Street performance is taking on a new definition today in the face of skyrocketing fuel prices and a new group of automotive enthusiasts who value things like mileage gains instead of just pure horsepower improvements.
“Fuel efficiency is one of America’s largest concerns today,” says Diablo Sport’s Max Wyman. “A lot of the time performance is still important, but more than anything people are looking to save money at the pump. Diablo Sport products will generally increase the efficiency of the customer’s vehicle with the potential to save huge bucks over the course of a year. That being said, I think a lot of men ask the question about fuel economy so they can justify their new power toy to their wives.”
And it’s not just the top tuning module company in America that is seeing these trends. Across the pond in Australia, the concerns are perhaps even greater.
“Saving on fuel is always top of mind for customers, especially when they are at the gas station filling up, watching the dollars ticking over on the pump. There is always going to be a segment of the performance enthusiast market, based on their income, that does not care about the fuel cost, performance is the key for them,” says Ian Humphreys of Flashlube. “For the others, they still want performance, just measured by more factors than horsepower output, like fuel economy and knowing that the fuel system is clean and running at peak efficiency.”
Products for Efficiency
When it comes to saving fuel, the devices to do so are as varied as the drivers who seek them out. From cold air intakes to tuned exhaust and high-tech fuel systems, auto enthusiasts are looking for it all – even if those systems are not the standard stuff.
“Well we don’t recommend hydrogen generating systems that have been popping up all over the Internet,” says Dan Labonte, Labonte Motor Sports. “But, electrolysis is a very inefficient way to make hydrogen. The energy taken from the engine to make the hydrogen exceeds that of the volume produced. The homemade systems can be very dangerous and the physics just don’t support what is claimed. With our methanol injection system, 10 to 15 percent of the gasoline can be pulled from the open loop fueling tables of forced induction engines. This allows the engine to operate at its maximum power producing air-fuel ratio on pump gas.”
On a far simpler level, Chris Thompson of Airaid reports, “our customers are reporting substantial increases with our Cold Air Intakes and PowerAid spacers.”
After the air comes in, when it goes out efficiency gains can still be realized for your customers.
“As a manufacturer of performance exhaust systems we obviously encourage consumers to consider exhaust as a starting point in working out their fuel efficiency strategy,” says Marc Cloutier of MBRP. “While the cooler, cleaner operating environment that such a system creates allows a combustion engine to be more efficient it is also critical for another reason. Products such as air intakes and programmers need a performance exhaust system to allow them to operate at peak efficiency and safety. As these aftermarket products provide a significant improvement to fuel efficiency, a performance exhaust system provides the foundation for maximum benefits.”
However, speed shop owners need to remember their regional differences.
“It varies from country to country and in Europe, at the moment, LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) is growing at a phenomenal rate, so customers use Flashlube Valve Saver Fluid to protect the engine from valve seat recession,” said Flashlube’s Humphreys. “In the USA, Flashlube Diesel Conditioner is gaining a good reputation as it is designed not only for older diesel engines, but also new engines due to the make up of the product. It uses synthetic carrier and additives, burns cleaner and is not harmful to people or the environment.”
Further proving his earlier point that “toys” may still take precedence in performance enthusiasts’ minds, the top selling Diablo Sport products today are both the Predator and Extreme PowerPuck, and they are flying off the shelf, according to Wyman.
“Today our best selling product is a performance related one: our tuner for the 08 SRT-8 Dodge Challenger.”
Perhaps another truism of retailing is that while customer’s interests are ever changing, the one constant is that a retailer needs to know how to get the word out that the best products and prices can be found in their shops. Thompson at Airaid has a simple marketing suggesting for performance retailers to capitalize on the fuel cost worries on everyone’s mind, and it comes with a caution to have done your homework before hanging the sign.
“Put a big sign in their window that says ‘Fuel Economy Sold Here’,” Thompson suggests. “Be prepared to answer the consumer’s questions about their return on investment. In many cases the return can offset the cost of the product in months.”
