LAS VEGAS—Tire diameters finally may have peaked.
The growth of tire diameters touted at the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association Show over the past few years seemed to be heading up. But in reality tire makers were counting down to the moment when the wheels were so big they made that sliver of a tire lose its effectiveness.
At this year´s SEMA Show, some tire manufacturers suggested that moment may have come. For others, the possibility is still out there.
Hankook Tire America Corp. showcased a 30-inch Ventus STR H06 tire that will be available for sale by the end of the first quarter of 2006. The tire was on display at Hankook´s booth as well as on a Hummer—proudly marking the 30-inch feat on the vehicle´s door—at Lexani Wheel Corp.´s booth.
Hankook Marketing Director Bill Bainbridge said the tire could fit the Hummer H2 standard and the Hummer H3 and Cadillac Escalade with lift packages. But how big is big enough?
"That´s the impossible question," Bainbridge said. "Five years ago people thought 20- and 22-inch was the limit. Then it was 24, 26 was the limit. Now 28, 30 is the limit. You never know. The technology exists to go bigger (but) is there enough ´bling bling´ kind of consumer that will spend for the technology? Because it´s obvious when you get up over 28 inches it´s going to be limited, very, very exclusive and limited production runs."
The rough cost of a set of 30-inch Hankook tires? $2,000.
A spokesman for Kumho Tire USA Inc., which last year made a splash launching its 28-inch tire, said he´s not aware of any plans to shoot for 30 inches, though that could change. Factors limiting size increases are the small number of vehicles that can take tires this large and the ability to provide enough load-carrying capacity.
Alleviating the first factor somewhat—of a small number of vehicles ripe for huge wheels—is the new trend of fitting ´70s-era passenger cars on a truck chassis. MHT Luxury Alloys of Elk Grove Village, Ill., had a purple Chevy Caprice set on a Chevy truck chassis to give it 8-12 inches of lift in order to fit 28-inch Kumho Ecsta STX tires.
"The sole purpose is to fit those wheels," an MHT representative said, adding the vehicle is safe to drive on the road, but that´s rarely done.
The Kumho spokesman said the company´s 28-inch tire wasn´t intended to be a high-volume fitment. The introduction last year also gave a boost to Kumho´s image. "It´s done fine, but it´s such a limited market because of the few number of vehicles it can fit on," he said.
Pirelli Tire North America Inc. also launched a 28-inch version of its Scorpion Zero tire, primarily for the Hummer. Regional Sales Manager Roger Brace said the tire would reach a limited market yet give more exposure to the popular tire line.
At Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp.´s booth, Dana Zamalloa, senior marketing communications manager, said the flurry of size increases finally could be hitting a roadblock. Toyo launched a 24-inch passenger tire in its Proxes 4 line. The tires are designed primarily for the Dodge Charger, Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum.
The 24-inch tire will be available in the first quarter, though it also may be a small-volume product, Zamalloa said. "It´s going to be priced substantial, so it will be more of a higher-end customer," she said.
Overall, though, she said plus-sizing is running out of room amid safety and ride-control concerns. She said Toyo did extensive tests before launching its 20-inch tires in the past. "There are some sizes we will not go with," she said, pointing at 26- and 28-inch diameters. Toyo´s largest light truck tire size is 24 inches.
Market demand has been frenzied for larger tire and wheel packages, but Zamalloa indicated that the flurry of introductions might finally slow down.
"We´re pretty much tapping out," she said. "There´s not much more plus-sizing that can be done. We are definitely coming to the end of plus-sizing."
John Soule, Michelin brand category manager for light truck tires at Michelin North America Inc., said the tire maker is very conservative in the plus-sizing market, because the tire maker´s strategy is to enhance vehicle performance and safety, not degrade it.
"We can´t just put up 28s that we know do degrade the performance of the overall vehicle and the safety," he said. "We won´t go there. We´ll do some, but typically what you´ll see is our 22-inch rim diameter tires are OE on something somewhere in the world." Soule added that an OE fitment of a plus-size tire validates that size´s compatibility with a vehicle.
From a dollars-and-cents perspective as well, he said the large investment in developing the tires is hardly paid off by the small volume sold. "The only way you can justify (it) from a business standpoint is the halo effect," he said. "And quite frankly, how can you measure that is the million-dollar question."
Michelin, he said, doesn´t need to chase that market because it´s already well established and positioned.
Bainbridge said his firm does anticipate some buzz about its brand because of the tire.
"It´s a technology statement," he said. "Certainly there isn´t a gigantic market demand, you can probably guess it´s not a product we´re going to make any money on. It´s one that looks cool, we´ll generate a little bit of press and it´s a trickle down."
For instance, many tire buyers may be impressed with the 30-inch tire and like its looks, but they´ll end up buying another Hankook tire that fits their vehicle.
Bainbridge also said that Hankook is careful about safety and ride quality. "Safety is always priority No. 1," he said. "Priority No. 2 with any application—it doesn´t matter whether it´s 20-inch or 30-inch—is load-carrying capacity."