With high-tech tires being a big ticket item-a set of ultra-high-performance treads easily can be $1,000 or more before mounting and balancing-tire dealers can be heroes by helping motorists get maximum life out of their tires.
Accurate wheel alignment is key to that goal, and if a manufacturer calls for a four-wheel alignment, it must be done.
``We definitely still get people who say, `It's not a four-wheel-drive. Why do we need a four-wheel alignment?''' said Chris Guldalian, vice president of Grand Prix Tire in Monterey Park, Calif.
Grand Prix Tire puts its Hunter Engineering alignment system to use on nearly every set of tires sold, Mr. Guldalian said. The charge ranges from $69.95 for a Honda Civic-a 25-minute procedure-to $110 for the more time-consuming Porsche Carrera, which requires camber and caster adjustments as well as extra care due to its low ride height.
Mr. Guldalian said ``99 percent of the time'' the explanation that ``if you want me to guarantee a straight steering wheel, I must align the front and the rear'' overcomes any consumer resistance to a proper four-wheel alignment.
``We don't offer anything like a one-year or lifetime alignment,'' he said. ``A lot of people who come in and who have had that done tell us that they feel like the shop is always trying to upsell something, which is the only way of course they can offer a lifetime alignment. We don't want that reputation.
``We tell them to come in anytime they feel they've hit something that could throw the alignment off. Otherwise, we recommend they come in every 12 to 18 months.''
Work on suspension and steering systems represents the sixth largest revenue stream for tire dealers and repair shops, according to Freedonia Group Inc. The market research company forecasts that revenues from suspension/steering will grow nearly 6 percent a year through 2015 to $885 million from $555 million in 2005.
It should be no surprise that car dealerships will compete for those dollars.
``We've required four-wheel alignments now for at least 15 years. They're absolutely required,'' said Tom Plucinsky, manager of product and technology communications at BMW of North America Inc.
``Our suspensions do some steering. There's no active steering rack. It's all compliance and geometry. The rear axles, especially, will toe-in on rapid braking and (decelerate) to increase stability.''
He said service centers at BMW dealerships are required to have specific lifts, and there is a procedure for the vehicle going on to the lift to ensure the suspension is settled-all in the name of producing accurate alignment.
Mr. Guldalian said that to do proper alignments at Grand Prix Tire, they cycle through alignment systems every five to six years. The computer and sensors for their latest higher-end Hunter machine cost about $40,000. The lift/rack costs an additional $20,000. Grand Prix Tire, in business since 1979, operates six lifts.
He noted that technicians who are experienced with front-end suspensions and can service a wide range of vehicles, including older vehicles that use shims, are becoming difficult to find. ``You need to have someone who's been around the block. It's hard to train people.''