Whatís new in LT tires is a whole new class of tires for a whole new type of SUV. "Crossover" sport-utility vehicles that have a truck-like body on a passenger car chassis or are a hybrid station wagon/SUV with all-wheel drive capabilities are proliferating at a record-breaking pace. Such vehicles include the Ford Escape, the Buick Rendezvous, Pontiac Aztek, Mercedes M-Class, Honda CR-V, Acura MDX, Hyundai Sante Fe and others.
Sales of crossover SUV models have increased to almost a million vehicles a year, and are predicted to reach nearly two million a year by 2006.
At the same time, the number of different SUV platforms has grown from a few dozen to more than 50, and will continue to multiply as new crossover SUVs, hybrids and other vehicles that blur traditional distinctions between cars and trucks are introduced. More than 50 percent of all new vehicle sales are already SUVs and light trucks, and market researchers say thereís nothing to indicate this pattern will change as motorists continue to move from midsize passenger cars into truck-like vehicles.
The luxury segment of the SUV market is particularly strong and is continuing to expand. What this says to tire manufacturers is that motorists today want the best of both worlds: the utility of a larger, truck-like vehicle with the ride comfort and handling performance of a passenger car.
Mark Cherveny, product manager of light truck tires for Goodyear, says most of the growth in LT tires sales has been in the SUV segment.
One of Goodyearís latest products for this market is the Fortera HL, which Cherveny says is a cross between a passenger car and light truck tire.
"The Fortera HL is designed to provide a quiet, smooth ride with responsive handling. We took the best features of our Wrangler HP, Wrangler RTS and all-season Integrity and rolled them into one. The result is refined ruggedness."
The tireís bold tread design extends down the sidewall to give the tire a rugged off-road appearance. Yet it has a relatively flat footprint that is quiet and wear-resistant. A Goodyear press release says the Fortera HL also uses a hybrid Aquatred tread compound that provides excellent dry and wet traction, handling and braking.
The new design was an instant hit said Cherveny. In the first 24 hours after the tire was rolled out, Goodyear received 10,000 orders from its dealers.
"Our retailers readily accepted the new tire. They had customers coming into their stores looking for a highway tire to improve ride comfort in their SUVs. People are tired of the truck ride."
Cherveny said the Fortera HL is available in 16 sizes for popular luxury and crossover SUV sizes. Seven new sizes will be introduced this year, and several vehicle manufacturers are considering Fortera tires for their 2004 models.
With so many new vehicle platforms, itís not surprising that segmentation within the LT tire market is continuing to expand. Phil Pacsi, executive vice president of North American tires for Bridgestone/ Firestone says he sees four distinct segments: highway tires (HT), all-terrain tires (AT), maximum traction tires (MT) and high performance tires (HP).
"We introduced the Dueler HT several years ago as a light truck touring tire. We now see competitors coming out with highway luxury tires that are creating yet another segment in the market."
Pacsi said the type of tires that best fit within a certain segment of the market are determined by the type of driving the vehicle owner does and what they expect from a tire. The typical HT tire buyer does 80 to 90 percent of their driving on the road with only occasional mild off-road driving on gravel or dirt. Consequently, they want a tire that rides and handles well on the highway.
The typical AT tire buyer, by comparison, does about 60 percent of their driving on the highway and about 40 percent off-road. Most of the off-road driving is recreational like camping or driving through the backwoods.
A MT tire buyer, on the other hand, is much more concerned about off-road traction and is into off-road adventures like hill climbing, rock climbing and plowing through mud bogs. The MT tire buyer typically spends only 30 to 40 percent of his drive time on the highway and the rest making his own tracks through the wilderness.
An emerging segment, says Pacsi, is the light truck street performance tire. The person who buys this kind of tire does 100 percent of his driving on the road and is interested mostly in appearance and handling. HP tire buyers typically go for plus-sizing and want the big oversized aftermarket alloy wheels and low profile tires.
Gary Enterline, technical marketing manager for Michelin, says rim sizes are definitely getting larger and larger. The standard for truck tires used to be 15 and 16 inches. Now itís 16 inches, 17 inches and even bigger. Several vehicle manufacturers are now looking at 18-inch size rims for OEM light truck applications in the next year or two.
"We introduced a new 24-inch 305/35 ZR4 street performance tire in the B.F. Goodrich line," said Enterline. "B.F. Goodrich has been sponsoring a number of off-road events and will introduce a new off-road rock climbing tire next year."
Tire diameters are also increasing. Enterline says 31 inches used to be the maximum outside diameter for a typical light truck tire, but vehicle manufacturers are now requesting tires with 32 to 33 inch diameters. "Our biggest tire is currently one with a 35-inch diameter. People want big tires so they can fill up the wheel openings on many of these trucks."
Where will it end? No one can say because many of the concept SUVs and light trucks that have been shown in recent auto shows suggest tire and rim sizes are only going to get bigger. Hopefully, that means bigger replacement opportunities and more LT tire sales.