Chances are you've never met Eugene ``Gene'' Petersen and Jennifer Stockburger. Yet they play an important role in determining what tires your customers will be asking for-or perhaps willing to accept-when buying time rolls around.
Mr. Petersen and Ms. Stockburger are tire and vehicle test specialists for Consumer Reports (CR) magazine, plying their skills at the 327-acre site of the publication's Automotive Test Division in East Haddam, Conn.
Published accounts of their on-vehicle testing and their experiences while putting test tires through their paces influence the buying decisions of value-conscious consumers all across North America.
Perhaps equally noteworthy from the vantage point of this issue is the fact that these two highly experienced and commercially unbiased tire test engineers praise the quality and reliability of today's tires. (See accompanying article.)
What's more, Mr. Petersen and Ms. Stockburger point out that readership studies of the publication's tire rankings demonstrate that consumers not only are interested in their tires but also want to know more about them. ``People are hungry for information about tires,'' Mr. Petersen observed.
Studies of CR's November issue, where the publication's annual tire rankings are a regular feature, place them second in popularity only to that edition's coverage of new cars. Other occasional tire-related articles throughout the year also rate consistently high in readership, the pair told Tire Business.
CR, published monthly by Consumers Union of Yonkers, N.Y., boasts 4 million paid subscribers and accepts no advertising in order to assure the complete objectivity of its comparative ratings of products and services.
An independent, non-profit organization, Consumers Union also publishes an annual Buyers Guide covering a wide range of products and services along with three more specialized stand-alone editions entitled, Cars Road Tests, New Car Buying Guide and Used Car Buying Guide.
Besides its printed publications, the organization also maintains an Internet site, ConsumerReports.org, having more than 1.1 million paid subscribers. The site sometimes is able to provide users with more detailed product information than the space limitations of CR's print publications permit.
As a means of measuring performance and durability, the magazine asks every subscriber to fill out an annual survey, providing individualized feedback on a variety of major products they own and use. The publication gets back more than 400,000 completed survey sheets for tabulation.
Mr. Petersen and Ms. Stockburger said the Connecticut testing facility is used strictly for evaluating cars, tires and a limited number of other automotive components. All other products are tested at the group's Yonkers headquarters.
The East Haddam testing facility was built in 1986 and once was the site of a drag strip known as Connecticut Dragway. The center employs 18 people and also is used to test between 40 and 50 new cars annually, including models that have yet to make their public debut.
CR has been testing and ranking tires on an annual basis since 1992, mainly focusing its attention on the safety and performance criteria of most interest to consumers, Mr. Petersen said. In recent years, CR has evaluated and ranked a variety of tires ranging from all-season, winter and performance passenger varieties to those specially designed for sport-utility vehicles.
This coming November, the publication will be offering comparative ratings of ultra-performance summer tires. Last year's November issue focused on winter tires, giving top ratings to the Kumho I'zen Stud KW-11 among a field of Q-speed-rated products, and the Goodyear Eagle Ultra Grip GW-2 in the H-rated category.
Although most consumers don't especially enjoy buying tires, many want to learn as much as possible about them before walking into a tire shop, Mr. Petersen said.
``You can't look at anything on the tire that will give you an intuitive idea as to how it will perform on your car,'' he said. ``We at Consumer Reports are the only truly independent source providing that sort of information in the U.S. We buy products and test them ourselves-nobody else does that.''
Both Mr. Petersen and Ms. Stockburger are mechanical engineers by training and former employees of what today is Pirelli Tire North America. The two do all of CR's behind-the-wheel tire testing and much of its automobile testing.
Mr. Petersen worked in tire development for 17 years, dating back to when the Italian tire maker's current North American arm was known as the Armstrong Rubber Co.
Ms. Stockburger likewise worked seven years in tire development for Pirelli, followed by a three-year stint with an automotive components supplier, before joining CR's staff.
Testing and ranking new cars also gives CR advanced insight into the types and sizes of tires they'll be testing in the future, Mr. Petersen and Ms. Stockburger said. And judging from the new vehicles they're testing now, it looks like the 13-, 14- and 15-inch tires are rapidly being replaced by 16-, 17- and 18-inch tires and wheels. And most tires in this latter group are speed-rated, Mr. Petersen said.
That's one reason CR was then testing ultra-high-performance tires in preparation for its November issue, he explained. ``Whether most of our readers think they're performance tire oriented or not, the cars they're buying are coming with those kinds of tires. Even such mundane choices as Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are coming with H- and V-rated performance tires.''
Mr. Petersen noted that once-exotic H- and V-rated performance all-season tires rapidly are becoming kind of a commodity, replacing the older S- and T-rated all-season models. ``Tires in this latter category continue to be popular because there are still a lot of older cars on the road. But looking at the new car market, you don't see many of those tires left. If you do, they're more than likely on sport-utility vehicles.''
Besides its main offices and an automotive work shop, the East Haddam facility includes a tire test center, where indoor tests are performed, a main straightaway, brake testing course, circular skid pad, hydroplane testing area, noise test surface, handling circuit, off-road course, snow test hill and rough surface course.
Testing done there includes dry- and wet-braking as well as cornering, hydroplaning resistance, noise monitoring, riding comfort, vehicle handling, rolling resistance, ice braking and snow traction.
``We're the only ones to actually use the facility,'' Mr. Petersen said. ``We don't allow manufacturers to come here and do testing for correlations.''
The straightaway course is equipped with a sprinkler system that can be turned on to test wet braking capability. Other track features include a pebbled course for examining tire rumble plus a hydroplaning pit that is flooded with water to about 4 inches deep.
The facility also includes a 1.5-mile ride-evaluation course, purposely built with potholes and storm drains in strategic areas to test how well tires can dampen out such disturbances.
CR's annual tire-testing cycle usually gets under way in November, when Mr. Petersen and Ms. Stockburger call on tire makers exhibiting at the Specialty Equipment Market/International Tire Expo in Las Vegas. The pair asks manufacturers to identify which of their products ought to be included in whatever specific tire category CR plans to test.
``We rely on the manufacturers to let us know if a line of tires is going to be discontinued and if there's a new one coming on. That way we're not wasting time and money testing the wrong tires,'' Ms. Stockburger said.
Mr. Petersen said the publication tries to select tire lines that are available nationally and usually tests 10 to 15 brands in a specific tire category. The two consult data published by the Rubber Manufacturers Association in order to determine the size of tires to be tested.