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New insurance for pricey tires, wheels

You're driving down the freeway and suddenly you hit a piece of debris, which punctures the sidewall of your left rear tire. The onboard tire pressure monitor flashes news that the pressure in that left rear tire is now zero.

The good news is that your car has run-flat tires, so you can safely get to a service station or tire store.

The bad news is that your wallet is going to take a big hit. If you're in a new Corvette, perhaps more than $400 for a single tire, since sidewall punctures usually are not repairable.

Such high costs have surprised many owners of high-end luxury and sports cars equipped with run-flat tires. Similar surprises have also hit owners of cars that may not have run-flats on board but nonetheless have expensive, low-profile tires and sporty aluminum wheels. Road damage to these wheels and tires can cost $1,000 or more per wheel-tire combo.

That's given rise to add-on wheel-and-tire insurance policies that many new-car dealers are offering to customers. A typical policy may cost $500 to $700 and cover wheels and tires for up to 60 months and 60,000 miles.

Since most standard insurance policies don't cover tire blowouts and will usually only cover wheel damage in the event of a collision, sales of such policies have increased in recent years as more cars come with more expensive wheels and tires.

But are these policies worth the cost? I'm not a fan of most extended warranties, whether it's automotive or electronic, because in most cases it's insurance you'll never need. But here's what you should consider on coverage for wheels and tires:

As with overall automobile extended warranties, the answer lies in the fine print of the policies and the financial health of the insurance company that underwrites the policies.

First, check the company's financial rating at www.ambest.com.

Second, make sure you read the policy carefully before signing a check to make sure you know for certain what is and is not covered. Most standard tire road-hazard policies link the remaining tread depth to how much will be paid toward new tires, even if there's a catastrophic road hazard. What buyers of these more expensive wheel-tire policies should look for is a policy that will pay for a new tire in the event of a blowout, regardless of tread depth.

When it comes to wheel coverage, most of the new wheel policies will pay for repair of a bent aluminum wheel when feasible, as opposed to replacement of the wheel. Also, many policies limit how damaged a wheel must be before repairs will be covered. Scuffing and minor dents from curb rash -- scraping the wheel while parallel parking -- likely won't be covered.

Even if you understand all the exclusions of a policy, it's still possible to run into unexpected hassle. A recent post to TheAutoBahn.com, a Web site popular with owners of high-end German cars, related a BMW owner's complaint that his insurance company refused to pay because he destroyed the tire by driving on the rim to get to a safe spot, eliminating evidence of a blowout.

Before you sign up for this coverage, keep in mind that most run-flats and high-performance tires wear out more quickly than conventional tires, so a buyer could be faced with having to buy a new set of tires long before any catastrophic failure or a policy's mileage or age limits are reached.

In the end, it may come down to buyer peace of mind and whether it's worth the cost of the policy.

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