Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2008   by Jim Anderton, Technical Editor

SSGM Magazine Product Test: Goodyear Eagle GT

The planets align for Goodyear as their new mid-range performance tire arrives on time for a tight economy

Marketers of successful brands face a difficult problem when expanding their market: reach up, or down? For premium brands, the only way to go is toward the mainstream market, a difficult challenge that requires products that are price competitive, but maintain the heritage and cachet of the original. BMW’s 1-series is an example and in the replacement tire market, Goodyear has launched a new Eagle, the Eagle GT with the same idea in mind.

SSGM tested the new tire at Goodyear’s Akron-Ohio test track in dry and wet conditions. The circuit was set up as a Solo 1 course, offering everything from decreasing radius turns to open sweepers as well as the inevitable slalom. Test vehicles were a cross section of typical fitments for the new Eagle: BMW 328i, Honda S2000 and Civic Si as well as a high-performance Volkswagen R32.

On the track, the Eagle GT HR shows consistent lateral grip levels that exceed the test’s comparison tire, the Khumo Ecsta RSX (compared on the BMW’s sized 225/45R17). Straight line grip was power, surface and driver-limited (traction control was not used in the tests) making comparison difficult for that parameter, but for all but hard-core racers or weekend warriors, the real seat-of-the-pants measure of performance is turn in, where the new Eagle excels on both front and rear-wheel- drive vehicles. Sharp turn-in is almost a given for stiff-sidewall, low profile performance tires, but the real surprise is that it’s achieved in a tire without Goodyear’s high-end UHP technology. There’s no carbon fibre or Kevlar in the sidewalls, and no volcanic ash or wonder ingredient in the compound.

The carcass construction is the familiar two-steel belts plus cap, but the biggest surprise is the tread pattern. Ever since the legendary Yokohama 008, sport tires have been assumed to need limited-to-no tread on the outer third of the tread face. The Eagle, in contrast, uses a surprisingly open pattern on this critical area, yet still shows little squirm, even during fast transitions in the simulated lane evasive lane change test. Goodyear’s engineering team declares that there’s no special trick in the tread rubber; silica is there, but don’t look for miracle additives, at least any that Goodyear will talk about. The tread compound is similar to the Eagle F1 A/S, the all-season version of the F1 tire and although Goodyear marketing will call the GT an all-season product, sensible Canadian retailers will keep this (and every other high-performance, low profile fitment) out of our winter.

Why build a performance tire without Goodyear’s usual high-tech? The answer is the tire’s positioning in the marketplace. The primary consumer is described by Goodyear’s originator of the Eagle line, Bob Toth, as the “youthful performance restyler” and the “unsuspecting performance shopper.” The former is the ubiquitous sport compact/ tuner group, mainly young import owners who need the right look on the considerable investment they make in their modified rides. The other group, the “unsuspecting performance shopper,” is familiar to tire dealers everywhere. They’re the group that buys a high-style BMW, Volvo, Audi or similar sport sedan, then experiences sticker shock when it’s time to re-shoe their thoroughbred. This group has moved up from mainstream vehicles and typically expects to spend no lore than a hundred bucks for a replacement tire.

So where does the Eagle GT fit in the high-performance pecking order? In a classic three-level entry, mid-and top-end market structure for sporty rubber, the Eagle GT fits squarely in the middle, where Goodyear expects the fastest growth in the segment. It’s a logical strategy. At the top end, Goodyear already has an extensive lineup, while the bottom is dominated by Asian firms with access to low-cost manufacturing plants as well as brands marketed heavily toward the limited disposable income youth sub-segment. Competing at the entry level with an American-made product is difficult-to-impossible and more importantly, runs the risk of degrading consumer perception of the core brand. Goodyear’s strategy is to reach down into the mid-level while leveraging the brand presence generated by the firm’s ultra-high performance Eagle fitments. Similarly, by branding the new tire as an Eagle, there’s no need to buy market share to get the essential “critical mass” on the street needed to establish tuner cre- dentials. Another strategic reason is simpler: it’s difficult to make money chasing the most price-sensitive replacement tire market, especially with off-shore, off-brand products compressing prices to historic lows in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Is Goodyear risking cannibalization of the firm’s other Eagle products with a mid-range tire in UHP sizes? “It would have happened anyway”, notes Toth, adding “every size has its story.” What this means is the replacement market now demands size-by-size analysis (and pricing) as OEMs add low-profile fitments, dragging mainstream consumers into a previously enthusiast-only market.

Timing is important in any new product introduction and with the possibility of recession upfront and on consumers’ minds, the Eagle GT may be perfectly placed. A lower cost alternative with the Eagle brand should be welcome on the tire wall and with thousands of performance sedans coming off lease and entering the used car market, the demand should be there; Goodyear reports that in the U. S., ultra-high-performance replacements were up 10.8 per cent, a record high. From Goodyear’s standpoint, the planets may be aligning for the new Eagle. High fuel prices are rejuvenating interest in passenger cars over SUVs and low interest rates mean that a lease with a moderate buyout can often be financed at lower monthly payments than the original lease. This means slower new car sales/leases, but a stronger demand for tires chosen for ownership, not the need to re-shoe for the lease turn-in. And perhaps most importantly, the Eagle GT is a way to keep existing Goodyear customers by offering an alternative to tuner brands; any tire retailer will accept that keeping an existing customer is easier than winning new business. As SUV sales tank and cars make a comeback, there must be a strong temptation for Goodyear to also spin this platform as a low-profile all-season original equipment tire sans Eagle branding.

The entire Eagle GT lineup will feature 43 sizes in 15-22 inch diameters in 65 to an aggressive 30 aspect ratio. Eighteen are V-rated and carry 440, A and A for the wear and performance parameters. Twenty-five are W-rated UHP products at 440, AA and A.

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