Imagine a world where young car enthusiasts changed larger, flashier wheels and tires about as often as their newest Oakley sunglasses? Well imagine no more.
If visions of ringing up $5,000 to $8,500 in wheel-and-tire packages-even in the midst of today's economic doldrums-have you salivating for sales, then you'd better start thinking youth. Boutique. Fashion. Turbocharger boost. Babes. Tunes. And tuners.
Tuners are persons, manufacturers or shops that specialize in aftermaket accessories for a particular vehicle. At the lower end of the market, the Honda Civic and Accord, as well as the Mitsubishi Eclipse, are ubiquitous to the point of boredom. But they're heavy-hitters in the grand scheme of things. (BMWs, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus are the vehicles of choice at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum.)
``It's an exploding market,'' said Mark Richter of Yokohama Tire Corp., which last May debuted its Parada line targeted exclusively at what it calls the ``Street Tuner'' market. He and other industry observers say that the young (18 to 24, heavily Asian) buyers, most of them male, are into performance like the muscle car buyers of the '60s and '70s, but with a twist.
``Their car is part of their entertainment,'' said Mr. Richter, manager of Yokohama's high-performance marketing. ``They hang out with their buddies and girlfriend. They're saying, `I have the car, the clothes, the tunes. I like interactive things such as skateboarding and traditional sports.' It's all intertwined.
``They want to take this regular `commuter scooter'-Hondas are great, reliable, efficient, well-built cars, but they're economy cars-and make it more sporty. Everyone wants the image of real sports cars with a heritage. These kids are changing the character of these cars and making them more unique.''
Standard tricks in said changeover kit include stereos, DVD players and monitors, pearl Day-Glo paint jobs, racing seats, instruments and decals. But an important order of business is a set of ``dope'' (translation: cool) wheels and tires. Suspension modifications are often done at the same time.
``It's almost a fashion market. It makes a statement,'' said Mike Leverington, marketing director for Kumho Tire USA Inc. From a brand-awareness perspective, he added, having a tuner tire line tells these buyers, ``You've got the latest stuff; the most up-to-date fitment.''
Even though the Korean firm has never billed itself as a performance tire maker, retailers like 1010tires.com report that Kumho's Ecsta Supra 712 has caught on with tuner-types.
``It is a well-priced, quality tire available in a large selection of tuner sizing,'' said Darrell Shore of 1010tires, the online arm of British Columbia-based Volco Tires and Wheels. ``We had never dealt with Kumho before, but this tire became very popular in a short period of time. People were asking for it.''
Hoping to ride the success of the Ecsta 712 and Kumho's ``tremendous leverage'' from its wins in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) racing, the company is working on a new ultra-high-performance tire with a ``summer'' tread pattern, said Rudy Consolacion, director of Kumho's motorsports program.
Bad news notwithstanding, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. also is staying focused on the high-performance market's tuner niche. Phil Pacsi, BFS director of U.S. consumer tires brand/retail marketing, said the tuner segment-and its legions with disposable income-``still continues to be very lucrative. We haven't seen any downturn,'' despite a struggling economy that has forced some consumers to postpone tire purchases.
Based on market research, BFS has advertising buys in some key publications that cater to the tuner market, he said. It also is ``working very aggressively with some key players in the market-the tuners themselves-to get fitments on their personal vehicles they take to the shows.'' Getting placements on the designers' cars can boost a brand's sales, Mr. Pacsi said, because the tuners ``have a loyal following.''
Still, the tuner market is difficult to quantify in size since tuner car junkies ``buy their tires from various sources across the country,'' he said.
At Falken Tire Corp., development is wrapping up on on the Azenis ST115, an 18- to 20-inch tire that sports the bold look of the ``hardcore racing/street tire hybrid'' along with a quiet, smooth ride. Richard Smallwood, vice president of sales and marketing, expects a fall launch.
The company also is tuning up its Web site, which will feature Flash technology, photos and video from tuner events such as the NOPI Nationals in Atlanta, he said.
Retail Web sites also evolve. For example, 1010tires recently upgraded its server capacity and added ``live help'' a mouse click away.
``Most people want to know there is a real person they can deal with,'' Mr. Shore said. ``Our customer is the enthusiast who loves cars, trucks and SUVs and likes to modify them, whether just for looks or to enhance performance. Most of them are very well informed about their vehicles. They don't want to be patronized. They want straightforward answers and as much technical info as we can provide.''
What's really driving the high-volume tire makers' foray into the automotive/lifestyle tuner market goes beyond the immediate profit from that ``Plus-4'' or ``Plus-5'' sale-that is, slapping on 17- and 18-inch wheels and tires on a car that originally comes with 13 inchers.
``The reason we're in the street tuner segment is that they're going to be buying tires for 50 more years,'' Mr. Richter noted. ``Smart dealers who know a little bit about this marketplace and treat the customer right will be selling to family and friends. That's the real plus. One sale can lead to 20 sales.
``Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler are trying to get into it. Ford is going after that market hard with its Focus. They have the resources to do it. The Focus has edgy styling and is Honda Civic-esque in its detailing.''
The Big Three's competitors, the Japanese and European car makers, are hardly standing still in a market they created.
Consider the Lexus IS300, a rear-wheel-drive compact sedan designed to take on BMW's class leader, the 3 series. The IS300 comes standard with 17-inch wheels and tires, high-intensity headlights and paint hues, traction control and steering-wheel-mounted transmission shift buttons. But Lexus' own in-house ``tuning'' division, Toyota Racing Development, has been tweaking the IS with upgraded wheels, tires and body panels.
Some companies have adopted the marketing strategy of moving consumers up the food chain until they eventually own a top-of-the-line model.
``A Civic is never going to be an Acura NSX'' is the current spin Mr. Richter puts on it. ``Nobody aspires to own a Civic the rest of their life. They do aspire to a BMW M5 or a Porsche 911 Turbo,'' he said.
``What we see is the kid saying to himself, `I've spent $25,000 on a Civic, and I'll get $6,000 for it.' But they're not afraid of the aftermarket. They understand what tires and wheels and lowering suspensions can accomplish.
``They'll just graduate to an off-lease Lexus.''
Tire Business Managing Editor Sigmund J. Mikolajczyk contributed to this report.