CLEVELAND-They're called ``light'' trucks, but their owners take them anything but lightly.
Consequently, tire dealers are experiencing some heavy traffic in the area of custom wheel packages.
Driven by the same sort of vanity that is causing West Coast youth to turn Honda Civics into hot rods, owners of sport-utility vehicles and pick-ups around the country are pouring big bucks into their trucks-and putting bigger and bigger wheels and tires onto them. Most SUVs come with 16-inch standard wheels. But on such monsters as the Ford Expedition it's not unusual for wheels nearly 1 1/2 times that size to be installed after market.
Big wheels mean even bigger business for Cleveland-based retailers like Mueller Tire & Brake Inc. Custom wheel specialist Tom Kundrik said SUVs are responsible for about 60 percent of his store's overall custom wheel business. That amounts to about $125,000 annually at the outlet, which does $1.8 million in sales.
Moreover, Mr. Kundrik said that 60-percent share of the custom business represents a quantum leap from as recently as five years ago, when he estimates it accounted for only 10 percent of the market.
He added that those estimates might be soft compared with other Mueller stores-the dealership has a total of 15. He recently switched to his current outlet from another nearby. This store does more standard maintenance-with downtown Cleveland commuters dropping off their cars for service-than his former location, which is closer to the suburbs and where the custom wheel and performance tire business was even hotter.
``Between last year and this year it's just going nuts,'' said Mr. Kundrik, whose own Ford F-150 XLT is outfitted with P275/45R20 Goodyear Eagles on MKW rims. The upgrade cost him $4,200, or more than half of what he will pay for the truck over the course of his lease and more than 20 percent of its manufacturer's suggested retail price.
That's not unusual, though. The phenomenon of ``tuning'' is certainly not limited to imported sports cars, and spending half the price of the vehicle on the vehicle is the norm rather than the exception. But there is a difference between the ``tuners'' of old and the upgraded SUVs of today. Mr. Kundrik said that where drivers-mostly young males-wanted their sports cars to look good, they also wanted the cars to perform. SUV tuners only want their vehicles to look good.
``They're not really looking for performance,'' he said. ``It's all cosmetic. It's a lot of ego. Who's got the biggest wheels? Who's got the biggest, baddest chrome stuff around?''
He attributed the recent boom in SUV/light truck customizing to the advent of the 20-inch rim a couple years back. A glut of disposable income, a product of a fast-growing economy, didn't hurt, either. Even with the recent economic slowdown, higher gas prices and massive tire recalls-all of which one might think would hamper the SUV market-Mr. Kundrik said consumers are not pulling in the reins.
He said it is quite common for an SUV owner to pour thousands of dollars into a vehicle. He estimated that the average custom wheel/ tire package goes for about $4,500 for 20-inch wheels, around $6,000 for 22-inch and as much as $9,000 for a 23-inch package.
``People keep on spending,'' Mr. Kundrik said. ``They want (custom wheels). People who used to complain about $300 tires for their sports cars, now they're paying $600 for a 23-inch truck tire.''
And that's not all. They're also pouring money into grilles, taillights, chrome exhausts, lowering their vehicles and adding elaborate sound systems worthy of home entertainment. Spinning a tale about a customer who had 14 televisions in his vehicle, Mr. Kundrik added it's somewhat common these days for SUVs to be equipped with DVD players, VCRs, even video game units.
``I know a guy who has $9,000 worth of 23-inch wheels and $21,000 worth of stereo equipment in his Expedition,'' Mr. Kundrik said. ``That's not counting anything else that's in there. He's probably doubled what he paid.
``If he paid 35-grand for that Expedition, he paid another 35-grand for the extras.''
Outside of the performance tire realm, Mueller Tire sells most brands of tires, primarily Michelin products.
On the performance side, though, Mr. Kundrik said Nitto and Toyo are the primary movers, while American Racing, Lexani and MKW are the dealership's most popular custom wheel brands.
``I'd stock four sets of Nitto 305/50/20s and within a week they'd be gone,'' he said. ``That's 16 tires a week at $380 a pop. Not bad.''