There's a hush falling over the world of light truck tires. Why so quiet? Because that's what everyone wants. Off-road vehicles aren't going off the road anymore. Their tires, therefore, are being designed accordingly.
Quiet is the buzzword in the industry and it's being spoken loudly. With good reason. The light truck market represents 31 percent of the North American tire market on original equipment fitments, according to Michelin North America Inc.
That type of proliferation, along with the demand for newer, less noisy, smoother-riding products, means tire dealers face the task of introducing the public to the new wave of tires.
The Rubber Manufacturers Association forecasts annual growth of 2.7 percent over the next five years in the light truck OE segment. More telling perhaps, the group sees the LT replacement tire market growing by more than 4 percent per year over the same span, predicting that ``a large fraction of SUV and light truck owners (will) opt for the more rugged LT tire as a replacement for their P-metric passenger tire.''
``You're going to have to talk a little different language to a different kind of person to sell this SUV tire,'' a TBC Corp. spokesman said.
And dealers will have to talk that language loudly. As consumers continue to move toward SUVs and light trucks as their everyday family vehicles, they want everyday, family-vehicle tires, along with quieter, more comfortable rides, longer warranties and the feel and handle of a ``normal'' tire.
As Michelin Brand Category Manager Jaye Young put it, people are driving ``passenger cars in SUV clothing,'' and they won't settle for tires that don't have passenger car feel.
``The technology required to create something like the Michelin Cross Terrain SUV tire (which features a 65,000-mile tread wear warranty) would have been unimaginable 10 years ago,'' Ms. Young said. ``We used to believe that tire design required compromises: If you wanted long mileage you had to give up comfort. Consumers don't want compromises, and the tires we are making today reflect that. It's why we have the segmentation in the light truck tire category, and we have every reason to believe the trend will continue.''
Joe Average Driver, however, still wants to look like a truck driver, even if he doesn't want to feel like one. Raised-white letters and other aesthetic considerations won't be sacrificed.
The SUV-driving public wants ``cosmetic all-terrain, wild looking tires with rugged looks (which are) modern-looking like an (all-terrain) design with very quiet street manners,'' said Greg Ortega, TBC's marketing manager of light truck tires.
TBC markets several tires in the LT segment, including the Multi-Mile Wild Country, Sigma Stampede Radial SUV, Cordovan Wild Trac and the Vanderbilt Turbo Tech Sport SUV. TBC subsidiary Big O Tires Inc. has introduced the Bigfoot Sport Touring.
The shift toward the quieter, smoother-riding tire followed a similar trend among the vehicles themselves. Bill VandeWater, consumer products manager in sales engineering for Bridgestone/Firestone, pointed to such imports as Mercedes, Acura and Lexus-vehicles for which handling is paramount-as the ones spearheading the influx of luxury SUVs.
The tire industry has responded by creating what BFS refers to as ``touring'' LT tires.
``They're not designed to go off-road so much anymore; that's not what they're used for,'' said Mr. VandeWater, whose company will introduce the Bridgestone Dueler AT Revo in late July or early August. ``We're designing tires more in that LT touring category.''
Across the board, manufacturers and marketers are pointing toward a trend of larger-sized tires in the segment. Dealers will have to be cognizant of this. Where 16-inch diameters were nearly the industry standard, changes will dictate the need for a variety of sizes.
``The 16-inch (tire) is going away,'' Mr. VandeWater said. ``You're going to see a lot of 17-, 18- and 20-inch tires.... In the past there were not as many categories. You could just give them an A/T tire and that was it. Now you have to really talk to the consumer.''
The SUV explosion doesn't mean there will be no market for ``old style'' tires. There will always be weekend warriors, hikers, campers and rock crawlers who need a bit more rugged tire. Dealers are just going to have to do more to find out who's who when selling tires to customers.
``(They're) going to have to spend a little more time with the consumer coming in and see how the consumer is using that vehicle to make sure he puts the right tires on it,'' said BFS' Mr. VandeWater.
Or, as TBC's Mr. Ortega put it: ``To be a player, you have to have all your segments covered.... Customer knowledge and product knowledge are what it's all about, more so than even in the recent past. Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable. You really have to take it up a notch.''