Good press for Chinese manufacturing is hard to come by these days. American consumers have faced numerous issues with products imported from the country. Lead-laced toys, melamine-tainted toothpaste and pet-food recalls are a few incidents that come to mind. But what about tires? Should you trust your life to bargain rubber?
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
Matt Edmonds is the vice president of TireRack.com, a massive online retailer that sells all kinds of automotive parts from brakes and wipers to suspension kits. Regarding these Chinese products he said “we have not, quite honestly, found tires that are up to the level of the performance that we need them to be in order to offer them.”
Typically Chinese tires play in the value end of the market where price is king. “It comes down to you get what you pay for,” Edmonds said. “There’s only so much you can save in raw materials” adding, “the real difference comes down to research and development.”
A huge amount of engineering goes into producing a tire, much of which is invisible; they’re far more than just rubber doughnuts with some random tread pattern slapped on. “The ‘black magic’ as we call it is the compound. That does everything from impacting how a tire performs in different conditions to how long a tire lasts.”
He also said that some Chinese companies have been sued for directly copying tread patterns from other well-known tire makers. But just because their products looked the same didn’t mean they performed equally. The knock offs were missing the advanced engineering found in name-brand tires and as a result they “didn’t work well at all” Edmonds said.
MADE IN CHINA = BUYER BEWARE?
But just because a tire is manufactured in the Middle Kingdom doesn’t automatically mean it’s junk. Edmonds said “we have a few SKUs that are made in China from a few major manufacturers.” He also said “[there’s] a line called Fuzion that is actually manufactured by Bridgestone.” It’s an entry-level brand they introduced and while it’s not as good as their top-tier product, it is less expensive.
“If they’re [the major name-brand tire manufacturers] having the tire built in China they’re having it built to their specifications. They maintain control of that raw material,” he said. Not to mention the engineering and development work. What TireRack.com does not offer are tires that are designed and engineered in China by Chinese firms.
Getting down to brass tacks, Edmonds said cut-rate tires from Chinese manufacturers are not generally a smart buy. “I think it’s very hard to justify” he added, especially when things like reduced traction, questionable tread life and elevated noise are factored in. That set of ultra-cheap tires may not be such a screaming deal if your car slides off the road when it’s raining or they need to be replaced after just six months of service.
SIFTING WHEAT FROM CHAFF
Dynamic Tire Corp. VP of sales and corporate accounts Brian Mielko said quality and value can be found in the Wild, Wild East but you’ve got to know where to look. His company specializes in importing different tire brands from China.
“If it’s got wheels we can probably put a tire on it” he said. The products they distribute run the gamut from passenger car tires to rubber for commercial vehicles and large mining trucks.
Essentially what they’ve done is take the guesswork out of purchasing tires from offshore companies. “Who are the premium factories, the best factories?” asked Mielko. These are the firms his business deals with.
Some of the brands they handle include Sailun, Prime X, Triangle and Diamondback. Sailun is one of the biggest companies they work with. According to Mielko tires from these different companies, and others, are available across Canada and through certain retailers in the U.S.
Of course this story goes far beyond North America. “The Sailun brand is sold in 125-plus countries worldwide” said Mielko.
SEE ALSO: Should You Buy Summer Tires?
Additionally, he pointed out that Chinese industry is perfectly capable of making first-rate stuff. “Don’t tell me the ground that the factory sits on has anything to do with the quality of the product coming out of it” he said. Going on, “they build a heck of a lot of the parts for airplanes that are overhead;” they also make Apple iPads and Sony flat-screen TVs.
Candidly, Mielko said they can build you a terrible tire or they can build you a great tire… It all comes down to engineering and materials.
Proving the capability of his products Mielko said they do special drive events on racetracks. They invite customers, dealers and automotive journalists out to sample their tires and compare them back-to-back with other brands’ offerings. Making things as fair as possible he said “we buff the sidewall off – the branding’s gone.” All tests are done blind.
In these sorts of competitive comparisons he said their tires perform and hold up just as well as the offerings from other, more well-known companies, but they are significantly cheaper. He said a savings of anywhere between 40 and 50 percent can be expected.
But how is it possible that these tires are so affordable if significant corners haven’t been cut? “The bottom line is we make less money per tire” said Mielko. He also noted that they have smaller engineering teams and don’t spend nearly as much on marketing. Of course “we’re building in China so there is a lower cost base [too].”
Despite being somewhat down on Chinese tires, arguably for good reason, Edmonds said as manufacturers over there learn they will improve, eventually bringing more competitive products to the U.S. “The Chinese market has to invest in the necessary research and development” he said, but “they have a huge market to fill over there,” which will help give companies experience.
But still, it’s probably an uphill battle. Chinese tires may be significantly more affordable but Edmonds said “we wouldn’t offer something we wouldn’t feel comfortable with.” Acknowledging these issues Mielko said “there are [Chinese] tires out there that are terrible,” but as he pointed out, it really depends on the brand you choose.