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A/T Tires: The Balancing Act A Positive Future with the LT Consumer

A light truck owner can go by many names: the hobbyist, the off-road enthusiast, the commuter, the worker, the overlander, and we can’t forget about the Jeeper.

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All-terrain tires are built to tackle the sand, gravel, and dirt that comes with off-road driving. (Photo courtesy of Pro Comp)

A light truck owner can go by many names: the hobbyist, the off-road enthusiast, the commuter, the worker, the overlander, and we can’t forget about the Jeeper.

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While the vehicle of choice varies for these different drivers, one element often remains the same: all-terrain tires.

All-terrain tires cater to the light truck tire segment and offer consumers a mix of on- and off-road capabilities, with the balance of these features depending on the tire design.

“To me the all-terrain tire is kind of the Swiss Army knife of tires, and a lot is expected of it and a lot of different capabilities,” says Dan Newsome, senior country operations marketing manager for Michelin North Americas’ BFGoodrich brand.

Balancing Performance

The balancing act of the all-terrain tire revolves around what the consumer is looking for in vehicle performance.

“Truck owners, who are looking for aggressive looks and some off-road capability, are the main drivers of this segment,” says Fardad Niknam, director of LTR segment development for Yokohama Tire Corp. “The A/T tire customer’s expectation is having an aggressive/attractive look, especially on the sidewall area. They also want improvement on noise and ride, while maintaining off-road capability.”

For the most part, all-terrain tires are not only designed to tackle harsh off-road conditions such as rocks, dirt and gravel, but these tires will also need to perform on highways and roads to appeal to consumers.

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While large tread blocks offer an aggressive look and ideal traction off the road, they can be noisy, especially on the highway.

“One of the ways to keep noise level down is we use tie-bars to tie blocks together…you’ll see a little piece of rubber and it keeps the blocks in place,” says Steve Hutchinson, director of sales and marketing for Pro Comp Tires.

Manufacturers will also vary the lug sizes on the tread and the sidewall to vary the pitch, making the tire quieter on the road.

“Tire design is about balance, and compromise is our biggest technical challenge pursuing a higher level of balance between ride, noise and off-road performance,” says John Wu, product development manager for Maxxis International – USA.

Understanding these design characteristics and features of an all-terrain tire will help tire dealers choose the right tire for their customers.

Jeeps on and off the road are regularly fitted with all-terrain tires, especially those that are driven more for play. (Photo courtesy of Yokohama)

A/T Consumer Outlook

Like the different varieties of light truck owners, where all-terrain tire consumers are driving can vary.

“A majority of A/T consumers drive on normal surface roads like most other drivers. The expectation being that they can take their vehicles into conditions that will vary from sand, mud, dirt, and loose or pack gravel since they are running A/T Tires. These environments are found across all regions of the country,” says Maxxis’ Wu.

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Regionally, there is a need for all-terrain tires across the U.S. BFGoodrich’s Newsome suggests looking at the car parc for a better idea of the exact regions using more A/T tires.

”We try to build a tire that works just as well in Vermont as well it does in Southern California … In terms of volume, Texas and California alone represent somewhere between 25-30% of the all-terrain volume in the industry as a whole and I’m guessing that’s probably a function of the car parc as much as anything,” he notes. “You start looking at the specifics of what people are driving in Texas for example, and California, and the prevalence of trucks and SUVs, the kinds of vehicles that you would put an all-terrain tire on, is just far above most of the other states. Those two are the top two, and Oregon and Ohio and a couple of other states are like No. 3 and No 4.”

Overall, the need for all-terrain tires looks positive. The light truck market has been doing well the past few years, with many analysts pointing to the lower gas prices and steady economy.

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“We’re seeing year-over-year growth in the all-terrain market, thanks to the growth in truck sales. With stable gas prices in the U.S., further growth in the A/T market is expected,” Yokohama’s Niknam adds.

In 2016 the U.S. saw regular gas prices average $2.14 a gallon and diesel averaged $2.30.

“Light truck vehicle sales are incredibly strong in the U.S.,” adds Pro Comp’s Hutchinson. “This is an American phenomenon and you can travel all over the world and you’ll never see such a high percentage of light trucks in the total vehicle population as you do in the U.S.”

“As such, the light truck tire market is vast and stable from year to year. The average length of service for light trucks compared to cars is much longer meaning these vehicles are getting replacement tires for likely 30% longer than the average car. My estimate now is that LT tire sales are slightly up from previous year.”

BFGoodrich’s Newsome notes that light truck sales are up a little more than 4% from last year, year-to-date April.

With a positive outlook for the A/T segment, this could be a very lucrative tire to your business and an opportunity to reach various consumers with the same tire segment.

Light truck sales have been strong in the U.S. and the opportunity to fit all-terrain tires on these vehicles looks positive. (Photo courtesy of Pro Comp)

Selling More

“The key to the light truck tire market is the term ‘utility,’” says Hutchinson. “One consumer may buy a Ford F150 and use it as a daily driver/commuter vehicle; keeping it basically a standard OE-type fitted pick-up truck. On the other hand, the same Ford F150 may be purchased by another consumer as a weekend warrior truck.”

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The weekend warrior driver often seeks an all-terrain tire that is aggressive enough for off-roading and towing large loads, but the tire will also see some highway driving. This means even if the majority of driving is off-road, the driver still doesn’t want a tire that doesn’t perform well on the road. Plus, tire dealers could be seeing a need for larger tires to accommodate this consumer.

“Help with sizing to ensure that they are buying the size of tire best fitted for the vehicle’s performance,” Newsome explains. “You can put all kinds of sizes on vehicles. I think selling them the tire size that provides them the best and safest performance is the right way to go. Sometimes that may be selling them something larger or downsizing…. Spend the time to make sure that you’re doing the calculations. Recommending the proper air pressure and load share capacities and advising the customer on different pressure or different uses of the tires.”

Dealers should also be up to speed on larger diameter fitments because many customers want lift kits for larger tire/wheel packages. Selling lift kits and other accessories can also prove lucrative for tire dealers with many A/T drivers wanting additional vehicle customization.

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“People who are buying all-terrain tires are often looking for other ad-on sales. There is a good opportunity to add on other items like wheels, especially if they are changing from an OE wheel. They may also be open to lift kits and wheels, or it might be a bolt-on accessory like racks or sidebars,” says Hutchinson. TR

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