A new Eagle rules Goodyear's roost, and the tire maker is hoping to claw out a big chunk of the lucrative ultra performance aftermarket with it.
Following glowing reviews in the European auto press such as EVO, Auto Zeitung, Sport Auto and Auto Bild, Goodyear has formally introduced in North America its Eagle F1 GS-D3, a tire that has been available in Europe since February.
Development began in 1998 as a request from the Akron-based company's marketing department. At first, conferences between North American and European staffs were weekly but planning and negotiations cascaded.
Before long, trans-Atlantic meetings became every-other-day affairs. In the end, Goodyear's European team had ``very, very significant input'' into the GS-D3's final design and details. And the results are ``outstanding,'' said Robert Toth, a performance tire engineer and marketing manager referred to, half-kidding, as ``Mr. Eagle,'' by his Goodyear colleagues.
Fittingly, the new Eagle F1 GS-D3's U.S. launch was Sept. 17 at Goodyear's largest proving grounds, in San Angelo. Not only were the first Eagles wrung out at the West Texas site, the 11-square-mile facility has a performance heritage stretching back to the mid-1960s. The Speedway Blue Streak, Speedway Wide Tread and Polyglas GT-some of the hottest tickets of their day among car and racing enthusiasts-helped ratchet the definition (and marketability) of wider tires.
The newest Eagle extends that evolution: 27 of its initial 39 sizes will have tread widths greater than 7.5 inches. In fact, a set of 315/35ZR17 GS-D3s would look right at home on another performance icon of the '60s: the 1968 McLaren M8 CanAm car, which also happened to wear Goodyears at each corner.
Mr. Toth acknowledged the tire-making giant is going after the ``re-styling'' or ``tuner'' market, which has ex-ploded in a renaissance he likened to the muscle car era.
``Tuners are passionate,'' he said. ``They spend money-lots of it.''
That's a wave Goodyear's competitors have been riding for years. Mr. Toth said the ultra-high performance tire market-which he defined as a tire with a 55 or lower aspect ratio and a V, W, Y or Z speed rating-grew 129 percent since 1997. The trend, he added, still has plenty of energy, citing forecasts of 7.5 million ultra performance tires being sold by the end of 2003.
While 17-inch ultras represent the largest and fastest-growing segment, 18- and 19-inch tires have considerable potential, Mr. Toth noted. And though the main development cars were the Corvette and Mustang GT in North America, and BMW's 3 series in Europe, the new Eagles are intended for the entire spectrum of performance cars. They include the Porsche Boxster and 911s, Mercedes Benz SL500, AMGs and E55s, Acura NSX, CL and Jaguar.
Goodyear hopes to enjoy some ``halo'' sales, as well, judging from an eight-page color brochure that lists considerably tamer vehicles, such as the Volkswagen Jetta and Oldsmobile Alero, among the more than 150 ``popular fitments'' the company has identified as candidates for the GS-D3.
Form follows function
The new Eagle F1 marries racing and street tire technology, explained Bob Nelson, a principal engineer on the Eagle team. Its edgy style may be the look that today's drivers have come to expect, but study the aggressive tread and the logic of the design becomes clear: one doesn't have to be an engineer to imagine how the tire works.
Naturally, heaps of 3D modeling have been invested in simulations, and multiple checks of flex, moment of inertia, stress concentration, angles and contours have been run in the computer lab and on the road. But the substance of Goodyear's latest high-tech tire probably comes down to these key features, according to the company:
* A solid centerline gives good steering precision and on-center feel.
* Extensions of the tread-coined ``power transfer bridges'' by Goodyear-stretch continuously from the above-mentioned center bar to the shoulder.
* Asymmetric ribbing in the shoulder increases lateral stiffness.
* Grooves three times longer than the contact patch get rid of water and air better, improving wet-traction and noise.
The GS-D3's AAtrax multi-polymer tread compound has earned a government recognized ``AA'' wet traction rating. Most of the tires will be built in three European plants while eight sizes will be produced at Goodyear's Lawton, Okla., factory, the company said.
Seen and barely heard
After driving the Audis and Corvettes that Goodyear made available for demonstrations and comparisons with the Michelin Pilot Sport and Bridgestone Potenza S-03, tire retailers and wholesalers agreed the new F1 seemed to shine in the wet and is admirably quiet for an ultra performance product.
``I was very impressed with it. I like the balance of the tire,'' said Chuck Scott, who heads marketing for Big State Tire Supply, a wholesale distributor based in Lubbock, Texas. ``You didn't have to work with it to get pretty good times. It was comfortable, both wet and dry. I'm somewhat of a cynic but I like the tire a hell of a lot.''
Larry Deatherage, president of Dee's Tire Stores Inc. in Yukon, Okla., said he ``didn't have to use the brakes in the wet course with the Eagle F1s.'' The second-generation tire man is convinced the tire will sell. ``The pricing is right,'' Mr. Deatherage said. ``It's a very good value for that type of car. It fits everything from Nissans to Mercedes to the Pontiac Grand Am. It's a good broad line of tires. I'm very impressed. I'm sure it'll be OE next year, or, if not, in the real near future.''
Less-than-perfect weather is also an issue for David Wilson, a performance enthusiast and general manager of Ken Towery's Tire wholesale business. ``I like to drive when it's raining and snowing and this car is excellent in the rain,'' said Mr. Wilson, calling the new F1 ``perfect for Mercedes customers. Eighty percent of the people who buy an S Class do so for the performance.''
Mr. Wilson also was impressed with the GS-D3's dry handling. ``As hard as the Audi was driven on asphalt, other tires would already have shown some signs of abuse. You can actually see when they're scuffed up or already have gotten some uneven wear. This tire did not appear this way.''
Ken Towery's, with 18 retail locations and warehouses in Louisville and Lexington, Ky., and in Cincinnati, has specialized in custom wheel and tire packages for new car and light truck dealerships, Mr. Wilson said.
``This is a great tire for your V8 BMW, Corvette, Mustang, Lexus or Porsche owner. And there's always a certain batch of people who want quality, no matter what the cost,'' he said.
However, Mr. Wilson was not alone when he expressed concern that the Eagle F1 GS-D3 prices not be ``out of line.''
Explained Sal Marquez, president of Dapper Tire Co., a San Diego wholesaler: ``Going up against the competition, a $10 or $15 difference (per tire) can make a big difference. If a retailer can get a Bridgestone product for $60 less a set, he's going to go that way.
``These tires are so expensive, the retailer will only order them if they're going to sell the tire that day. The customer's either right there in the shop or he's coming in the next day. You have to have the tire and the price.''
Mr. Marquez lauded the 10-percent discount Goodyear is offering on orders placed through October. From pricing information disseminated by Goodyear, most dealers will be able to buy an Eagle F1 GS-D3 in 245/45R17, for example, for about $180.
John Turk, president of Conrad's Total Car Care and Tire Centers in Cleveland, agreed that the GS-D3 has tremendous potential because Goodyear has put together ``a number of different lines under one umbrella, for not only business issues like inventory, but also for marketing, which is more important.''
But he warned that training is crucial.
``I know our organization is looking for a person who can lead that conversation with the consumer, along with custom wheels, and the tuners,'' Mr. Turk said. ``Actually I don't like to call them tuners, I like to call it `youth market' for old guys like me who are looking to be young again.''