Posts Tagged ‘tires’

Other than this being a pop culture reference from a decade or two ago in the comparison of a value-priced detergent and the (at the time) number one selling brand, blind tests have been a tried and tested form of instant affirmation of a brand’s status – regardless of the product.

And so it was one morning in early fall as the leaves were beginning to turn that a small group of automotive journalists made their way to Mosport, now more correctly referred to as Canadian Tire Motorsports Park or CTMP near Bowmanville, Ontario.

We were here to test a Sailun Tire against a very popular competitor in the Canadian marketplace.

Initially assembled in the now demolished Castrol control tower, we sat and listened, made notes as we were told the story of Sailun Tires, their origins and future plans – specifically in Canada.

To many of you reading this, Sailun is a typo, a name not currently in your lexicon – automotive or otherwise. And for the most part, that was pretty close to the mark for the assembled auto writers in the room. In fact, employees and technicians of Sailun painfully outnumbered writers.

Some had heard of the brand before, but no-one had any direct experience. Or had ever knowingly driven any vehicle clad with Sailun rubber before. There was a palpable nervous chuckle and anxious glances at this fact from Sailun employees over this reveal.

But let’s address the back story before we go any further. Sailun Tires are a division of a bigger organization; Dynamic Tire Corp. Sailun Tires are made in China. OK, there we go; the 800 pound gorilla in the room. The tires are made in China! But wait, there are more than 600 tire manufacturing facilities in China including some ‘household’ names, such as Goodyear, Michelin, Pirelli and Bridgestone, to name a few.

That tidbit certainly got the attention of the assembled writers and the room was silent: Brian Mielko, Vice President Marketing certainly had our attention.

First and foremost, Sailun recognizes that it is not an industry leader. They are quite comfortable in the value tier segment of the tire world. Some of the facts that got knowing nods at appropriate moments included 41% of aftermarket tires are sold from the value tier segment; the value tier market comprises some 24%.Within this market there are dozens of choices.

Is there one that is any better than the other?

To be clear, Mielko and his team were not here to take on the world of tires. They were here to attempt to demonstrate that there is another viable alternative in the crowded value tier tire landscape. However, because their brand is not first on the lips of drivers and dealers and not  being in the top five, by sales volume in any market does not mean that they cannot produce a great tire. Sailun’s goal today and every day after this is not to prove their tires are the best. They want an opportunity to demonstrate that their brand is as good as anyone else’s. Not a lofty goal, perhaps, but the proof would be there for all to see shortly.

We were now ready to head out to the Driver Development Track (DDT) of CTMP to play with the tires and of course, cars. Before leaving it was suggested that there would be a reveal of the competitor’s brand at lunch time, half way through our testing. To a person this notion was, to the obvious pleasure of Sailun execs tossed out. This was to be a true blind test all the way through. No reveal until the last brake pad and rotor had a chance to cool down.

All of the tires we would test drive had the names and identifications buffed off the tire’s sidewalls. So, unless you were an expert on tread pattern there was no way of knowing which tires were fitted to the car. Our cars for the day were Ford Fusions and needless to say, everyday driver’s are not encouraged to do what we did to the cars and especially the tires over those the next few hours. Do not try this at home.

The first test consisted of drives around the DDT in the opposite direction to the way it was designed. We were requested to travel at a maximum of 80 km/h to simulate driving on rural two-lane highways. Cars were marked clearly either “1” or “2”. On this test the tires on “1” produced minimal road noise and did not squeal under moderate cornering loads while offering good levels of grip in generally accepted non-aggressive driving conditions. The “1” tires were almost predictable – a good thing, especially as they seemed to subliminally grip through all corners – in my opinion. Generally, the tires on “2” car did not feel the same – less comfortable over all yet perhaps providing a marginally better steering response.

After each lap in every car, eager techs descended upon us with tablets looking for us to offer immediate opinions on predetermined test templates while the ride was fresh in our minds. This would occur each time any driver stepped from a Ford Fusion. A little annoying but definitely necessary.

