Ultra-high-performance tires, once the domain of speed freaks and motorheads, continue to gain additional traction with auto makers and replacement buyers.
As U.S. consumer preferences gravitate toward larger vehicles—think CUVs, SUVs and light trucks—the shift creates new opportunities for UHP tires that once mostly were associated with sports cars.
UHP offerings, designed to perform better than traditional all-season tires, are seeing their way on to new vehicles at an increasing clip in a years-long trend that ultimately also opens more opportunities in replacement markets.
"The UHP market is no longer just about high-performance packaged coupes and sedans. It has now carried over into SUVs and CUVs," said Sonny McDonald, national training manager for Toyo Tires Corp. USA.
"In the past, UHP consumers were always thought of as driving/auto enthusiasts, gear heads, etc. Today, we now have the 'accidental UHP customer' who buy mid-level coupes and sedans packaged with a tire featuring a traditional UHP size," McDonald said.
And as the UHP market evolves and expands, so do the factors tire manufacturers must consider when designing these tires, he said.
"The UHP market has always been a benchmark for any tire manufacturer when it comes to highlighting new advances in tire designs, compounding and construction. The trend toward high-performance hybrids and electric vehicles put additional challenges in developing new UHP products that will have to account for heavier weight, more torque, and lower pattern/road noise," McDonald said.
"In the past, the only consideration for a UHP tire was how well do they stick on dry pavement and still be reasonable in the wet," he said.
At American Kenda Rubber Industrial Co. Ltd., Brandon Stotsenburg, vice president of automotive, called UHP "an important and growing segment."
"Many CUVs are continuing to evolve and trend for more handling characteristics, which require, at minimum, V-rated grand touring tires. Some premium CUVs do require W-rated UHP tires with suspension systems to maximize handling. Dealers should be aware of this continuing trend and educate these customers to find the best tire to meet their driving needs," he said.
One traditional drawback in the use of UHP tires has been noise levels that increase as tires wear, causing customers to sometimes prematurely remove them, Stotsenburg said.
"Manufacturers that have newer design tools are able to offer tires that can offer premium performance and better noise levels as the tires wear. Educating the consumer about those benefits will provide additional value and allow more margin," he said. "Although the noise level of a 70-80 percent worn tire is higher than a new tire, it will likely be acceptable to allow the consumer to extend the life and usage of the tire."
"Kenda has seen a significant shift to value for all segments, and the UHP segment has followed this trend. For most consumers, replacement tires requested are not the branded products, which were original equipment. These customers do not want to sacrifice performance and want value, not the lowest price," Stotsenburg said.
Rise of the CUV
Kumho Tire USA Inc. places "a significant amount of concentration around our UHP product as there is a higher demand in the market and consumers expect more performance features. An ultra-high-performance product that not only handles well, but with touring characteristics such as comfort, low noise and wet traction," Marketing Manager Chris Han said.
"I see the trend of vehicle manufacturers moving toward UHP products as fitments for their future vehicles continuing to grow, in which the RE market should see the volume growth benefits," he said.
"When it comes to UHP A/S (all season), there is some softness in the northern Midwest, but overall we are seeing growth in almost every region across the entire nation. Summer UHP's are more sporadic when it comes to growth or decline, but overall we are still seeing an increase," Han said.
Sumitomo Rubber North America Inc.'s brand stable includes Falken Tire, which considers UHP products a big part of the company's heritage. Tsuyoshi Johnson is product planning manager for Sumitomo Rubber North America Inc.
"With all the discussion about traditional cars giving up market share to the CUV/SUV segment, I am excited to see that UHP tire sales have been holding steady the past few years. Of course, there is a rising trend in sport CUVs that may be supporting this trend, but I think the tradition(al) sports car is really fueling this segment at the moment," Johnson said. "We are in the middle of fierce horsepower wars that has been going on within the domestic muscle cars and amongst the various European vehicle brands."
Falken is involved in motorsports around the world, from professional teams down to "grassroots enthusiasts," Johnson said. That includes being selected as a specified tire for the Sports Car Club of America's Solo Spec Coupe class. Spec races use the same model vehicles with identical specifications to make the competition center around driver talent.
