It's taken scientists and researchers some three years to produce a rough map of the human genome. For Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., the journey to discover its genetic code, its so-called ``DNA,'' has been a bit longer but just as painstaking.
Cooper executives readily acknowledge the evolution of the firm's tire development and technology has ``been on a journey'' for the last dozen or so years. That's while some of the company's bigger, perhaps more hip competitors have, for instance, long plied their high-performance wares in glitzy fashion in the marketplace. Still, hardly considered ``square,'' the small-town-ish Cooper is settling into more of a cubed groove. ``P-Cubed,'' (P3) that is.
During a launch of its latest ultra-high performance tire, the Zeon 2XS, the company took the opportunity to enlighten a few dozen of its Cooper and Mastercraft dealers and trade press journalists to this new-found P3 philosophy. It represents ``passion, precision and performance,'' Cooper Tire President Dick Stephens said of the trio, pointing to a glossy poster touting ``they are the molecules'' that make up Cooper's DNA.
``P-cubed defines our approach to the design, engineering and manufacturing of high-quality tires,'' he explained.
``It's in our DNA. That's what sets Cooper apart from our competition: passion for our products and customers; precision in our design and manufacturing; and performance you can actually see out on the street.''
Unveiled at the tire maker's almost 4-year-old Tire and Vehicle Test Center (TVTC) in Pearsall, Texas, the new Zeon family of tires is aimed directly at consumers looking for the performance, handling, aggressive looks, grip and reliability of original equipment products. But at an affordable price.
And that seemed to be the key: The Zeons, Cooper officials said, are reasonably priced-translating into greater profit potential. That drew applause from many of the dealers attending the ride-and-drive event April 2-4, about an hour's drive from San Antonio's historic Alamo. While that landmark represents the last stand of larger-than-life figures like Jim Bowie and Daniel Boone, the Zeon roll-out wasn't an end but a continuation for the tire maker that hails from the farmlands of rural Findlay, Ohio.
``Our focus on the North American replacement tire market, and passenger and light truck, are where the profits are,'' Mr. Stephens said. ``We will continue to be in retreading, motorcycle, racing tires-those kinds of business segments, as long as they help us achieve our goal of profitability. Sales of new products obviously are critical to our success.
``One of our goals is to have new products represent 25 percent of our sales, so you'll be seeing more and more new products coming from Cooper,'' he promised.
Noting ultra-high performance, ultra-performance and high-performance ``are the fastest growing segment in the market, and also the most profitable,'' he said the company has ``nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to our products.''
In the performance segment, ``consumers want a product that provides great appearance...a low aspect ratio tire with big alloy wheels that fill up the wheel well and not only look good, but also provide improved performance, exact steering response and excellent wet and dry traction,'' Mr. Stephens added.
The Zeon-steeped in UHP technology gleaned, in part, from Cooper's Avon Tyres division in England and its longtime racing heritage-has been developed to fit that bill.
The company even kind of tweaks its own heritage and image as a somewhat staid but reliable broadline producer. A Cooper promotional piece on its new UHP ``initiative'' asks: ``Is this the same Cooper Tire Co. we've known all these years? Tapered tread, high-speed rated, double shoulder tread elements-where did Cooper learn to do this stuff? You could say it's always been in their DNA....''
Cooper has finally begun promoting its performance products, using last year's Specialty Equipment Market Association/International Tire Expo in Las Vegas to tout some hot new products in the production pipeline.
The tire maker is, for instance, using more and more computer modeling tools in its tire design process. And it has, Mr. Stephens said, ``invested a significant amount of money to allow our engineers, chemists and developers the tools they need.... Over the past 10 years we've positioned Cooper to be a leader in product technology.''
To aid those efforts the tire maker opened a new research and development center in 1998 in Findlay. It later christened a new state-of-the-art mold manufacturing facility with the capability of producing prototype molds in one week vs. six to 12 weeks previously. Add the 1,000-acre Pearsall test site to that list, and Cooper has expended an investment of about $50 million in bolstering its technological capabilities.
``In the past we've been relatively quiet about our technology,'' Mr. Stephens said, ``but we've started to tell the world about Cooper's expertise in the performance arena in order to get our fair share of that market.''
New promotional material for the Zeon line attests to that statement, boasting that ``in 2003, the world is going to find out how competitive we can be...It's something we've been building up to for years.''
The new tire comes with a W speed rating and is available in 29 sizes-from 195/55R15 to 275/35R18-covering 15-, 16-, 17- and 18-inch diameters. The company said the Zeon 2XS tread compound ``was benchmarked against our Avon racing division technology.'' It contains a homogenous tire filler system that includes chemically coupled precipitated silica and carbon black, with the silica enhancing wet traction ``without sacrificing tread wear.'' The tire carries a 280- AA-A UTQG rating.
