PHOENIXAnita Tatum, marketing director for Hawaii Tire Co., in Hilo, Hawaii, had never been on a tire test before attending the Falken Tires Spring Training Ride & Drive event in Phoenix, March 6-8.
But she's a fan now and also has a better understanding of the four new Falken-brand tiresthe Sincera SN250 A/S all-season performance touring, Azenis FK450 A/S all-season ultra-high performance, Wildpeak A/T3W (all terrain) SUV/CUV and newly available Wildpeak M/T (mud terrain) tires.
Ms. Tatum's positive reaction is what Sumitomo Rubber North America Ltd. (SRNA) was hoping for from the 270 tire dealership and distributor employees invited to Phoenix in early March for three-day sessions over a two-week period to see and experience the tires for themselves.
This is awesome, Ms. Tatum said the morning after the ride-and-drive, which included autocross, braking and wet traction testing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz., and then off-road and rock climbing in the Table Mesa Recreation Area in the Bradshaw Mountains north of Phoenix.
The level of care in the planning and execution of the whole event totally blew me away, she said of the ride-and-drive, which included attending a pre-season baseball game that tied into the Falken brand's sponsorship of Major League Baseball.
Rather than bring in owners and senior managers of tire dealerships and distributors, Sumitomo decided for this event to invite people who actually sell the products, SRNA CEO Richard Smallwood said. We want people on the counter to see it and experience it, he said.
Falken Tires had announced the new tires to key dealers and distributors during a dealer meeting last fall in St. Louis, but this was the first time the company had hosted an event to test them.
Events like this bring a tire brand to the forefront, said Denny Reiser, general manager of Redwood General Tire Pros in Redwood City, Calif., noting that when he got back to work after the ride-and-drive he found that Falken seemed to come to the forefront of my mind.
As for how such an experience can translate into sales back at the dealership, Mr. Reiser said when you tell customers you've driven on the tiresthat you have had personal experience riding on themyour credibility goes up.
Asked about what he got out of the ride-and-drive overall, Mr. Reiser said, Falken is making a concerted effort to up their game to get a greater share of the market. Things like this get people talking.
At the track, participants tested the Falken Sincera SN250 A/S, a replacement to the SN211 A/S, and the Falken Azenis FK 450 A/S.
The big difference between the SN250 A/S and SN211 A/S is the speed ratings, said Bakari Howard, commercial account manager for SRNA, who also has worked for the company in motorsports and passenger tire training. The SN250 A/S has higher speed ratingsT, H and Vto fit today's vehicles better. This includes today's Toyota Camry, which is faster than a 1990s BMW M3, and can come equipped with 215/55R17 size V-speed-rated tires, he said.
While the SN250A/S is a replacement tire for such vehicles, it also is positioned as a second or third replacement for performance vehicles, such as certified pre-owned Audis and BMWs, Mr. Howard said.
This is for people not looking to maybe spend the upper echelon money on tires but...want something that's going to last, that's going to perform and that's going to give you value, he said.
To demonstrate the performance of the SN250 A/S, Sumitomo gave attendees the opportunity to test it on the track against what Falken said is the No. 1 tire in the segment, the Michelin Defender. The unscientific testing involved auto cross handling, dry braking, noise and feel over road bumps.
After putting both tires through their paces, Ms. Tatum cited the SN250 A/S's impressive handling, which she said would be a good selling point for my team. She also singled out the tire's cost, which she said came in at a good price point.
Overall, she said she felt the performance of the tire was better than the Michelin Defender, which, she added, is considered a tier one tire.
This Sincera SN250 A/S is going to be an affordable product right there in the sweet spot, Mr. Howard said.
Redwood General's Mr. Reiser came to a similar conclusion, noting the Sincera did everything as good as the Michelin Defender, and was better in absorbing bumps and braking distance.
Tire sales today are driven by the dollar and the Internet, he said, with customers looking for the best deal. With all the ratings you have today to give customers, once you can do that you can show them that it's equal in terms of ratings, but at a better price point.
Ride-and-drive attendees also tested the Azenis FK 450 A/S, comparing it with the Falken Ziex ZE950 A/S.
The FK 450 A/S is targeted at the fast growing ultra-high-performance, all-season tire segment, which is expected to increase by 1.7 million units between 2016 and 2020, according to Mr. Howard.
Compared with competing tires, the FK 450 A/S is for the most part right on par with what our competitors are doing there, and look at the price indexright there in the sweet spot, Mr. Howard said. So this product is not going to be sky high in price, he said. It is right where Falken products always areright in the middle there.
Asked about the new consumer products, Mike Rovere, manager of Dale's Tire & Retreading Inc. in Rapid City, S.D., said his dealership might consider getting a few different model sizes of the new Falken tires to try them.
It's nice to see what this car tire line is like, he said. It's something we never offered.
To test the new light truck/ CUV/CUV tires, SRNA took ride-and-drive attendees about an hour north of Phoenix to Arizona's Table Mesa region. There they drove the Wild Peak A/T3W all-terrain, any-weather tire, and the Falken brand's first-ever mud tire, the Wildpeak M/T. Driving took place on the road and on the rocky, rutted mountainous terrain in the recreation area dotted with soaring saguaro cacti.
These new tires, Mr. Smallwood said, are important for the Falken brand, which has very low market share in the SUV, CUV and light truck segment in part because it hasn't had a full complement of products.
We can experience great growth in North America just by providing our dealers what we haven't been able to provide them over the years, he said.
The Falken brand works well, he added, with anything that's passion driven or where people really care about brand image.
The new Falken off-road products include a tire designed for use in muddy conditions, the Wildpeak M/T. Sumitomo spent two years developing, refining and testing this tire in the harshest of conditions, said Mike Pettengill, west regional account manager.
Sumitomo is focusing on this segment because that is where the market is shifting. In 2014, 52 percent of vehicles purchased in the U.S. were light trucks, CUVs or SUVs.
So why did it take two years to develop the Wildpeak M/T?
For several reasons, Mr. Pettengill said. You can make a fantastic, awesome off-road tire, but it doesn't mean when you put it on the highway it's going to track the same way.
To reduce highway noise, Sumitomo engineers flipped the M/T's tread blocks upside down. By doing that we were able to get that road comfort and stay away from that tread squirm that happens in normal M/Ts, Mr. Pettengill said.
The company's engineers also reduced the tread-to-void ratio to reduce road wander. In addition, they made the shoulder blocks wider to improve on- and off-road handling.
The result is an off-road mud terrain tire that is quiet, Mr. Pettengill said.
The light truck market is about price, said Mr. Reiser. The younger generation wants this stuff. If you can save them $150 to $200 it could sway the consumer to your recommendation.
Appearance also is important in this segment, Mr. Pettengill said, along with performance throughout the life of the tire.
You can make a great tire but if it doesn't perform like it was new compared to when it was old, or if it doesn't look the same when it's getting to the end, it's not going to sell, he said. We made sure that the tire maintained its performance and its appearance in the entire lifecycle.