We’ve been talking about alternative fuels since the great oil embargo of 1973, but no dice. A friend of mine from Holland says all Americans are the same. “You put your hands over your eyes and plugs in your ears,” he often tells me. “You know what’s coming, but you don’t seem to worry about it.”
He’s dealing with gasoline prices of $7-$8 (and climbing) a gallon in his home country.
Are such prices going to be the norm in the U.S.? Well, that’s a tough question, but that’s not the point of this article. Still, the thought has merit, and not all Americans are covering their eyes and plugging their ears. The world’s automakers are tackling that question, which poses some interesting concerns for tire dealers.
Have you checked out the compact Chevrolet Cobalt with its 14-inch tires, or the Honda Fit with P175/65R14 on the front and P195/55R14 on the rear? By the way, the tires on the Fit require 33 psi front and 38 psi rear. Far cry from the booming 20- and 22-inch OE tires we were hearing about just months ago.
This will be one of your re-learns as sub-compacts and micro-compacts find their way into today’s market.
Note, too, that the Honda Fit is 20-inches shorter than the Civic Sedan, weighs 2,900 pounds, and cranks out 109 horsepower. None of the new sub- and micro-compacts are going to be fast – some might even question their safety – but they promise to stretch the fuel dollar a lot further than even some of the hybrids out there. And that’s the hot button today.
There are already complaints that the narrower tires will even follow the rain grooves cut into the concrete on expressways. If you’ve ever experienced this kind of ride you know you have to hang onto the steering wheel for dear life. This is simply the nature of the beast so don’t let the customer tell you it’s the tire’s fault. My experience decades ago in VW Beetles taught me a thing or two.
These new vehicles are commuter cars, which will find happy homes in many places. They became quite popular in the crowded urban areas of Europe and Asia, where parking is almost non-existent and, as you saw above, fuel is far from cheap.
Speaking of parking, did you know that two Smart cars will fit in a standard parking space? Not end to end, mind you. Sideways, with room to spare.
Probably the most startling new car to hit these shores in decades is the 1,800-to 2,400-pound Mercedes Benz engineered, Mitsubishi-powered 70 horsepower, 3 cylinder Smart ForTwo car. Here’s another relearn. The Smart comes with a variety of tire sizes, with larger rears than fronts. Here’s an example: With nine-spoke alloys, the Smart ForTwo comes OE with 150/60R15 up front and 175/55R15 at the rear.
You are going to have to pay very strict attention to such details because “wrong sizing” tires on such a small vehicle will require much more of the driver and every component on the vehicle.
And here’s the big one for this mighty mite – the wheels come in a three-bolt pattern. After talking with several wheel professionals, who asked not to be quoted, the best guess is that you will be required to use a torque stick in two (or possibly three) phases. In phase one, for example, you might torque the wheel fasteners to 70 ft. lbs. the first time around – in sequence – and in phase two torque them to reach final spec. What is final torque for the Smart ForTwo? Good question. We couldn’t find it.
At the moment everyone is asking if this car will find a place in the U.S. At 45 to 60 mpg and a base price of $11,590 it might, even though it’s shorter than most NBA centers. It seats two comfortably, according to all reports, but isn’t a grocery getter if you’ve got more than four bags. Oh, also, the gas tank holds 10 gallons of premium fuel, smaller than some lawn mowers.
By the way, if you are interested, you can reserve your Smart for just $99 online.
Check the wheelbase for this car and you’ll come up with 73.5 inches with overall length coming in at 106.1. Right now the manufacturers of alignment racks and lifts are looking at their equipment, which may or may not accommodate such a small car. If there is anything that concerns alignment rack makers it would be the width of these new cars. Will the ramps need to be closer together? This a question that is being studied as you read this story.
Will this be a long-range problem? The short answer is no. You can expect each of your tire and alignment equipment makers to be ready for what might turn out to be a flood of gas misers on our roadways.
You already know all about the Toyota Prius and its P185/60R15 tires. Apparently there are no problems with tire work on this car; at least we haven’t heard of any. The same size tire will come on the new Nissan Cube on the front, but the rear tires will be 205/55R16.
Bottom line is this: You cannot make assumptions here. Watch carefully for different front/rear sizes and pressure settings on this new breed of ultra-compact cars.
Not every sub- and micro-compact is coming from overseas. GM’s Aveo XFE (mpg 36 est.) has 14-inch Michelin Latitude Tour HP tires, which the tiremaker says adds 3 mpg to the XFE.
With what you already know about the products you offer, you can add additional gallons per mile to any vehicle. Just 4 mpg is $16 a fill-up at $4 a gallon, maybe $64 for a month, which is a lot of money saved for the family budget. This is an important relearn when it comes to selling these products to the consumer.
Another good piece of news is that all of these cars – from the Nissan Cube and Versa to the Honda Civic Si and the Fit – are low-priced cars. Consumers can afford them, they will fall in love with the improved fuel mileage and keep them for as long as they have to. At least that’s the prevailing thinking. These types of vehicles may become the norm here in the future, as they have in other parts of the high-gas-price world.
Yet to be heard from are the Chinese, but rumors are already flying. Will some of their fuel-efficient, subcompacts make their way to the U.S.? You better believe they will, but what kind of rubber will they be wearing? Will we see some 12- and 13-inchers? After all, there were rumors that the Smart ForTwo would enter this country wearing 12-inch tires, which later proved false.
It will now fall to you to keep the owners of this new breed of fuel sippers safe and sound. Remember, these cars don’t weigh much so there is far less down force. When a driver of one of these models encounters ponding water and his tires are worn beyond the point of effective water removal, the chances of hydroplaning are going to increase. Vehicle weight, road surface and severity of weather are key concerns here.
After 53 years of driving I have only hydroplaned one time and believe me it is scary. I lost total control of the vehicle, and had no idea where I was going. I was also between an 18-wheeler and a steel guardrail. I was lucky.
The upshot here is that you must constantly make your sub- and micro-compact, fuel-efficient vehicle owners aware of their tread depth at all times. You must teach them the importance of tire rotation, you must make them understand when they need a new set of tires and why. And you must learn from them and what they are experiencing, when and how much of a safety or comfort issue may be involved.
In theory, the lighter weight of the vehicle should make tires last longer, but in practice most drivers neglect their tires. So you must be their watchdog. Also, when these small vehicles encounter a pothole, that tire needs immediate inspection. Be sure to tell them that and ask them to bring the tires in for an inspection and rebalancing job more often than your regular customers.
Here’s the final re-learn. You must stress alignment, tire/wheel balancing and proper inflation more than ever before. If you fail to do it on the new sub- and micro-compacts, you lose.
Finally, your new job will fast become a balancing act of saving the family budget while providing the smoothest, safest ride possible – all on vehicles you may never have dealt with before. Stay tuned for updates.