CHARLOTTE, N.C.-Blame the OE vehicle manufacturers.
They seem to have staffers sitting around just dreaming up new designs for their rides. More room in the wheel well for bigger tires and wheels? Sure...how big? No problemo. You want this baby to corner on a dime? OK. You want change with that?
The problem arises when some design guy in Motown turns his CAD screen to a tire guy and says, ``Make your tires work with this car.'' Such is the challenge any tire company faces-and more specifically, those supplying the high-performance tire variety to insatiable car makers that keep pushing the specifications envelope.
But that's not all bad.
Continental Tire North America (CTNA) Inc. has continued to show an uptick in its high-performance tire sales, in part because ``the market has been trending toward a higher percentage of performance tires than in the past,'' said Jim Mayfield, the company's director of marketing.
Why? ``Vehicle characteristics keep changing,'' he replied. ``New vehicles coming from OE manufacturers are being required to do different things than they have in the past,'' including perform at different levels in terms of handling, cornering capabilities etc. And ``performance tires are part of that mix of chassis performance.''
Mr. Mayfield doesn't foresee any slowing of HP tire sales, despite a sluggish economy. That's due to the fact ``there's a large and growing population of vehicles that require tires that provide the handling and ride that a performance tire offers.'' Consumers, it seems, are as unquenchable as auto designers when it comes to getting the utmost performance out of their vehicles-and tires.
Charlotte-based CTNA has a program under development for the North American market that will see the introduction in April 2002 of an ultra-high-performance all-season Conti-brand tire. ``We haven't had an all-season Conti tire in the past and feel it's important to capture that part of that segment,'' he said. The company's German parent, Continental A.G., recently debuted in Europe its high-performance Conti Sport Contact II, which will bow in North America next spring as well.
The Continental product line represents ``the ultra-high-performance categories and the highest levels of technology that we have available,'' Mr. Mayfield said. Upcoming Conti-brand tires, he predicted, will be driven by new OE fitments including Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
On the General product side, meanwhile, the company will target families and consumers not seeking a performance line. As part of its efforts to revamp a product line that's been on the market for a number of years, CTNA plans next spring to debut an H-rated tire ``to make sure we have an updated size lineup and performance characteristics that really meet today's vehicle requirements,'' Mr. Mayfield explained.
While its General brand is more broadline-focused, the company also is looking ``to re-introduce the General brand to Generation-X and Generation-Y consumers,'' he said.
Some tire makers may be praying that the market will soon hit a saturation point on continually increasing tire and wheel sizes as a result of wheel well clearance. Mr. Mayfield admitted that is a concern, but noted: ``With each line of new vehicles, the styling aspect and desire to make that vehicle look unique in the marketplace has kept OE manufacturers designing vehicles that have more room for tire-wheel packages.
``So as long as new vehicles are being designed to be able to accommodate that, I don't know that we're maxed out yet. The trends we're continuing to see are larger rim diameters and lower aspect ratio tires.''
Another growing trend is the customization of sport-utilities and pick-ups with special light truck tire-wheel packages. Over the past couple years ``the OE business has driven that segment for us, with our work on some of the European SUVs specifically,'' he said. ``We have products we offer for performance SUVs, and we're starting a project to look at the North American market and, specifically, the tuner segment of the SUV product line in order to have products that really suit consumers' needs and taste.''
Those consumers, he added, are ``very conscious'' of the look of tires and wheels on their vehicles.
CTNAhasn't recently tracked whether more women are buying performance tires. However, the tire maker is in the process of revamping its North American marketing organization, he said. ``Some of the things we want to do are take a closer look at the consumer base, who is buying our product and how we create the message to attract those buyers.''
The company's current marketing group runs in tandem with its sales organization. But ``we're going to target resources at developing a marketing department that's much broader in its scope of responsibility,'' he said, ``in creating the type of marketing intelligence and consumer research that needs to be done today.''