SUVs and CUVs have been increasing their horsepower for years and that trend continues. But manufacturers also are offering more models with more options and more configurations, a move that is opening additional opportunities for UHP tires, he said.
"This trend is true for many of the auto makers, so I expect to see a shift in UHP size offerings to match the increasingly popularity of this category or perhaps there will be a need for UHP CUV/SUV specific product lines in the future," Johnson said.
The popularity of UHP tires should only continue to rise as auto makers figure out ways to make their vehicles more powerful.
"This has caused new technologies that offer more performance than ever before," Johnson said. "And considering the fact that a majority of consumers are in need of street tires, the dry performance level has to be maximized while still maintaining an elevated level of wet capability and even winter and snow drivability for UHP all season tires.
"With the auto makers continuously finding solutions to increase power output while maintaining fuel efficiency, I don't see this trend ending anytime soon," he said.
The UHP tire segment remains robust, said Brad Robison, senior product manager at Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, U.S. and Canada.
"Despite a decrease in sedan sales, the popularity of sports cars, and accordingly the UHP tire segment, continues to hold strong. Much of that can be attributed to the market shift toward CUVs, SUVs and light trucks, where consumer demand for sportier models with more power and responsiveness are driving the upward trend in UHP tires," he said.
"Consumer expectations of performance tires continue to rise. Not only do consumers want a tire that delivers ultimate grip and handling, but they also want a tire with longer wear life and all-season performance," Robison said. "Consumers today are doing more research about the products available in the market, and they want a tire that performs for a long time and across a variety of seasonal conditions."
Another continuing trend helping push UHP tire sales is the growth in new sizes introduced by OEMs. "With all of the high horsepower cars being offered, we're seeing wider tires in order to attain better traction. In addition, with the growing popularity of CUVs, we're starting to see UHP tires used on sporty variants," he said.
Nexen Tire America Inc. said the company has seen growth in the original equipment segment of the market.
"Ultra-high-performance tires are now no longer limited to sedans. We are seeing the UHP market grow to include the CUV/SUV market as well. Sales of CUVs and SUVs have increased while sedans are trending downward," said Megan Wentz, marketing manager for Nexen.
At Michelin North America Inc., the last decade has provided significant growth in the UHP market.
"The UHP market, which we define as tires with a Z speed rating (W or above), has doubled in the past 10 years. The growth has been steady year-over-year, and we expect this growth to continue into the foreseeable future, not counting some unforeseen result of COVID-19," said Steve Calder, technical marketing manager for Michelin North America.
"Part of the UHP market growth has been driven by an increasing number of OE fitments coming from the factory with Z rated tires. While the trend of vehicles in the U.S. continues to shift away from passenger cars to CUV/SUVs, many of these new platforms are coming with Z rated OE tires, so the shift hasn't drastically impacted the overall UHP market," Calder said.
Speaking of COVID-19, any talk of the UHP tire market in 2020 should include the impact of the pandemic on sales.
Kumho, like many others, is experiencing a "notable impact" on the UHP market due to COVID-19, Han said. "We see roughly a 16-percent decrease in replacement market sales so far compared to 2019.
However, due to the changes in consumer buying behavior, Kumho has been experiencing substantial growth in market share over the past few months," he said.
COVID-19 has brought an overall decline in all tire categories and segments, Bridgestone's Robison agreed.
"As many states take steps to reopen, we are optimistic that we have reached the bottom of this crisis and are focused now on taking necessary steps to position Bridgestone and our customers for a strong post-crisis recovery in all segments," he said.
At Kumho, Han believes growth will continue in the UHP segment despite a hit caused by COVID-19.
"There has been continuous growth in the UHP segment over the past few years. Unfortunately, there has been a significant drop YOY (year-over-year) due to the pandemic, but once we get back to normalcy, we should see the increase in demand for UHP products in the market," Han said. "The UHP segment should continue to grow for the foreseeable future."