The shoulder tread block of the Zeon is divided into two harmonically mated segments, Cooper said, with the ``calculated stagger of the tread element'' helping reduce noise frequency, allowing a quiet ride. It also features a rubber rim protector to decrease damage from curb scuffing and a hardened rubber compound above the bead to discourage sidewall flex in cornering, resulting in crisp handling.
Some sizes for the Zeon 2XS-meant to be read ``excess''-are still in testing, according to Carl Casalbore, vice president for retail sales and HP tire development. A 19-inch passenger version is in the development process and a 20-inch size is expected by the first or second quarter of 2004. A UHP all-season tire will not come under the Zeon name, he said, but instead will be called the SLE Sport and will match up to OE tires on a number of vehicles.
Meanwhile, Cooper is working on a Zeon ZPT for the tuner market, which Mr. Casalbore described as a ``weird animal that raised its head in the last eight or nine months and continues to change.''
The odd thing, he said, is tuner customers are ``kids who're making $10,000 a year and have $17,000 invested in their vehicle-so we have to be really sensitive on pricing.'' There are two tread designs for the ZPT being considered, and the company is ``de-tuning its W-rated product into that range. Keeping in mind the affordability factor, it will not be a W- or Y-rated tire, but will have the sizing and look without the price of the 2XS,'' he added.
A Zeon XST sport-truck tire in touring design also is on the launching pad, with 18- to 20-inch sizes available by June or July and 22- to 23-inch sizes coming in the fourth quarter. The company also is rolling out a Discoverer H/T Plus line focused on plus fitments for sport-utility vehicles and pickups.
Saying it's putting ``our money where our mouth is,'' Cooper is offering the Zeon 2XS with a special 45-day road test program. If a customer is not satisfied with the tires after that period, they may be returned for a full refund.
Mr. Casalbore told dealers the tire maker ``did two and a half years' worth of work in one year on this initiative, focusing on the HP arena. We wanted to give you more than just a tire and price-we needed a 360-degree approach.
``We're not just going to give you the tire and make you promote it on your own.''
Referring to a pie chart encompassing various markets, educational efforts, prices and products, he said while pricing is key, it is only one ingredient to a dealer's success. ``We know the market, where it's going. We know OE and where it's going. We know the products in the marketplace and where we have to go.''
Although Mr. Casalbore admitted Cooper is playing some ``catch-up ball'' in the performance sector, he assured dealers that ``within two to three years we will be innovators in a number if not all these fields,'' and education will be a key component in that effort.
The Zeon 2XS debut is being bolstered by trade journal advertising, point-of-sale materials and ride-and-drive programs set up at dealer locations across the country ``to prove performance.'' Cooper also is offering the services of race driver Johnny Unser-who serves as its technical consultant for UHP product lines-as a dealer advisor and for public appearances at dealerships. Glenn Follen, manager of track and fleet testing operations, described Mr. Unser as an ``independent assessor of our products who has a pipeline right to the top. If he has any concerns, his opinion is heard immediately.''
As Mr. Unser prepared dealers for their turns on the test track with the new Zeons, he advised: ``Put yourselves in test driver mode because, every step of the way, this tire is talking with you...through the steering wheel in your hands and the seat of your pants.''
In all its divisions, he said Cooper is ``using every resource available to better their products, including even in Formula 1 racing, which the company isn't even involved in.''
One of his main concerns, he continued, ``is to make sure this (Zeon 2XS) continues to progress.''
The new tire, added Mark Panning, manager of passenger tire engineering, ``was specifically designed for traction and performance in mind-not just the same old tire wrapped up in a new exterior.''
Out on the track, Cooper officials constantly prodded dealers, ``Well, what did you think? How did it compare?'' as they pitted Zeons against several of what they called ``Tier-1'' competitors. BMW Mini-Coopers shod with the UHP Zeons maneuvered a dry autocross vs. Falken FK451 tires described as ``max performance products.'' In the wet autocross, Zeons ran against Michelin Pilot Sport tires, while in wet braking tests they competed with the Kumho Ecsta Supra 712.
Time after time, Cooper execs cautioned that the Zeons weren't necessarily meant to best the Tier-1 tires, but rather to hold their own and perform at least as well as the higher-priced competition. ``We're trying to show you that Cooper has products for Mercedes, BMW, Lexus-so you can get them all with one supplier,'' Bob Gill, Cooper business development manager told Tire Business as Mini-Coopers zipped around the track.
Most dealers said they found the Zeons competitive.
And they were enthusiastic that their preferential pricing could provide a leg up on higher-priced brands in the highly competitive UHP marketplace.