The air runs out of run-flat tires

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Rick Kranz
Automotive News | July 27, 2009

After settling a lawsuit last month with disgruntled owners of Michelin run-flat tires, Honda dropped the tires for the 2010 model year. It was another disappointment for Michelin and other makers of run-flat tires in a 17-year effort to win customers in the United States.

When run-flat tires appeared here in 1992, they were expected to win wide acceptance as original equipment. The prospect of no flats or blowouts seemed like a strong pitch.

But except for applications on a few luxury and other vehicles, the tires were largely ignored because of their high cost — $200 to $500 each — and their impact on fuel economy.

A Michelin study released last year found that only 3 percent of drivers worldwide want run-flat tires. U.S. market share is well below 1 percent.

BMW AG, General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. and several other companies continue to offer run-flat tires on a few vehicles. But at American Honda Motor Co., the 2009 Honda Odyssey Touring and Acura RL were its last models available with run-flat tires. "Never say never, but we have no current plans" for other models, says Honda spokesman Sage Marie.

After being punctured, run-flats typically can travel only 50 miles before they shred, says Jennifer Stockburger, a program manager at Consumer Reports magazine.

Depending on its size and the vehicle, a replacement run-flat costs about $200 to more than $500, compared with about $100 for a typical high-quality tire. Also, not all tire stores repair or stock the tire, and some owners in the Honda suit said the tires wore out at around 15,000 miles.

The owners of 94,000 2005 to 2007 Odyssey Touring and some 2006 and 2007 Acura RL models joined a class action suit in U.S. District Court in Maryland against Michelin and Honda. The owners alleged unreasonable tread wear, high replacement costs and difficulties finding a repair shop. The tires have been discontinued.

As part of the settlement, announced June 23, Michelin said it is offering a 3-year/36,000-mile warranty on the tires to owners of the affected models. Also offered is a $300 rebate on a new Odyssey or Acura RL or $110 for the purchase of Honda-approved Pax spare-tire kits.

Michelin spokeswoman Lynne Slovick said Michelin "will continue to offer zero-pressure tires [run-flats] if we get specific requests from vehicle manufacturers." Michelin run-flat tires are offered on the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 and several BMW models.

Honda declined to comment on the settlement.

Dave Cowger, GM’s engineering group manager for tire and wheel systems, said run-flats cost about a third more than a conventional tire, but he declined to provide figures.

GM also said run-flats are 20 to 40 percent heavier than a conventional tire because of a thicker sidewall. They also have higher rolling resistance, so they reduce fuel economy by about 1 to 2 percent, GM says.

But Cowger is not giving up on run-flat tires at GM. He said the tire industry expects to cut weight and rolling resistance in three to four years.