Cars lose spare tire for a leaner ride

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSINESS - By Nor­man May­er­sohn

To the list of items you should no longer ex­pect to see in a new car — those once-com­mon fea­tures like a metal ig­ni­tion key, an ash­tray or a vent win­dow that swings open — you may soon be ad­ding the spare tire.

Al­ready, nearly a third of the 2017 mod­els of­fered in the United States do not come out­fit­ted with a save-the-day spare as stan­dard equip­ment, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by AAA.

In truth, the ex­tinc­tion of the spare tire has been hap­pen­ing, if grad­u­ally, for years. Full-size spares gave way to the space-sav­ing “dough­nut” ver­sions you some­times spot on ve­hi­cles trav­el­ing at wor­ry­ing speeds. They, in turn, are yield­ing their un­der-floor real es­tate to no tire at all.

The elim­i­na­tion of the spare by au­tomak­ers is not en­tirely an aban­don­ment of good sense or a se­vere ex­am­ple of cost-cut­ting; in fact, it can ben­e­fit driv­ers. The pri­mary goal is weight re­duc­tion, a cru­cial factor in meet­ing fuel econ­omy stan­dards.

A win for engineers

Re­mov­ing a sub­stan­tial amount of rub­ber and steel — up to 40 pounds, ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try ex­perts — along with a jack and a lug wrench is a big win for engineers who are con­di­tioned to shave ounces wher­ever pos­si­ble.

But as ap­peal­ing as it may be to skip the dough­nut and lose a lit­tle weight, the dis­ap­pear­ing spare can cause headaches: AAA said that last year it had an­swered road­side as­sis­tance calls from 450,000 mem­bers whose cars did not have spares — a sit­u­a­tion that can mean a trip to the re­pair shop on a flatbed.

The free­dom to elim­i­nate spare tires al­to­gether is largely pos­si­ble as a re­sult of de­vel­op­ments in tire con­struc­tion tech­nol­ogy.

An in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar al­ter­na­tive to spares is the so-called run-flat de­sign, which most new BMW mod­els use. In­tended to make road­side tire changes un­nec­es­sary, this so­lu­tion em­ploys a re­in­forced tire side­wall that typ­i­cally lets the driver con­tinue for 50 miles at up to 50 mph after air pres­sure is lost. But they can be more costly: It may be nec­es­sary to re­place, rather than sim­ply patch, a dam­aged tire, and re­place­ments are typ­i­cally priced $25 to $50 higher than a con­ven­tional de­sign.

An­other al­ter­na­tive

An­other al­ter­na­tive is the self-seal­ing tire, an older so­lu­tion reap­pear­ing in mod­ern form on the bat­tery-pow­ered Chevro­let Bolt, where re­duced weight trans­lates to more miles per charge. De­signed solely as an elec­tric ve­hi­cle, the Bolt has no pro­vi­sion for car­ry­ing a spare. Ac­cord­ing to Miche­lin, which sup­plies the Bolt’s En­ergy Saver A/S Self­seal rub­ber, the ex­tra cost of a self-seal­ing tire — which can con­tinue down the road even with a nail in the tread — is about $33 com­pared with con­ven­tional tires of the same size.

But some mod­els are los­ing the spare with­out the ben­e­fit of run-flat or self-seal­ing rub­ber, in­stead in­clud­ing con­ven­tional tires and a leak re­pair kit — pack­aged in an aerosol can or used in con­junc­tion with a small air com­pres­sor pow­ered by the car’s bat­tery.

Such kits skim weight while skip­ping the tire but have lim­ited abil­i­ties to deal with any road haz­ard more se­ri­ous than a nail hole in the tire’s tread sec­tion. A larger tear in the tire — some­thing that can hap­pen when mod­ern low­pro­file tires meet a pot­hole — or dam­age to the side­wall or wheel rim will not be fixed by a leak kit. The sealants, which are usu­ally one-time use de­vices, have a fi­nite shelf life — usu­ally from four to eight years, AAA said — and cost about $40 to re­place.

All the goo in­side

Even if a leak sealant kit gets you back on the road in a hurry after a mi­nor punc­ture, it could com­pli­cate a per­ma­nent re­pair. Af­fix­ing an in­ter­nal patch after a sealant has been used re­quires a thor­ough cleanup of all the goo in­side, said Tom Carter, tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for Miche­lin.

In some cases, greater peace of mind is avail­able from the au­tomak­ers.

For in­stance, although main­stream ver­sions of the 2017 Honda Civic come from the fac­tory with space-saver spares, the Civic Si does not. A spare wheel kit, in­clud­ing a jack and tools, is avail­able from Honda deal­ers as an ac­ces­sory for the Civic Si at a sug­gested re­tail price of $254. The tire, which must be pur­chased sep­a­rately, runs about $115 from sources like Tir­erack.com.

BMW of­fers a com­pact spare kit — in­clud­ing jack and wrench — for many of its X-Se­ries sport util­ity ve­hi­cles and for the 5- and 7-Se­ries sedans. In most cases, it’s a $150 op­tion when or­der­ing the car, though on some mod­els with con­ven­tional tires it is free. On the sport util­ity mod­els, the com­pact spare fits en­tirely within a com­part­ment un­der the rear floor, but on the sedans it juts out too high, mean­ing the floor panel can­not lie flat.

Not sur­pris­ingly, in­de­pen­dent on­line re­tail­ers have also emerged to fill the hole. Buy­ers should make sure to com­pare prices with the deal­er­ship and to de­ter­mine that there is a stor­age spot in the car where the tire can be secured.

Don’t know how

The dis­ap­pear­ance of the spare tire might be more than just an ex­er­cise in ef­fi­ciency. It may be a so­ci­o­log­i­cal state­ment. A sur­vey by AAA found that some 20 per­cent of driv­ers do not know how to change a flat tire, and with the rise of road­side as­sis­tance cov­er­age for new cars, that num­ber is un­likely to shrink.

The era of cars proudly dis­play­ing a spare tire mounted on the front fender, rear bumper or side — a standby of pre­war clas­sics — is long gone, and the tra­di­tion of subur­ban dads gath­er­ing to in­spect a neigh­bor’s new pur­chase may have to un­dergo a ma­jor change.

In­stead of crowd­ing around the front end to see what’s un­der the hood, per­haps they’ll be check­ing the trunk to see if it’s got a spare.

Gen­eral Mo­tors via New York Times

This tire in­fla­tor was sup­plied with the 2011 Chevro­let Cruze Eco. Nearly a third of the 2017 model cars of­fered in the U.S. do not come out­fit­ted with a spare tire as stan­dard equip­ment, ac­cord­ing to a study by AAA.

Javier Galeano / As­so­ci­ated Press file

This pre-World War II car, with a spare tire at­tached, was still run­ning in Ha­vana in 2009.

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