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The challenges of a winter tire change over

Consumer Reports News: May 04, 2009 10:49 AM

It’s not as easy as it once was to simply switch over tires due to seasonal changes.

Here’s the story.

One of our co-workers owns a Hyundai Elantra SE. It’s a pleasant small car and one of the better ones under $25,000. This past fall, she purchased winter tires and wheels to make the tire change-over a breeze. She also bought tire pressure monitoring sensors so when the winter tires were installed, she could continue to use the monitoring system that came with the car. She purchased the tires, wheels, and sensors from TireRack, who graciously provided free installation of the sensors and mounted and balanced the tires on the wheels. All that she needed to do was to install the tires on her car and go. Sounds simple, right? Well, not exactly.

So she went ahead and bought the tires and wheels for about $508. Based on the advice of someone who knows tires (that would be me), she then purchased the tire pressure sensors and politely accepted the charge of $316 for a set of four. Total cost, including shipping, was $921.50. She installed the winter tires on the car and quickly discovered the tire pressure monitoring icon was lit in the instrument panel, indicating a malfunction. A call to the local Hyundai dealer revealed the car’s tire pressure monitoring system would have to be reprogrammed to work with the new sensors. In other words, they had to fix it.

I’d love to tell you that the trip to the dealership solved her problem, but her problem continues. The Hyundai dealer discovered the new sensors were the wrong ones. After contacting TireRack, they agreed to send the four new sensors with the promise to pay $50 toward mounting them on the inside of the wheels at a local shop. With new sensors in hand, my coworker had to revisit the dealer and have them installed and programmed. Finally, after these numerous visits to the dealer, the winter tire pressure monitoring systems worked, but only briefly. Now the tire pressure monitor icon is back on. Could it be a bad sensor or some other problem associated with the tire pressure monitoring system? We don’t know right now.

So what’s in store when she wishes to make a ritual tire/wheel change-over from winter to all-season tires in the spring and back to the winter tires in the late fall? She’ll have to visit the Hyundai dealer twice a year to have everything installed and sensors re-programmed for a bi-annual cost of about $40.

But in all seriousness, good technology should be consumer friendly. Having to go back to the dealer to reprogram the monitoring system is inexcusable when simply changing a tire. And it’s not just Hyundai. Other car manufacturers are doing the same.

What’s Consumer Reports take on all this? We encourage automobile manufacturers to make tire pressure monitoring systems easy to use without requiring the consumer to go back to dealers and to have the system reprogrammed every time a new tire wheel sensor is introduced. And since wheel sensors cost as much as the new replacement tires, you should consider your options:

  • Accept the cost and potential inconvenience of maintaining the operation of your tire pressure monitoring system when making a winter tire change-over, which includes a second set of wheels and sensors.
  • Forgo the second set of wheels and sensors and have the winter tires mounted on the original wheels with the original sensors. There’s an added cost of mounting and balancing the tires and wheels, but at least that’s absorbed in the cost of not having to buy new wheels and sensors. The potential downside is a tire technician may damage a tire or sensor in the mounting process.
  • The last option is practical, but not the best use of technology: Buying a second set of wheels for your winter tires without a second set of tire pressure monitoring sensors. The rationale here is winter tires are used for a short period during the year. The tire pressure monitoring system is only there to alert the driver of a leaky tire. The system was never intended to be a substitute for routine tire pressure checks. So with this option you would be driving without the safeguard of the tire pressure monitoring system like most drivers of older cars on the road today.

Before buying, be sure to consult our car, truck, and winter tire ratings and buying advice.

--Gene Petersen

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