Next we were taken to the wet slalom, where we performed the autocross course at speeds of 50 km/h, 60 km/h, and then as fast as we could. The cars were still “1” or “2” – some were FWD, some AWD but regardless, we drove all configurations equally.

Again every vehicle and their buffed rubber seemed very close in performance – this was, indeed, the Pepsi challenge revisited.

After lunch it was hot laps on the DDT – going the right way around the course that many of us had experienced before – in fact, my first turn around this track was on a Bridgestone-sponsored event. Long story short, in spite of every driver’s best efforts, no cars ploughed the in-field and no tires were blown. It appeared that none of us could really tell the two seemingly different sets of tires apart.

To Brian Mielko and his team, this was a dream come true.

Over coffee in the old Castrol tower, we waited patiently as the survey results were carefully tabulated. It was then revealed that tire “1” had been the Sailun Z4+AS and that tire “2” had been the Continental Extreme Contact. As stated, anecdotally we all thought that overall there were no discernible differences between the popular Conti rubber and the Sailun contender. Then came the actual results.

Sailun’s Atrezzo Z4 AS tire

On the wet slalom, tires were rated on four criteria: overall control and predictability; cornering stability; steering feel; and, traction under acceleration. Sailun performed marginally better in all categories.Next was the road drive with one added category – drive comfort. Sailun prevailed again.

Then we had tracking. Five categories similar to the slalom with the addition of confidence on braking. Sailun bested Conti in four of five categories, being narrowly edged out on steering feel and responsiveness.

Continental’s Extreme Contact tire

So at the end of the day with a possible score of 40, Continental came in at 30; Sailun edged them with 31. Then a marketing manager shared additional information: a couple of phone calls moments before to tire dealers in the Toronto area revealed that the Sailun Z4+AS retailed at $111 per tire and the Continental for $189. That’s a huge 70% price difference!Smiles all round; mission accomplished – at least as far as the day was concerned. Tires as good as a major competitor – and way less expensive.

Can Sailun succeed in their quest to be seen as an industry leader in the value tier segment? They are making all the right moves at the back end with expansive new warehouse facilities in Brampton and with major quality control measures for every tire that comes off the production line – yes, you read that correctly; each and every tire is tested before it heads out to any market for resale.

Time, of course will tell. They are taking their future very seriously and carefully. They’re not looking for global domination, merely some respect and the ability to sell more tires – especially in the challenging Canadian market. Remember, this test was for all season radials; we’ll see in the near future how Sailun stacks up in snow and much colder weather conditions at a later date. Then, and only then can Sailun truly hold their collective heads a little higher – if their winter tires compare as favourably. We shall see.

As we left the parking lot we could see high fives and broad smiles being exchanged.

My thoughts? I wish them every success. On the day, their tire performed well. It stood up against a brand leader. And bested it by 70% on price. I’d buy them and give them a chance. As a true Canadian my response is not “Why?” but a resounding “Why not!”

Just recently, my wife bought a new car.  It’s been 11 years since her last purchase so she was particularly excited over the end result, considerably less enthusiastic about the actual process.

Over the course of a month or so, she had narrowed down her selection.  Her biggest considerations?  Does it look good; will she look good in it; is it comfortable, will our Bernese Mountain Dog fit in the back; and, can two sets of snow tires and steel rims fit in the rear twice a year.  Her final selection made, negotiations, such as they were, commenced.  All went well until the ever-obliging sales representative proudly placed a brochure on the desk.  He started to make the pitch.  I could see my spouse’s eyes glazing over.  She turned to me.  “What is this? I don’t understand.”

