AKRON—Wider diameters, lower aspect ratios and improved all-season performance are all characteristics of a shift in the performance tire market that has manufacturers scrambling to satisfy consumers. ``There is a definite increase in wheel diameters,'' said Chris Pantani, business manager for original equipment, ultra-high-performance and motorsports with Pirelli Tire North America. He noted that the 19-inch size ``seems to be the hottest in the market right now.''
Mark Richter, performance marketing manager for Yokohama Tire Corp., noted 16- and 17-inch sizes—the largest usable sizes for those who want to customize import compact cars—have become big sellers.
``These people are taking what used to be known as an economy car and fixing it up to make it look more sporty and more unique,'' he said.
``For the last couple of years, it's certainly been the largest growth segment in the entire automotive aftermarket,'' said Bill Bainbridge, director of marketing for Toyo Tire U.S.A. He called it the ``international performance market'' and said sales of 17-, 18- and 19-inch tires are ``the new wave.''
As wheels get larger, aspect ratios are getting smaller. Drivers want the high-performance feel of tires that have smaller sidewalls.
``A lot of standard vehicles have pushed it (aspect ratio) from where it used to be, 60- to 65-series. Now they're down to 55- to 50-series,'' Mr. Pantani said.
He said ``35-s and 40-s are real hot right now.'' And last year Pirelli introduced a 25-series tire (335/25R19).
This month Yokohama will debut an ultra-high-performance tire—the AVS Sport—in 30- to 55-series with 16- to 20-inch sizes
According to Mr. Richter, the general population wants a tire ``that does many things well at all times.'' But many of the drivers upgrading imports are not asking for all-season tires, he added.
``The biggest demand we're hearing,'' Mr. Bainbridge said, ``is that it's got to work in the wet.'' He said even customers in mostly-dry Southern California want a performance tire that works in the rain.
Pirelli recently launched the Scorpion Zero, an ultra-high-performance tire for the light truck and sport utility vehicle markets. Mr. Pantani said many drivers of high-end cars like Porsches and BMWs are purchasing sport-utility vehicles which they want to handle like a car.
The Scorpion comes in 15- to 20-inch sizes, but he said most purchases are for plus-size changeovers of SUVs. ``As much as 19-inch sizes are going on cars,'' Mr. Pantani said. ``The 18-inch tires are going on SUVs right now.''
Last November, Toyo introduced the Proxes ST line designed for light trucks and SUVs and it's been very successful, Mr. Bainbridge said. ``We can't make enough of these, particularly in 18- and 20-inch sizes.''
Toyo will introduce a new ultra-high-performance product later this year, skewed for the younger market, but Mr. Bainbridge wouldn't reveal any details.
Mr. Richter and Mr. Pantani agreed that increasing performance tire sales can boost a dealer's profits to a greater degree than regular all-season or touring tires. Mr. Pantani noted that dealers can package high- or ultra-high-performance tires with custom wheels for even greater profits.
However, Mr. Bainbridge said the margins on performance tires may have slipped a little in the last year due to increased price competition and the sluggish economy in Asia. But, he added, ``we're finding that margins are very good.''
Another feature of interest for price-conscious customers are mileage warranties. But many companies don't offer them on upscale tire lines, and Mr. Richter said they may not be as important to these drivers.
``They are more apt to know the value of an alignment before they wear out their $1,000 set of tires prematurely," he added.
``We believe that the independent tire dealer is where tires, especially ultra-high-performance, can and should be sold,'' said Mr. Bainbridge. He believes knowledgeable consumers will get better service.
``The international performance segment is enormous and it's not just a California thing,'' Mr. Bainbridge said.