"The demand for rugged-terrain type products has grown exponentially over the past five years and will continue to grow as more off-/on-road enthusiasts are wanting a tire that provides off-road traction with good on-road manners," Toyo's Mr. McDonald said.
"The overlander market is the driving force. Those customers will drive hundreds of miles on pavement to get to their favorite off-road site, then they need the additional traction of an RT product for whatever type of terrain or conditions they may face," he said.
Rugged-terrain tires tend to be the compromise between all-terrain on-/off-road capabilities and the extreme off-road abilities of a mud-terrain tire.
It's a growing niche segment in which several tire makers are introducing products, including Falken, which plans to launch its Wildpeak RT next year.
"It's not a mature segment but a segment tire manufacturers can't ignore at this point," Mr. Howlett said. "The consumers want this hybrid AT/MT tire. It keeps growing and more and more tire manufacturers are entering that market."
The pandemic played a role in boosting off-roading activities.
"As summer continues, consumers are hitting the road to explore, which has led to the growth of the rugged-terrain tire category," TBC's Ms. Golba said. "There has been a shift from traditional mud-terrain tires to rugged-terrain tires which provide dependable off-road capability without compromising comfort and safety, with the added benefit of the mud-terrain's aggressive looks."
Several tire makers have been introducing "all-weather" tires for passenger car and CUVs that offer all-season as well as winter driving performance and carry the three-peak-mountain-snowflake designation (3PMS).
In the light truck tire segment, many all-terrain tires already provide all-weather driving capability, and have for years, and the newer entries carry the 3PMS designation.
"This is an additional safety benefit that truly gives customers additional traction when needed in any type of driving conditions — dry, wet, rain or snow," Mr. McDonald said. "Think about it, you don't always need to use 4-wheel drive, but it's there when you do. Having the 3PMS safety rating gives customers that same peace of mind regardless of what part of the country they live in. The Toyo Open Country A/T III, Open Country C/T, M-55, Celsius CUV and Celsius Cargo are all 3PMS-rated."
Continental also has been offering all-terrain tires with 3PMS certification.
"We're pretty proud the General Grabber APT (all-purpose terrain) and the General Grabber ATX all have the three-peak mountain snowflake certification and always have. ... So we've been doing this for an awfully long time. It provides a sense of confidence to people that they have these capable tires on their vehicle.
"Not only comfortable on-road manners but also the ability to have a little off-road, depending on which line they choose, and then the all-weather aspect of it," Mr. Terzaken said, adding, "When we design these lines, we design them specifically to have that level of capability because we realize this is an excepted level of performance and we exceed that with our design. So that's an important feature of the tire lines."
TBC's Ms. Golba said that demand for all-weather light truck tires is driven by consumers looking for a single tire that can be utilized year-round.
"We believe this trend will continue to grow for consumers who do not want the added expense of purchasing winter tires, especially in the middle to northern U.S. where there is lighter snow and seasonal changes," she said.
Catching the eye
Tires for light trucks are highly visible compared with the lower-profile tires on smaller passenger cars, so many consumers are attracted to an aesthetically pleasing tire design for their CUVs, SUVs and pickup trucks.
"The appearance plays a huge part for consumers to improve the look of their truck," Toyo's Mr. Lee said. "We try to ensure our tires have an attractive appearance but also add function to the tires. Larger side lugs can make the tire look more aggressive but also serve to help protect the sidewall as well as provide off-road traction."
American Tire Distributors Inc.'s Hercules brand recently introduced the Terra Trac AT X-Journey and AT X-Venture tires which each sport two different sidewalls to offer vehicle owners a choice in styles.
"As you create new products, you want to make sure you're offering the end-consumer and the dealer — especially the dealer for us — something to differentiate them that gets them into your place of business," Hercules' Senior Vice President Josh Simpson said.
"One person's thoughts about what an AT tire should look like may be different than another individual's, so we're going to be offering them an option. If you like this aggressive sidewall design, you mount this side out. If you like this design that's a little more subtle, you mount this side out. We give a choice, and we think that's going to help pull some individuals into our dealers and help grow their sales."
Falken's Mr. Howlett agreed.
"I think that (styling) can draw the customer in to a new brand or to a lesser-known brand. So I think it's important for all the brands, regardless of the tier, to really focus on overall aesthetics, especially on CUV/SUV/pickups. The tires are bigger, they're easier to see, especially on the pickups, the sidewalls are bigger. Inherently, the design is a really important factor."
But he warned that tire aesthetics should also represent the tire's performance capabilities.
"I think there is an opportunity for manufacturers to find other ways in the future to provide enhanced aesthetics or more rugged looking tires without using so much rubber and materials. I think one of the things Falken will focus on in the long-term is trying to reduce the weight of our products without compromising on aesthetics and performance. …
"We have to think of how do we meet all the consumer demands for these rugged aesthetics and all the performance the consumer demands but at the same time we don't overbuild the tire and make a heavy tire and therefore the fuel economy is bad or the range is bad on the electric vehicle. I think that's going to be a huge challenge for the manufacturers going forward," Mr. Howlett said.
"They want the look, but at the same time they don't want the downside of what that brings — i.e. road noise, for example. They want a tire that's very capable when they want to go off-road, but as soon as they're back on the highway, it needs to be an on-road comfortable tire, a quiet tire. But, at the end of the day, you also need to give them that look," Hercules' Mr. Liu said.
Other design challenges
The next and most challenging trend will be OE and replacement tires for electric-powered light trucks, SUVs and CUVs, according to Toyo's Mr. McDonald.
"The design and construction for these types of tires will have to focus on range, load-carrying capacity, durability and noise level to meet OE requirements.
"The other design trend will be for those EV aftermarket enthusiasts who want to level and lift these vehicles, which means larger diameter and wider tire sizes that still must maintain reasonable range and load-carrying capacity," he said.
Conti's Mr. Terzaken agreed the EV trend is impacting LT tire design.
"The vehicles are extremely quiet so tread pattern noise really becomes a key factor and you have to ensure that you minimize tread noise while retaining all of the other performance that you need.
"Another key thing is rolling resistance for battery electric vehicles. ... We look at compounding, construction and contours and all features of the tires and strive to increase the range capability of these tires."
EV weight is also an issue, he said.
"These vehicles are heavier due to the battery packs. In our design, something we have to consider is having a tire that gives you the same aesthetic that's still capable of carrying these heavier loads," Mr. Terzaken said, noting that as more electric pickup trucks are developed, this will become an important segment for tires.
Joe Scalzo, Tire Business online content editor, contributed to this report.