Marc Cloutier of the exhaust giant MBRP takes that thought a step further.
“Both consumers and the regulatory agencies are very suspicious of fuel saving claims and for good reason. The difficult times have brought out the charlatans and snake oil salesmen. Consumers need to be cautious about the claims that are being made and the safety of installing or using such products on their vehicle.”
But instead of getting down about the challenge, Cloutier urges shop owners to look on the bright side.
“Speed shop owners have a challenge here as well as an excellent opportunity. The challenge is the perception that they are just about cranking out more power and more performance. The opportunity is in redefining that perception so that their shop is seen as a resource to address all aspects of vehicle operation including fuel efficiency.
“To our mind the very best way for the operator of a speed shop to achieve this is to steer away from quick fix products and focus on demonstrating the effectiveness that products such as programmers, air intakes, tonneau covers and of course, performance exhaust systems provide,” Cloutier continues. “The best way for them to do this is to have those products on their own vehicles and conduct their own testing. They should be able to discuss their own experiences with their customers, how they carried out the testing, the results they achieved and the differences that various products had on fuel efficiency.”
Humphreys of Flashlube agrees.
“Customers are often skeptical about the fuel saving abilities of additives, so we mix the marketing and pitch specific things, like fuel saving, as it is easier for customers to focus on and understand, or talk about the overall performance benefits they get from using Flashlube products including fuel savings.”
The question on many independent speed shops owners’ minds is how big a hurt fuel prices will have on the performance industry as a whole.
“I believe that many factors will hurt business,” says Airaid’s Thompson. “We are in an election year, inflation is high, and the mortgage crisis along with energy costs will hurt. I do believe that business will be better in 2009.”
MBRP’s Cloutier takes a broader view of the performance market as well.
“Obviously an industry built around an enthusiast market is going to be impacted by increased costs for individuals to participate as performance enthusiasts. Our market is being stripped of truck owners who owned F350s and Mega Cabs but only used them to go to their office or shopping. The days of the large, all dressed pick-up trucks as a status symbol may be coming to an end just as the airbrushed muraled vans of the ’60s and ’70s disappeared with the advent of the minivan.”
Wyman and Diabo Sport are looking forward to those changes.
“There’s the possibility of a new world in aftermarket performance. It’s hard to say what vehicles are going to be the hot sellers in five years, but if today’s back orders on hybrids are any indication, we could be looking at a market made of lower power, higher economy vehicles. Does this mean performance is gone? No way, but it means that performance and accessory companies are going to have to change with the times and work on ways to fill consumer demand for new platforms and vehicle types.”
Thompson of Airaid sees the hybrid focus as well, but with a twist.
“Alternative fuels and hybrids will have some impact,” Thompson says. “The growth of diesel powered passenger cars will be big as well.”
So does Dan Labonte of Labonte Motor Sports.
“Since the mid ’80s, turbo chargers have come a long way. A smaller four-cylinder turbo engine can make a significant amount of power, which now rivals larger six and eight cylinder engines. The weight savings of the four cylinders over the larger blocks makes it a viable and simpler solution for consumers. Over the next five years we would expect to see a larger shift to smaller forced induction engines.”
But one thing will never change.
“The need for self-expression can be taken as a given,” says Cloutier of MBRP. “However, if the new ‘status’ car ends up being the Prius riding on a wave of one-upping your neighbor on how environmentally sensitive you are, then the role of performance products will be very much changed from where we are today. Standing out can be achieved in many ways aside from performance. If the performance industry fails to present its products in a manner that continues to be relevant to a changing marketplace, people could easily become content to settle for more superficial means of personalizing their ride.”
Dan Labonte agrees.
“Automotive performance, customization and enhancements have been part of the American culture for a long time. So we see no shortage of enthusiast. As long as it has wheels and an engine, someone will come up with a way to make it stand out.”