LT wheels get bigger, in size and popularity
AKRON—Light trucks, SUVs and CUVs are continuing to grow in popularity in the U.S., prompting a surge in larger-sized aftermarket wheel demand.
The current trend for light truck wheels is "bigger and bigger and bigger," said Nick Chin, director for American Force Wheels. "Everybody's going bigger. Everybody's going wider."
The popularity of large wheel sizes coincides with demand for increased load requirements, according Joe Podlovits, director of brand management, The Wheel Group.
"First and foremost, we are seeing increased loads on wheels, which is continuing just from payload for 3/4- and 1-ton trucks. So we're constantly working to stay ahead of that curve," Mr. Podlovits told Tire Business.
He surmised that the LT wheel demand is due to the popularity of light trucks in the U.S. Unlike the Canadian market, where light trucks primarily are used as work vehicles, the U.S. market has embraced light trucks as family vehicles.
• This story appeared in the June 19 print edition of Tire Business.
"I think first and foremost, trucks have become not necessarily a work vehicle any longer. They've become very plush. The interiors are much nicer, they are smoother riding vehicles, they're more family-friendly than they've ever been. So I think that's a piece of it," he said.
"The second side that we see, just across the country, is that there is a lot more people that are outdoors, meaning they are now pulling campers, they're pulling trailers, they've got toy haulers. We're also seeing the overland segment driving significant numbers. So all these things typically require a pickup truck base, and then you're bolting accessories onto that. So it's really become a family vehicle much more now than it's ever been."
Miami-based American Force and Ontario, Calif.-based The Wheel Group have been increasing LT wheel production to meet the growing demand.
"We've maintained a steady and constant growth for the last four years. Even though there are new competitors on the scene, we haven't seen any hiccups on our end as far as our growth. The whole industry is growing," Mr. Chin said.
He attributed the growth in demand to consumers wanting bigger wheels and more lip in their wheels.
"It's been going in this direction of the last three years, I would say," according to Mr. Chin. "But right now, it's been really exploding, especially since there are so many people from the manufacturers' standpoint that have been going after the market.... Even the stock vehicles are coming with larger wheels."
American Force's main business is truck wheels, but nearly 50 percent of its sales comes from LT wheels, he said.
"That (LT wheel) category has been growing in the U.S. exponentially. I would say we've seen a healthy increase on that probably in the last eight to 10 years," said The Wheel Group's Mr. Podlovits.
"We got four different brands that cater to Jeep and light truck. So we've increased the number of designs significantly, along with fitments as well. "So we've opened up our fitment base to accommodate everything from a stock vehicle to a leveled vehicle all the way up to a lifted truck or what we would consider an extreme-lift, which is where you get to these over-sized wheels of 12- to 14-inches wide and up to 26-inch in diameter," he said.
The Wheel Group builds an array of wheels, from trailer to heavy truck sizes. Light truck wheel business is about 65 percent of overall sales, Mr. Podlovits said, with a "tremendous increase" in LT wheel sales over the past few years.
"We're noticing more people are willing to run wider widths on stock or leveled trucks than they ever have in the past. So that's created a need for us to build wheels with different profiles, different offsets or back spacing to accommodate the request from the customers."
And that means more size proliferation, he admitted.
"Unfortunately, we build way more SKUs than we'd like to but again, we want to make sure we've got a very, very broad base coverage, " he said.
Both companies have seen an increase in competition in the light truck wheel market.
"I think everybody sees the opportunity for truck. The companies that have traditionally sold passenger car (wheels) have moved into the light truck market just because the opportunity is there," Mr. Podlovits said.
The demand for bigger wheels is expected to continue for the next few years, Mr. Chin predicted.
"Actually, it will probably even grow further because of the new vehicles that are coming onto the market (such as the Ford Ranger truck).... So with the new vehicles coming in, I think that is going to revitalize the whole scene. There are so many new options."
Mr. Podlovits agreed the growth trend will continue.
"Interest continues to get strong. Vehicle manufacturers are watching the number of units that they are producing each year, and that continues to increase. We're seeing more people moving into not only light truck but even into the SUV/crossover segment. So that's a good indication that typically the light truck is always in lock-step with that by percentage."
The regions of the country driving the aftermarket LT wheels popularity is the Sunbelt region, from California to Florida, and the so-called Bible Belt of southeastern states, according to Mr. Chin.
Advice to dealers
Mr. Chin noted the proliferation of larger-sized wheels require installers to be properly trained on fitments.
"Work with the manufacturers and be educated properly on not just design and trend but also fitment," Mr. Chin advised dealers.
"You want to make sure that when someone is doing custom wheels that they get exactly what they are looking for. Not just the look, but also that they are not going to have any technical issues, like fitment and turning and rubbing and stuff like that."
"Many, many other wheels that we notice in the market that are especially less-expensive wheels, they are not made to fit correctly," noted Mr. Podlovits.
"They look nice, but they don't fit correctly, or the other problem is they fit correctly but they have no aesthetic value to it.
"So we're trying to find that perfect recipe on what we believe is aesthetically pleasing to the customer, for ultimately it's a fashion piece, so the customer is really the judge of what they feel is the best looking product out there for them."
Mr. Podlovits said his company focuses on safety as well as fitment with the larger wheels.
"The payload is increasing literally every single year on some of these (vehicles). We really try to stay above the curve on that. One of the key factors that we always look at is the load rating on the wheel.
"Traditionally a load rating has always been tested by using an OEM tire, which is what the specification calls for. We test on a 37-inch tire, which will achieve a higher load rating beyond what most vehicles will actually use."
He encouraged dealers to research the wheels they sell.
"So really just vetting out the quality of the wheel, vetting out the company that is building the wheel and vetting out the distribution channels of these wheels. If it's very hard to find distribution of a wheel, there's typically a reason why," he said.
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