Warranty Blues: Tire Warranties, Frustrated Consumers and Baffled Dealers - Tire Review Magazine

Warranty Blues: Tire Warranties, Frustrated Consumers and Baffled Dealers

Tire Warranties, Frustrated Consumers and Baffled Dealers

A major tire company executive once insisted that there was no place for a radial ply tire in the U.S. Months later he was replaced.

Those were the days when a radial was expected to return nearly 40,000 miles – astounding for that time. The driving public, Detroit and tire dealers started clamoring for American-made radials even though the tires represented just 7% of the market back in 1972.

In the late 1960s, a tire buyer was lucky to get 9,000 miles from a set of bias plies. They weren’t happy, but that was a fact of life. U.S. manufacturers scoffed at the Europeans and their radials, but eventually they had to hustle to meet consumer demand.

Throughout this period, ads for bias and bias-belted tires carried such messages as: “38% more stopping power.” More than what? Those exaggerations didn’t sit well with the buying public or Congress, which quickly stepped in. Almost overnight they scrutinized the U.S. tire industry and its claims and warranties like a raptor looking for food.

Over time, U.S.-made radial tires (and the promotional claims) got better. But the new, often confusing warranties never caught on with buyers.

Take a look at this statement from a major tiremaker: “Today, when tire buyers consider the value of a warranty measured against price only, the value of a warranty slides to second with price listed as the number one concern.” It hasn’t changed in the years since.

Qualitative studies support that warranties are important for most products, but tire shoppers don’t always know exactly what they are getting or what it covers. Road hazard damage is not usually covered by tiremakers, but many buyers don’t know that. “Limited warranty” means little to them, and no one (other than tiremaker lawyers) really understands that phrase.

Another confusing aspect for consumers: Who is accountable for honoring the warranty they purchase – the manufacturer or the retailer?

Some OE tires carry limited treadwear warranties, some don’t. Some replacement tires carry limited warranties and others don’t. In some cases the tire dealership will direct the customer to the manufacturer; in others the dealer handles the warranty.

So, who is on the hook regarding tire warranties? That is a very long and complicated story that has left consumers frustrated.

When Radial Met Bias

The year was 1972 and U.S. tiremakers still touted the bias-belted tire as the “wave” of the future. The exception was BFGoodrich, which began selling radials as early as 1965 and was light years ahead of its U.S. competition.

Uniroyal also went on the offensive with its radial featuring a steel belt. The tire, nicknamed the Zeta 4M, was presented as a radial tire capable of delivering 40,000 miles of tread life while its running mate, the Zeta 30M, a steel belted bias tire, came with a 30,000 mile guarantee. Back then – as now – steel was the magic word.

So bold was Uniroyal that one of its top executives predicted candidly that “the caboose on Michelin’s gravy train is in sight.” Well, we all know how that turned out.

The only catch, if we are fair in calling it that, was that Uniroyal would not guarantee such mileage unless Zeta buyers returned the tires to the store where the tires were purchased every 5,000 miles for a free rotation and inspection. A small owner-manual guarantee booklet was given to each Zeta buyer.

When it came to the new-fangled radial, the grave concern among tiremakers and dealers was that longer wearing radials would mean tire buyers wouldn’t be frequenting their outlets as often.

What no one seemed to notice was that motorists weren’t taking better care of radials than they did their bias tires. Promotion at the time made radials sound like the end-all and be-all, so much so that after mounting a new set of radials many consumers simply stopped checking inflation pressure.

In the end, the fears of tiremakers and dealers never really materialized.

Warranties Grow

There is a saying that a warranty isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. That really isn’t always true in the tire business, but some warranty actions by tiremakers leave consumers puzzled.

For instance, at least one major tiremaker doesn’t offer a written mileage promise on any of its OE tires. Why? Because of the variety of styles, construction features, tread compounds, applications, conditions and driving habits – too many variables to cover under one blanket.

In the late 1980s, Michelin unleashed a killer 80,000-mile treadwear warranty – the longest such guarantee ever. It was the talk of the industry, and attracted consumer attention. In reality, making a claim against that guarantee was next to impossible; it required regular rotations and check-ups, which had to be noted in a special warranty booklet. It was the Zeta all over again.

Still, over time every tiremaker had high mileage warranties, successfully raising consumer awareness in product quality and performance – and over-extending their expectations.

Today, seeing an 80,000-mile warranty isn’t that unusual – there are a few 100K guarantees out there – but consumers aren’t really that interested, as we noted earlier.

Who’s Responsible?

We all know that things were a lot easier when there were just a few dozen sizes. When it came to tire performance, comparing apples to apples was easy for consumers. But as carmakers got racier, consumer expectations took a hit.

After decades of high-mileage guarantees (not to mention vague UTQG-affirmed “promises”), consumers have been conditioned to think every tire is good for 50,000-80,000 miles. Why not, that’s what they have been told countless times?

Unfortunately, some very high-priced rides are achieving only 15,000 miles on their 19-inch OE UHP tires, for which replacements are priced at $270.

“So why would they pay $270 for those tires when you can sell them an import radial for $175 and pretty much assure the buyer they can expect 50,000 miles,” said one tire dealer.

The story is much the same with a lot of 18- to 22-inch OE HP/UHP – and let’s not forget run-flats – radials. It’s not the tiremakers’ fault – the OEMs speced the expensive tires – but consumer expectations are not being met, expectations tire companies themselves created.

So just how much value do today’s treadwear warranties really deliver?

Treadlife/mileage warranties have been a popular marketing tool. They help position tires by identifying potential longevity. Consumers can use that data to “compare” products on more than just price and size.

Not all consumers will receive the warranted treadlife, and they accept that. But after years of being lured by promises of 50,000-plus miles – especially among drivers old enough to remember when 10,000 miles was beyond belief – the mileage performance of some of today’s tires leave them confused.

And with today’s odd-sized (and quite expensive), sometimes fast-wearing OE tires entering the picture, it’s easy to see why tire buyers are a bit irked.

Could their view of warranties change? One of the most astute dealers we know was asked point blank if big brand names will give way to lesser known brands touting big warranties.

“It might,” he said. “With $4 a gallon gasoline looming just around the corner along with higher-priced groceries, our habits as a driving nation appear to be in for a big change. Read into that what you will.”

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