Long story short, this manufacturer’s dealer was ‘subscribing’ to the benefits of tires on all their new vehicles being filled with nitrogen in lieu of air, plain old boring air. Fair enough.  My wife’s disenchantment with this discussion was becoming evident.  “Will this cost me more?  We already agreed on a price. I don’t wish to pay any more than we have agreed.”  Recognizing the  distinct possibility of a customer walking away, our ever-genial representative quickly and quite professionally agreed that arrangement would be made to still provide this ‘premium service’ –  but at no additional cost.

Smiles all around, papers were signed, the meeting with the dealer Business Manager occurred and everyone was happy. This, however, got me thinking.

What are the benefits to nitrogen-inflated tires?

For some time, nitrogen has been used for inflating tires in aircraft, military vehicles, race cars, and heavy off-road equipment.  However for a few years, this odorless tasteless inert gas has slowly been creeping into the everyday lives of the general public.  It all started innocently enough, but soon, in apparent stealth mode, nitrogen as an inflation option, managed to make its move toward its mission of ubiquity.  Costco/Price Club, the single largest retailer in the world for Michelin tires, started to offer nitrogen fills for all new tires sold.  They would also provide the same service for previously air-filled tires, too – at a price.  Soon, inNorth Americaat least, other retailers also offered the same service.

Why?

The three main reasons as stated by proponents of the practice, including a Canadian company, Sym-Tech (www.sym-tech.ca), would appear to be:

  1.  Nitrogen  increases gas mileage.  Filling your tires with nitrogen ensures constant proper inflation of tires, therefore increasing gas mileage.
  2. Nitrogen decreases tire wear.  When a tire is properly inflated it wears out evenly giving you more miles/kilometres on the rubber.
  3. With improved wear and tire, tires are less likely to be dumped in landfills sooner than later, therefore initiating environmental rewards all around.

Interesting, but what does it really mean?  Well, when it’s all distilled, here is the ‘pitch’ for: nitrogen is a more efficient and effective gas for filling car tires as opposed to oxygen due to the fact that molecules of nitrogen are larger, relatively speaking, than molecules of oxygen. Oxygen and nitrogen are both diatomic (composed of two atoms) molecules but since oxygen has a smaller kinetic diameter, it flows through polymers that make up the structure of the tire and may lead to poor tire inflation if not checked regularly. Nitrogen and oxygen also expand and contract differently. Nitrogen is not as responsive to heat fluctuations as oxygen and therefore, pressure irregularities within the tire are not as pronounced or pervasive. This translates into reduced tire wear and overall improved efficiency of the tire. OK, so there may be a longer-term benefit to one’s pocket book – after an initial upfront investment.

Advocates of plain old ordinary dry compressed air would like to point out one or two key arguments to the pro-nitrogen position:

Tires wear from the outside, not the inside.

‘Plain’ air’s make up is approximately 20% oxygen, 80% nitrogen. Is that 20% critical?  Maybe yes, maybe no.

By way of casual research, we visited a few major tire manufacturers’ web sites.  We saw no statements from a single one making any relevant reference to inflating their brand of tires with 100% nitrogen, instead of compressed air. While the Internet can be a wonderful resource, there are occasions when the voracity of certain claims needs to be verified.

In an interview with Jeremy Smith, Manager, Brand Public Relations Community and Corporate Relations for Bridgestone Americas, Inc. we asked the question; air or gas for tire inflation?  Cutting to the chase, Smith made it clear that for Bridgestone, in consumer or general commercial vehicles, they do not necessarily advocate one over the other. “However, any tire, when properly inflated and whose pressure is checked regularly, will offer definitive economies to the end user.”  While clearly sitting on the political fence, a gentle nudge suggested that paying to maintain proper pressure really did not make much sense.  A similar response was given by Darla Elkins, Smith’s counterpart in the motorsport division.

To round things out, we had similar discussions with representatives of Michelin, BF Goodrich and Uniroyal.  Each of those three companies recommend nitrogen inflation but make it clear that they are not insistent.  Nitrogen-inflated tires will lose pressure more slowly, but if any tire is properly and regularly maintained and inspected, it really makes no difference.  It is, to these major manufacturers, all still a matter of preference.

