The Specialty Equipment Market Association and the Automobile Club of Southern California teamed up to do a fuel economy challenge for automotive aftermarket companies at the SEMA Show in November. It included a chance to compete in testing to see if popular performance products offered increases in efficiency as well as power.
The concept was that the performance aftermarket doesn’t have to make green “cool” to customers-”it already is. The question is how to capitalize on it and turn green power into greenbacks.
The SEMA/Auto Club of Southern California Fuel Economy Challenge tested a variety of performance products on three gasoline-powered vehicles: a 2008 Ford F-150 4.6-liter V-8, a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe 5.3-liter V-8, and a 2008 Dodge Charger 3.5-liter V-6.
The reason average daily drivers were used was simply the commonality.
“Sure, no one thinks of fuel efficiency when you think of a Ford F-150, but there sure are thousands of them out there in every city in the U.S., and high-quality, properly installed aftermarket parts can realize a fuel savings for the end consumer,” says Steve Mazor, manager of the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center. “One tested product saved a motorist driving a Ford F-150 36 gallons per year, or $108 at $3 a gallon of gasoline.”
Rick Squires at STS Turbo notes that the test was a USO6 “aggressive driving” test that was run near wide-open throttle for all accelerations and hard braking for deceleration, virtually eliminating “coasting” to get extra mileage.
The official results of the tested products, according to Mazor:
- Dodge Charger: None of the products tested on the 2008 Dodge Charger significantly improved mileage.
- Chevrolet Tahoe: One product provided a measurable improvement in fuel economy on the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe. SLP Performance’s kit (cold air intake, cat-back exhaust, underdrive crankshaft pulley, higher-ratio rocker arms and a reprogrammer) showed a 4.1-percent improvement (0.58 mpg) and 0-60 mph acceleration was improved from 9.51 seconds to 8.80 seconds (7.5 percent).
- Ford F-150: Three products showed a measurable improvement in mileage. Gibson Performance Exhaust’s cat-back exhaust system showed a 2.6-percent improvement (0.36 mpg).
Edge Product’s Evolution Flash Programmer showed a 1.1-percent improvement (0.16 mpg) using the “Towing” program selection. The product is legal for sale in all 50 states.
And Squires Turbo Systems’ (STS) turbocharger system showed an improvement of 4.6 percent (0.64 mpg), as well as improved 0-60 mph acceleration from 11 to eight seconds.
But what does this mean for an independent speed shop owner? According to Max Wyman of DiabloSport, efficiency products have become a sought-after upgrade for all types of vehicles on the road today, and knowing which ones will work for your customers will translate into increased sales.
“With a struggling economy, fluctuating gas prices, and an unstable job market, consumers are constantly looking for ways to save money,” Wyman says. “Although this efficiency craze has not always been on the minds of consumers, I think it is here to stay. Regardless of fuel costs, the green approach will keep consumers looking for more efficient ways to operate their vehicle.”
Best of Both Worlds
Efficient performance is a great sales tool, because it offers the best of both worlds.
“I would say saving cost anywhere you can is on the minds of everyone’s customers,” says Coral Gibson of Gibson Performance. “Every penny counts, and if you can squeeze a few out of your daily driver, then why not?”
Wyman is understandably upbeat about what tuners and re-programmers will do for a vehicle.
“For instance, all DiabloSport products feature fuel saving utility, and all have many features which were developed specifically to ensure your vehicle is running as efficiently as possible, and allow drivers to keep an eye on their current mpg, install fuel-saving programming and adjust some of the vehicle’s parameters to keep fuel consumption down,” he says.
It’s an evolving desire that Squires hears from his customers all the time.
“For the first five years of business for STS Turbo, the first question out of the customer’s mouth was, ‘How much power will it make?’ or, ‘How fast will it make my car?’ As the conversation took its natural progression, our sales rep would proceed to tell the advantages of the turbocharger system, including that we typically see a 10- to 20-percent improvement in fuel mileage under normal driving conditions,” he says. “A common response to that five years ago would be anywhere from ‘Who cares?’ to ‘Oh, really?'”
But not these days.
