In recent years, the pickup truck market has grown in more ways than one. While the number of vehicles in the segment continues to climb, the versatility expected of pickups is also on the rise.
According to a Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) report in April 2021, the light truck (LT) segment — which includes pickups, vans, SUVs and CUVs — is forecasted to account for nearly 70% of all new vehicle sales by 2025. Pickups alone make up more than 20% of all vehicles currently in operation in the United States.
Despite the disruption caused by COVID-19, while new car sales declined overall in 2020 from the previous year, pickup and SUV sales remained relatively strong. New truck sales accounted for 20% of all new vehicle sales in 2020, up from 18% in 2019, SEMA reported.
“The segment is growing year-over-year across all demographics, and people want trucks to be family-friendly with all the comfort and technology of the SUV and sedan market,” says Jason Yard, marketing director for Nexen Tire America.
He added that the mid-size and small-truck market continues to resurge as well, with new and redesigned models like the Maverick, Ranger, Canyon, Ridgeline, Santa Cruz and Gladiator coming from the major manufacturers, allowing entry-level purchasers to start small. Another major trend is the release of many new electric options like Rivian, Hummer, Lightning and others, which creates demand for electric-specific truck tires.
“The light truck tire market shares many trends we see in the overall industry, such as consumers demanding uncompromising performance like good wet and dry traction, secure braking, and all-season capability,” says Iris Ocasio, product planner for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, U.S. and Canada. “But we also see some unique trends based on the nature of the vehicles. For example, drivers now expect their tires to deliver not only those traditional performance characteristics, but also enhanced fuel efficiency and excellent noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) performance.”
Ocasio explains that modern trucks are becoming more premium and have fewer compromises in the driving experience compared to traditional trucks. Because more and more people are using trucks as their primary vehicle, they are looking for true versatility in their tires that match their vehicle’s performance: dependable traction on wet and snow-covered roads, a quiet and comfortable ride, and the durability to match the toughness of their truck.
Since the size of the LT segment as a whole is expanding, tiremakers must develop tires tailored to CUVs and SUVs, as well as pickup trucks, according to JJ Park, vice president of marketing for Hankook Tire.
“Additionally, the performance and aesthetic expectations of SUV/LT drivers can vary a lot depending on the type of driving they intend to do regularly and the type of overall look they are trying to achieve with their vehicle,” he says. “In other words, the market demand has diversified. In recent years, many products from various tire manufacturers have been launched in the pickup truck tire segment to address this.”
Tire Technology & Performance
The varying performance demands of pickup trucks leaves tire manufacturers with the task of creating tires to meet the needs of all drivers — and to present these tires in a way that enables drivers and dealers to differentiate between offerings.
“There are quite a few technical aspects to consider for pickup truck tires,” says Brandon Sturgis, global off-road/CUV LT product category manager for BFGoodrich. “LT-Metric, LT-Flotation, P-Metric and E-Metric tire designs are all different approaches that can be taken. The tire design strategy is very different for LT-Metric and LT-Flotation tires when compared to P-Metric and E-Metric tires, which is why it’s important to take this into account early.
“Depending on the tire segment, BFGoodrich will then focus our design efforts on certain performances that our customers are looking for: wear, snow, gravel chip/tear performance, soft soil traction, sidewall toughness, wet performance and rolling resistance,” he adds.
Technological advancements in premium LT tires have come a long way and are key to unlocking a vehicle’s full performance capabilities, according to Ocasio, who cites several of Bridgestone’s tire features as examples: snow vices, Traction Claw technology, advanced high silica rubber compounds, and full-depth 3D tire sipes, among others.
“Many of the rolling resistance and fuel economy technology is the same for trucks as any other passenger vehicle segment, often just on a larger scale,” Yard says. “However, the load range and sidewall strength are often major factors. Many of today’s pickup trucks have almost double the towing and load capacity that they had 20 to 30 years ago. That’s why Nexen has designed many of our truck tires with a three-ply sidewall to account for extreme loads and more sturdy towing.”
Park agrees, explaining that it’s important to know how much load the vehicle can support and how stable it is to drive.
“No matter how fuel-efficient or how good the grip is, an unbearable load or unstable driving will create a dangerous situation for the driver,” he says. “Tire manufacturers are always making great efforts to provide high performance while maintaining the foundation of the tire.”
Meeting Customer Needs
Whether a pickup is a daily driver encountering mostly highway miles, or the vehicle of a weekend warrior tackling off-road terrain, tire dealers must thoroughly understand a truck’s application in order for customers to be satisfied with their tire recommendations.
“The most important aspect to consider is the type of driving conditions a consumer will face,” Park says. “Ride comfort and quietness are important to consumers who mainly drive highways. Extreme traction is the most important quality if you drive on mud, rocks or unpaved roads.”
He says that drivers who encounter both pavement and off-road surfaces will need a well-rounded overall performance tire, adding, “Dealers must understand the characteristics of each tire so that they can make recommendations based on their customers’ needs.”
Yard advises dealers to ask customers what they really want out of their pickup tires, citing longevity, off-road or winter performance, and looks as common priorities.
“The long-haul truck driver wants a long-lasting, comfortable and quiet tire, and doesn’t often care about off-road performance,” he says. “However, the off-road enthusiast doesn’t often care about road noise or highway mileage, but they do want an aggressive-looking and performing tire for any terrain.”
Since pickups are one of the fastest-growing customization segments, customers are putting lift kits, larger fenders and custom wheels on their trucks, Yard says, adding, “This can alter the options way beyond the factory specifications, so a good dealer will help do the research to dial in fitment options.”
“On road vs. off road tires have different performance targets, but wear is usually a common theme,” Sturgis says. “BFGoodrich has focused on wear performance based on the torque trends of pickup trucks. With the torque increases that we are seeing, we have to improve the wear rate of our pickup truck tires to maintain the wear expectations of our customers.”
Ocasio adds that there are a few key components dealers should look for when recommending the next set of highway all-season, all-terrain, or winter tires for a customer’s truck:
- Highway all-season tires are ideal for drivers that keep their truck on the highway and are looking for a comfortable ride with consistent daily performance. Important features include a mileage warranty; engineering advancements that will provide a luxurious, comfortable ride and great handling; and product features that will deliver strong wet performance with tread pattern features that help reduce hydroplaning risk.
- All-terrain tires are great for drivers who want off-road capability but also spend a great deal of time on the highway. A premium all-terrain product will provide the off-road traction drivers desire and deliver strong performance on dry, wet and snowy roads — plus a quiet, comfortable ride.
- Winter tires are a great choice for drivers in cold environments looking for the ultimate winter grip. Winter conditions come in many forms, including snowy, icy, slushy and wet roads. A premium winter product will not only provide snow traction, but will also have technology to provide grip in icy conditions and deliver strong performance on wet roads. In addition, drivers should look for tread pattern features that will deliver grip on the snow and have the ability to channel water and slush away from the contact patch.
As with most tire segments, dealers who ask the right questions and demonstrate their expertise will win customers’ trust — and, in turn, their business.