Cargirl: Run Flat, But Not Too Fast



Girldriver USADoes America need run flat tires? Or is it a technology whose time has come and gone? Here’s my experience.


“You will now have an opportunity to experience BMW Ultimate Service,” said the roadside assistance voice at the other end of the speaker as in Wow, thank goodness you had a flat.


“I can't wait,” I said. I was serious. My husband and I were headed from upstate New York to Washington via the Jersey Turnpike for his annual family Passover dinner that was to begin at sundown.


As we drove the BMW 325i toward Washington we felt something go then noticed the tire pressure warning light blinking. We pulled off at the highway service area. We had a flat but it was hard to see since the tires on this 325i were run-flats. A fellow at the gas station confirmed with his tire pressure gauge that we’d lost 20 pounds of pressure. Note: The big advantage of run-flats is that you don't carry a spare.


We were about two hours and 100 miles from touchdown with traffic and the afternoon was getting old. Since we're both auto journalists, getting a flat tire was a reality check. When we drive it's always a new model test car that is delivered to us in perfect order. “We can't come and get you on a state road” said the Ultimate Service agent ( USA ). “ New Jersey has its own towing service on that highway.” They would have to come get us, then tow us to a dealer. It had to be a distance because we were in the middle of nowhere. That sounded like a long time, which made no sense since we had run-flats.


We headed to the first exit in Delaware and pulled off the highway, made a right and drove into a service station/convenience store. It would be easy to find us. Within a half-hour, ultimate service would change the tire and we'd be back on the road because that's ultimate service.


We called BMW back with the good news that we were off the highway. They could come and get us. USA asked me where we were. I described our location right off the first exit in Delaware heading south. (There were no road signs and people we asked, even the convenience store owners, possibly new to the country, didn't know exactly where we were.) USA put me on hold for ten minutes. When she came back she asked me where we were. I became flustered, I'll admit, asking why BMW couldn't afford a GPS system that could find the first exit in Delaware . Then USA did the unimaginable. She put me on hold so that I didn't know I'd been hung up on. Another ten minutes wasted and my cell phone is running down (I have one bar left).


When I called back I told the next USA that the first one had hung up on me. She, being a full-fledged member of the cult of apology, begs forgiveness. Then she asked me where we are.


I ask for the number of a local dealer. The dealer is apologetic (isn't everyone) but they can't come and get us because they don't have a tow truck.


Our only option now is to find them. Here we had some luck. The truck driver parked next to us knew where the dealer was, how to get back on the complicated freeway exchange, and waved us off at the right exit. “Follow me,” this saint said. And we did. Without him, we would still be wandering in the land of massive interstate interchanges. We find the dealership. They take the car but don't have a replacement tire. So we wait an hour and a half while they locate a tire, drive across town to retrieve it and change the tire.


We are now officially late for the one holiday a year that my husband has with his family. My husband is upset. The family is pissed. And we've seen a bad day at BMW Ultimate Service. Everyone really tries his and her best. But truthfully, in the cult of service and apology, people at the phone bank don't really feel your pain. It took four hours to fix that flat.



Know this about run-flats


As we make our way through holiday and rush hour traffic, we have plenty of time to discuss run flats. Run-flats will get you only so far. BMW claims “sporty run-flat tires keep you on the road for up to 90 miles (depending on load and road conditions). We couldn't chance that it wouldn't make the last fifteen. It certainly can be inconvenient and unsafe to change a tire on the side of the road, but wait, we could pull off at the service station and change it ourselves or call for help with our cell phone and have it changed if we’d had a spare. We now weigh the inconvenience and wasted time against the worst case scenario, the breakdown lane of the highway. The breakdown lane is looking better all the time.


Run flats have several disadvantages. They are really expensive (one person on the Internet was quoted $500 per tire at a BMW dealership) and they wear out faster than regular tires (she had 24,000 miles on hers). They are frequently not in stock at the dealership. You have to check your tire pressure every two weeks according to BMW. And when you do get a flat you have to get back on a highway and drive at 50 mph when everyone else is driving at 80. Talk about frightening.


All of this, according to the BMW owners on the Internet who have been through the same Ultimate Service that we experienced, makes these kinds of tires dealbreakers for people who have had experience with them. You don’t even lose a lot of weight because they are heavier than regular tires. And with some run-flats a garage must have expensive special equipment to change the tire, so few do.


But the big thing is, “who needs run-flats?” Tires are great these days. You hardly ever see cars disabled by a flat tire.


And supposing you do get a flat? Everyone has a cell phone today and most people have either AAA or roadside assistance supplied by their manufacturer, although even when it's called ultimate it isn't always. This seems to be a technology whose time has come and gone.


Tires are really important — more important than traction control and some of the other electronics that help you stay on the road. They are your contact with the road. Period.


If I buy a new car or replace my tires, they won't, I promise, be run-flats. Give me that old-fashioned spare.

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