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Spare tires an endangered species?

By Claes Bell ·
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Posted: 11 am ET

Would you buy a car without a spare tire? Someday, you may have no choice.

Gene Peterson of Consumer Reports has an interesting item this week on the gradual disappearance of the spare tire:

But now we're seeing the days of the temporary tire dwindling, with more cars eliminating the spare altogether (along with the tools to change a spare).

So what's a motorist to do? To deal with the "spareless" car, manufacturers are equipping some models with run-flat tires, which when deflated offer limited mobility -- typically 50 miles at speeds less than 55 mph. BMW, for example, has been a big proponent of run-flat tires. We also see these types on sporty cars with limited space. We've written extensively about Toyota Sienna AWD models using run-flats as well. Early generations of run-flat tires rode stiffly and wore-out quickly. They've gotten better, but if your car has run-flats, your replacement tire choice might be limited. Plus, run-flats often cost more than conventional tires.

The other approach manufacturers have taken is to equip cars with a tire repair kit consisting of an air compressor and a canister of sealant.

So why the shift away from spare tires? Eric Peters blogging at the National Motorists Association has an explanation: Bigger wheels and shrinking trunks. Peters points out that a few decades ago when full-size spares reigned supreme, a trunk big enough to smuggle a baby grand piano used to be the industry norm. But now, smaller cars with designs created to maximize interior space are the norm, as are SUVs with smaller "cargo areas" rather than trunks.

For a while, car designers dealt with this trend by shrinking spare tires into "space-saver" spares, those little doughnuts concealed under a cover in car trunks that can get you to the next service station, and that's about it.

But even space-saver spares may not have a place in the autos of the future. That's because car wheels have grown due to consumer preference for eye-catching alloy wheels, meaning the size of spare that will work safely with the three intact tires has also increased.

This is a tough problem and I feel for the auto engineers out there, but I'm just not willing to go without some kind of a spare tire. Sure, tires are more reliable than they were when full-size spares were the norm. And some may point to the canister of sealant and say, that's good enough. But that's not going to help you if you suffer a severe blowout.

I once tried to use a sealant canister to temporarily repair a tire with a one-inch rip in the sidewall. The rip made a mockery of the sealant canister, and I ended up having to break out my space-saver spare. Bottom line: I think if I did buy a car with a sealant canister instead of a spare, I'd make sure to pick up an AAA membership, too, since a tow would likely be in my future.

What do you think?

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End the Ponzi Scheme
July 07, 2011 at 8:01 am

Outside of some very remote places I wouldn't call the spare a critical piece of safety equipment. Since a large percentage of the population couldn't change a tire even with all the proper equipment laying right in front of them, I'm not really surprised that the manufacturers aren't including it. Given the fact that for $4 a year I can get roadside assistance added to my car insurance, the spare tire itself is hard to pay for over the life of a car, even at 10 years, a steel rim and even the cheapest $20 tire is just at break even.

I've seen the new trend to save space, and use an accordion tire, where there is a full size rim, but a deflated, and folded flat tire is already mounted on the rim, and that's even in a car that comes with essentially a tool set for fixing common problems on the car included in the car. The fact that it comes from Germany has a lot to do with it, and why there are storage locations for spare lamps, etc. as well.

The only real issue that roadside assistance will be facing is the wide range of bolt patterns necessary to replace the tire on the spot, rather than forcing a tow to the tire shop. Then again, I don't see much market for a loaner tire to get to the tire shop either, although it would potentially send business to a particular tire store when roadside assistance puts a rolling advertisement for a tire store on someones car.

Claes Bell
July 06, 2011 at 11:36 am

Interesting point, Alan. You're probably right that it's part of the calculus for some models, even though it seems a little silly to me to get rid of a critical piece of safety equipment to save 25 pounds or so.

Alan Wild
July 06, 2011 at 11:34 am

I've seen other articles documenting this trend and they have also pointed to "fuel efficiency" as a driver for this trend. Apparantly many car manufactorers are intentionally removing "excess" weight where they can in order to bump up their mileage numbers.