“A couple-thousand turbo system sales later, our sales team started reporting that customers were starting to ask how the turbo would affect the fuel mileage, and by the end of 2008 the question of the year was, “What will this do to my gas mileage?” Squires says. “And sometimes that was the first question they asked. Being able to deliver big power gains and increased fuel mileage is what I believe kept our sales up during a downturn of the economy.”
It’s a mindset Gibson believes will stick, even after the current recession subsides.
“It’s here to stay,” she says of efficiency awareness. “Once you have molded your lifestyle to efficiency, there is no reason to not keep using efficient products.”
The hardcore horsepower customer, while focused on performance, is also aware of current gas/fuel prices, environmental issues and the condition of the planet for future generations, adds DiabloSport’s Wyman.
“Although he may not be looking to save some gas while driving down the race track, he still had to get his vehicle to the race track. Did he drive his race vehicle 50 miles to get to that track? Did he tow his vehicle to the track? Either way, we can provide that high-horsepower customer with ways he can make his to-the-race-track transportation run more efficiently and, in the long run, free-up resources to make his race vehicle go even faster.”
Ed Hamburger of SLP Performance doesn’t see a reason why products need to be classified as either efficient or powerful when most are both.
“We need to not define things as simply efficiency or performance,” Hamburger says. “When you improve performance, you make gains in overall vehicle performance. That’s a way of saying that, while high fuel prices may be on everyone’s mind right now, it may not be first and foremost on their minds. Pure performance gains always will be.”
The savvy speed shop owner needs to understand that while customers talk fuel economy, it is based on the assumption any aftermarket part will make their vehicle run faster, cleaner and in an overall more pleasing way.
Hamburger even notes that his company’s Sport Suspension package, which lowers a truck or SUV by 2 inches, can offer fuel economy as well as handling benefits.
“The aftermarket hasn’t changed so much as the definitions of what people are interested in,” Hamburger says. “A lot of the time the products are the same-”it is just a different emphasis in the sales process.”
Make no mistake: when it comes to efficient performance, the emphasis is still on performance.
“As technology advances and life gets more comfortable for people, they tend to get more demanding and the extras of last year all of a sudden become the minimum standards for this year,” Squires says. “Today’s shoppers are educated and have instant access to research-”they know what they want and they will search until they find the most efficient system and the most bang for their hard-earned dollar.”
All of this talk about a fuel crunch may even be an opportunity for the performance aftermarket, according to Squires.
“Look around at the economy-”the fuel crisis we went through in 2008, the global pollution problems and the fact that consumers have evolved through the years and the bar is continually rising as customers have realized that you can have horsepower, fuel mileage and clean emissions,” he says. “So, are there needs? I’d say the needs are nearly endless. So, will there be invention? Our twin-turbo ZR7 Corvette was built on this whole concept that ‘green’ doesn’t have to be wimpy. Efficiency can create great mileage (35-plus mpg) and lower emissions, but it can also make a lot of horsepower (more than 700 hp).”
But these days, it won’t come without a lot of hard work.
“I think we are all down, no matter what is being manufactured,” Gibson says. “Very few customers can afford to pay for even the fuel-efficient products we have to offer. Most of the time they will drive less or carpool. I see less demand for aftermarket products overall.”
Squires says the sales are still out there, but that customers are now looking for the best all-around products and come armed with plenty of knowledge.
“Yes, the market is down, and if you survey the customers they will tell you that they aren’t going to spend as much this year. But, I believe that when it really comes down to it, they are going to spend their money. They might not go buy a new car, but my experience has shown that when they don’t buy new, they put money into their old car.
“The customers seemed to be doing their research in 2008, and my bet is that they do even more research before purchasing in 2009,” he adds. “That works out great for the ‘efficiency manufacturers’ because the research and education brings those customers to our doors and when they get there, they are ready to spend because they have confidence and understand what they are buying.”
And no matter what, motor heads will never die, according to DiabloSport’s Wyman.
“Although we have seen an increase in our fuel-efficient products, our race fans will never go away. People are always looking to make their vehicles run faster.”
Even if added fuel mileage is an unexpected bonus.