CHRISTINA ROGERS

Dropping the spare tire is a great idea until…

Christina Rogers covers VW and regulatory/legislative issues for Automotive News.Christina Rogers covers VW and regulatory/legislative issues for Automotive News.
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WASHINGTON -- Let me start by saying this: I’m all for better fuel economy.

When I was shopping for a new car last year, I wouldn’t even consider a compact that didn’t get near 40 mpg highway.

And then, last week, I learned having class-leading fuel economy can sometimes leave you stranded, literally, without a spare.

I ended up buying a 2012 Chevy Cruze Eco, a car I absolutely adore, especially when logging mpg in the low 40s, not an infrequent occurrence in highway driving.

But to help hit those fuel-economy figures, General Motors made a sacrifice: it ditched the spare tire in favor of a lighter-weight inflator kit.

The kit comes with an electric pump that plugs the hole with a temporary sealant and re-inflates the damaged tire, buying you some time to drive to a service station.

GM isn’t the only one going spare-less.

As the feds toughen up fuel economy standards, more brands are moving in this direction.

For instance, 14 percent of 2011 models lacked spares, more than double the share from two model-years ago, according to Edmunds.com.

GM, too, is expanding the no-spare approach to other models, including those under the Cadillac and Buick badges. At the same time, it’s rethinking the move in some cases.

After nixing the spare on all 2011 Cruze trim levels, it decided to add it back the following model year because customers were asking for it over the repair kit, Chevy spokeswoman Annalisa Bluhm said.

The Cruze Eco with a manual -- the car that I drive -- is now the only trim without a compact spare. The difference between the spare and kit is about 28.6 pounds.

Bluhm said the company doesn’t have an exact figure on how much using the kit improves gas-mileage, noting it works in concert with other light-weighting efforts.

But Ron Montoya, a consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, said losing the spare typically adds, at most, another 1 mpg.

However, this isn’t the only reason for GM’s move, Bluhm said. Many drivers these days, especially younger ones, don’t know how to change a tire, nor would they if they got a flat, she added.

On this point, GM has got me pegged. I knew the Cruze didn’t come with a spare when I bought the car. It didn’t bother me much. In my 15 years of driving, I’ve never once had to change a tire.

Then, about a week ago, I was about a block from my place when the tire blew, big time. I could hear the tire hissing as it deflated when I opened my car door.

Not knowing the first thing about inflator kits, I did what most mechanically-inept people would do: I called Chevy’s roadside assistance. And after a brief description of the damage, roadside assistance called a tow truck.

Apparently, there are limits to the tire repair kit, blowouts being one of them. It also can do nothing for punctures on the tire’s side wall (not in the tread area) or tires dislodged from the rim. No so with a spare.

“With a spare, no matter what kind of puncture you have, you can get on the road again,” Montoya said.

Luckily, the service station located a replacement tire quickly, ordered it and changed it the next day. And fortunately, I live in Washington, where I can take the Metro subway home.

But I kept thinking: if this were Detroit or another part of the country, I would have been stranded without a car until a replacement tire arrived.

Here are some other things I learned:

• Like changing a tire, using an inflator kit isn’t exactly intuitive. It requires some education, says Edmunds.com’s Montoya. For a quick prep course, he suggests watching this YouTube video. (It’s for the Pontiac G8, but the concept applies to most inflator kits, he says.)

• The kit is only effective in repairing punctures in the "tread area" of no more than a quarter-inch wide.

• The kit must be replaced after use, and typically costs $75-$100, Montoya says. A spare can be used multiple times for up to 6-7 years.

Sure, the spare might have some advantages over the fix-it kit.

But then again, it does seem silly to haul an extra 28.6 pounds for something that may or may not occur. Even if it only improves my gas-mileage by a half-mile that can really add up over tens of thousands of miles.

Plus, as I’ve also learned, the repair kit, which plugs into the car’s electric socket, can also be used to pump up other inflatables, such as bike tires, air mattresses and beach balls.

This, I might actually use.

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