Looking for further ‘proof’? Visit any top automobile racing group website, and you’ll find the same… Indeed, if nitrogen inflation was so critical, surely NASCAR, F1, Indy and others would be strong proponents of this idea?  Instead, nothing is heard from some of the most critical tire users out there. Again, in fairness a few years back, the world of motorsport racing embraced nitrogen.  Studies were conducted and ultimately no outrageous advantages were clearly evident.

In fact in January 2007, Honda issued a bulletin to all their dealers; we discussed this with Richard Jacobs of Honda Canada. “When it comes to inflating automobile tires, it’s our position that ordinary, dry compressed air – which is about 80 percent nitrogen already – is the best choice. That’s because it’s more readily available, and the benefits of using nitrogen simply don’t appear to outweigh those of using compressed air.”

Honda goes on to state that the practice of inflating tires with nitrogen has been around a long time. It’s been commonly used on aerospace vehicles, commercial and military aircraft, military vehicles, race cars, and even heavy off-road construction equipment. And here’s why:

• To meet rigid safety and performance specs, the required tire inflation pressures are often very high, especially in the aerospace industry. The tire inflation pressure for NASA’s space shuttle, for example, is an astounding 315 psi – close to 10 times the pressure in the tires on your every day vehicle.

• Nitrogen is an inert gas; it doesn’t combust or oxidize.

• The process used to compress nitrogen excludes water vapour. Water vapour can expand if the temperature climbs above 100°C.

• Tires inflated with nitrogen leak slower over time than those inflated with compressed air.

So, there is a definite case to be made for the use of nitrogen for tire inflation – under the above scenarios.

However, with automobile tires, they on the other hand, are subjected to an entirely different set of conditions. Here’s Hondas position on why inflating tires with nitrogen offers no significant or real advantages:

• Nitrogen offers no better protection against road hazards such as cuts and punctures. So no matter what you inflate the tire with, you still need to check the condition and pressure of the tires at least once a month, just as recommended in any vehicle’s owner manual.

• Tires that are inflated with compressed air and properly maintained offer the same fuel economy tread wear, and ride comfort as those inflated with nitrogen.

• Nitrogen inflation does offer the advantage of having little or no water vapour present in the tire which can cause internal corrosion of the wheel or damage TPMS (tire-pressure monitoring system) sensors. However, if your dealership, tire store of even local gas/service station uses and properly maintains air drying equipment on its compressed air supply, this isn’t an issue with normal air inflation.

• Nitrogen for automobile tires is produced by nitrogen generators, which typically achieve about 95 percent purity. But to actually get that level of purity into an automobile tire, you would have to deflate and inflate that tire with nitrogen several times – it’s like purging a new propane tank before first use. If you’re not careful doing this repeated deflation and inflation process, the purity level winds up being closer to 90 percent (compared to the approximate 80 percent nitrogen already in compressed air). Because of this, those claims of less pressure loss with nitrogen are not entirely valid.

So at the end of the day, what to do?  Like many things in life, you have a choice.  Is either method necessarily better?  Is either method necessarily worse?  Let’s be perfectly clear; it’s personal – and, it comes down to dollars and cents.  And yes, while it is true many gas stations now offer air from machines for a very small fee, which is still considerably less than an up to $10 per tire charge for a nitrogen fill.

If a major tire and automobile manufacturer do not believe there are any inherent benefits, then, what are you going to do?

Let’s allow Honda to have the last word (for now) on this topic; if nitrogen offers no apparent advantages over dry compressed air, then what is their advice to you? Are you ready for this? Stick with the air you breathe. And check your car’s tire pressure regularly. Saving gas consumption through better mileage from properly inflated tires, regardless of the method selected, will have ecological and cost benefits for us all.

If nothing else, remember this; it’s all more than just hot air.