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Moving on Upward: Luxury SUVs Have Changed the Way Manufacturers and Dealers Think

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Moving on Upward

Luxury SUVs Have Changed the Way Manufacturers and Dealers Think

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It used to be that a sport utility vehicle was nothing more than a pickup truck with a backseat and a covered bed. A time when the Jeep Cherokee was the most luxurious SUV simply because it was the only SUV.

Now even pickups come with their own backseats, and there are so many SUVs available, it seems each one gets larger and more luxurious than the next. With Lincoln, Cadillac, BMW and Porsche all getting into the act, it appears these vehicles are more apt to serve as small homes than be used off-road.

It’s become a fashion statement to have one, even if they don’t fit the garage or the wallet.

Bigger and snazzier is the new better in the SUV world. Everything is oversized, overpowered and, some might argue, well overpriced. When the driver of a standard sized car can sit eye-level with the headlights of a Lincoln Navigator, the shear girth of some of these vehicles is fully recognized. And with every component overgrown, even the tires have to get bigger.

The Challenge
The problem tiremakers and dealers have when it comes to supplying rubber for these vehicles is simple: customers want a tire that operates quietly, smoothly and still does everything it’s supposed to do. But as you know, it doesn’t always happen that way. Either noise and vibration are surrendered for off-road traction, or vice versa.

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Manufacturer’s are challenged at the OE level because the tire has to fit vehicle image and satisfy performance criteria at the same time. In short, tires for large and luxury SUVs have to do both, handle off-road conditions and still drive like a car on the highway.

"Fifteen years ago, a truck was a truck, and it rode like a bucket of bolts," said Mark Richter, performance marketing manager at Yokohama Tire. "That’s changed. People buy SUVs now because they ride more like cars. They are very quiet, extremely smooth and very untruck-like. The challenge is the load carrying capacity and to make the tire unobtrusive to the environment. The vehicle needs to be smooth and quiet.

"The whole idea is that this is your living room on wheels. They still have to be heavy duty and tread designs are getting more aggressive, but people will forget about these things if it’s not quiet or rides uncomfortably."

Perhaps the best analogy is this: "Drivers are leaving their Sedan Devilles and Town Cars in droves to drive Escalades and Navigators," said Cooper Tire Product Marketing Manager John Pecoraro. "However, these drivers expect the same level of refinement in their new SUVs as they experienced in their luxury sedans. A smooth, quiet ride is paramount to these SUV owners, and tire companies at OE and replacement must make these attributes a top priority."

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While manufacturers have trouble right out of the gate, tire dealers have their own set of problems in the replacement market. Many customers will want to exchange like brand for like brand, not caring if the tire is actually right for them. Still others will want to switch brands for a myriad of reasons, again possibly choosing the wrong tire. Dealers have to fight through these notions and find out how the customer intends to use their large or luxury SUV.

"Dealers will need to change their thinking about this market segment," said Steve Myers, marketing manager of Goodyear light truck tires. "They must renew their focus on the customer and his or her needs. Dealers must be ready to ask more probing questions on how customers use their vehicles."

What’s The Reality?
More than ever, dealers need to pay attention to what their customers are really using the vehicles for. The large and luxury SUVs on the market today claim to be able to handle the harsh conditions of off-road driving, while still providing elegance and comfort. But it’s hard to believe a Lexus LS470 owner is going hardcore off-roading. It might get driven down a gravel driveway, what some owners could consider off-road.

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This type of vehicle isn’t going to determine which tire is best. The customer and what the customer does with the vehicle are the primary factors to which dealers need to pay attention. While this is true for any type of tire application, it’s vital when in comes to large and luxury SUVs.

"Dealers must keep an open mind when an SUV arrives at their dealership," Myers said. "For example, one customer may use a Cadillac Escalade for transporting friends to the golf course. Another person may use an Escalade to go hunting or fishing. Each customer requires a different tire, based on their true needs."

"Dealers don’t need to change their thinking if they have traditionally been selling tires based on the customer’s true need," said Cooper’s Pecoraro. "But dealers really need to ask the customer about his or her style of driving and use of the vehicle. Perform a needs analysis in order to make the proper tire recommendation, whether it be a Jeep Wrangler or a large SUV."

Listening to customers also entails reading between the lines. Customers have a tendency to say one thing, mean something else and never realize the difference. "We’re always talking about ‘clarifying the customers,’" said Richter. "Someone might say ‘give me the most aggressive tire’ but that might not be want they want. The dealer has to help them figure it out."

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Another thing the dealer needs to keep in mind – probably because the SUV owner won’t – is the drive system of the vehicle. There’s nearly as many drive systems as vehicle types. Dealers need to coincide the tire with the vehicle and type of drive system to ensure everything works properly.

"The thing about four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive is there’s so many different kinds available," Richter said. "Smart dealers are paying attention to the different systems in each model of SUV. Paying attention to OE and original sizing before making changes is a big key.

"The BMW X5, for example, has all-wheel-drive and massive tires, and you have to pay attention to rolling diameter. Dealers should focus on smooth and quiet, and in not upsetting original systems."

Plus Super Sized
Large luxury SUVs are huge. But just how big do the tires have to be to handle a vehicle that size? Or, more importantly, how big will the tires get in the future?

Even though it was just for fun, Yokohama rolled out a 26-inch performance tire for SUV fitment at last year’s ITE/SEMA show.

Eighteen- to 20-inch tires are pretty acceptable. But how feasible is anything bigger in a true SUV or performance tire?

"Most large two-wheel drive SUVs can handle a 32-inch outside diameter tire with no problem, and some four-wheel drives can handle 35-inches," said Pecoraro.

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"A 26-inch wheel is beginning to stretch the limit, and the potential for tire and wheel damage increases. That size doesn’t allow very much vertical deflection of the tire before the rim comes in contact with a pothole edge or some other hazard."

"Load carrying capacity is going to be first and foremost in our minds," said Richter. "Full-sized SUVs are giant and most OE packages are fancy but pretty conservative when it comes to fitments. It used to be a 20-inch tire wasn’t heard of. Now you can put one on and there’s no rubbing or interference."

Richter stresses that if dealers are going to plus-size these vehicles, they need to take into account the added demands larger tires will place on the SUV – especially extremely large SUVs.

"With 22- and 23-inch sizes, one of the concerns is can the wheel and tire package can be heavier than OE? Adding 30 pounds to each corner is like adding four extra wheels. Braking, handing will be affected," Ritcher said.

"We tell dealers if your going to run a marathon in hiking boots, you’ll get blisters and run out of breath. You need the right equipment. Many things happen by changing something radically."

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Many modifications involve lowering the vehicle, which cuts off more clearance. Additionally, the typically heavier aftermarket packages can seriously alter vehicle dynamics. Keeping things to OE spec is the critical in any plus-sizing operation.

"Tire size always will be driven by the car maker and customer desires," said Goodyear’s Myers. "The number of luxury SUVs being developed makes it difficult to say which tire size is most common anymore."

But it is up to the dealer to make sure the customer doesn’t get burned by trying to do too much.

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