering for the North American tire and automotive press and selected dealers Jan. 23-29, Goodyear officials unveiled the newest additions to a growing ``family'' of tires they hope will persuade North American motorists to trade their all-seasons for true winter designs.
In the process, the company hopes to revitalize the U.S. winter tire market, expanding it from 8 million to 20 million units per year.
New to the firm's winter-tire offerings is the Goodyear Ultra Grip, which is replacing four existing lines: the F32, Goodyear's all-time best-selling snow tire, as well as the Ultra Grip N, Ultra Grip NHV and Ultra Grip HP lines.
Goodyear also will introduce a light truck version to the North American market—the Wrangler Ultra Grip—which debuted in Europe in 1998. The Wrangler Ultra Grip will come in five sizes from 225/75R15 to 245/70R16.
These lines join the recently introduced Ultra Grip Ice and Eagle Ultra Grip to comprise a ``family'' of winter tires the company said perform as well in rain and on dry pavement as on snow and ice.
Departing from traditional design practices, all four tires are molded with directional treads to reduce hydroplaning and increase traction when snow and ice turn to slush, said Lyn Lovell, Goodyear's manager of passenger tire programs for North America.
They also feature densely concentrated tread blades that heighten grip and shorten braking distances on slippery roads. Stiffer tread blocks on the tires' shoulders improve steering response and increase treadlife, she said.
Three of the four winter tires—the Ultra Grip Ice, Eagle Ultra Grip and Wrangler Ultra Grip—have silica-enhanced tread compounds that retain flexibility in extreme cold, helping to maintain traction on ice.
The new Ultra Grip, which does not have a silica-reinforced tread, is pinned for studs.
Compared with its F32 predecessor, the Ultra Grip offers a 5-percent improvement in snow and wet handling, 8-percent better ice braking and 16-percent greater dry handling, the company said. It also delivered 15-percent greater treadlife. The Ultra Grip will be offered in 17 sizes, from P185/70R14 to P235/75R15.
Goodyear hopes these and future products will have North American consumers emulating tire-buying practices in Europe, where
winter designs account for about 15 percent of the 170 million passenger tires sold annually.
In 1972, before the Tiempo's debut, 19 million winter tires were sold in the U.S. Today, the winter tire market is down to 8 million units or 4.5 percent of replacement tire shipments.
Jean-Jacques Wiroth, marketing director for Goodyear North America, said the company also wants to boost its share of the domestic winter tire market—currently estimated at 23 percent— by 25 percent during the 1999-2000 selling season and double it within three years.
To achieve this, he said the company and the industry will have to educate North American consumers on the need for true winter tires.
That, he said, is why Goodyear invited the media to Switzerland's Alpine region, where a majority of drivers use winter tires, which account for 50 percent of all tires sold there.
Initially, the construction features and proprietary tread compounds of the Ultra Grip family will be offered only in Goodyear's flag brand and not in its Kelly-Springfield or other associate lines, officials said.
Visiting journalists and dealers tested the tires' abilities on wet pavement at Goodyear's European technical center in Luxembourg, as well as on ice- and snow-covered roads at the company's test sites in St. Moritz.
While touring the technical center, journalists saw—for the first time ever—the computer-controlled lasers the company has used to replace traditional hand carving when creating the intricate tread patterns of prototype test tires. This technology has cut the time needed to produce test tires from days to hours.
Officials said Goodyear will immediately begin molding the Rubber Manufacturers Association's new ``severe-snow'' designation on the sidewalls of tires in the Ultra Grip lines. The mountain/snowflake symbol attests to a tire's ability to meet voluntary performance requirements under severe-snow conditions. (See related story on page 5.)
``Our emphasis on superior snow performance and safety fits perfectly with this new industry standard,'' Mr. Wiroth said.
After two decades of advertising all-season tires, the firm faces an uphill battle to re-educate U.S. consumers on the virtues of winter tires.
John Tomin, marketing manager for broad market tires, said U.S. motorists have developed a fondness for all-season tires, despite their inability to provide maximum snow traction, particularly important in the northern U.S. and Canada. A traditional winter tire provides about 25-percent better snow traction than a typical all-season tire, Goodyear said.
Bob Toth, marketing manager for high-performance tires, said 83 percent of all performance-car owners drive their vehicles in the winter, yet only 5 percent change to winter tires. ``That is startling, but considering that many of these vehicles are rear-wheel-drive, you can easily recognize the huge potential for a reliable winter performance tire,'' he said.