Pickups vs. SUVs: Are tires for either going away? No way

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Pickups vs. SUVs: Are tires for either going away? No way

Light trucks and pickup trucks used to mean the same thing. Not any more. Pickups are still considered light trucks, but so are sport-utility vehicles and, to a lesser extent, mini-vans and vans.

In 2002, there were 8.7 million light trucks sold in the United States, according to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). Pickups and SUVs accounted for the majority of them. Their dominance will continue next year, with SUV sales outpacing pickup truck sales.

However, despite the popularity of SUVs, the best-selling vehicle remains the Ford F-150 -- 21 years and counting -- and many commercial businesses can't live without their pickups.

As the definition of light truck has changed, so has the light truck tire market. Here's what to expect in the near future -- in plenty of time to get those inventories in line.

Trucks and tires by the numbers

In 1998, approximately 45% of all light trucks produced domestically were pickups, by far the single largest share of that segment. In 2004, however, the number of pickups produced will account for 33% of total light truck production, while SUVs will account for almost 34%, according to Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. research.

Despite the rapid growth in SUVs, which feature P-metric tires, there has been a subtle trend toward the use of LT-size tires on light trucks at both the replacement and original equipment levels. Modern Tire Dealer's 2003 Facts Issue notes a 3% drop in the percent of replacement P-metric tires on light trucks last year; the OE segment experienced a 2% drop. Still, P-metric tires made up 74% and 78% of the tires fitted on used and new light trucks, respectively.

There were 34 million LT-sized tires shipped in the U.S. last year. The Rubber Manufacturers Association forecasts an annualized growth rate of more than 3% through 2008 for replacement light truck tire shipments.

Kumho Tire U.S.A. Inc. estimates there will be as many as 36 million P-metric light truck radials shipped in 2005, compared to 40 million LT-sized radial tires.

Pickup lines

Rudy Zacharias, vice president of Zach's Tire Co. Inc. in Irving, Texas, has seen his retail tire sales flip-flop from passenger cars to light trucks, SUVs and recreational vehicles.

He estimates that last month, 70% of his sales were on SUVs and pickups. His most popular SUV sizes are P255/70R16 and P265/70R16 -- and he sells all he can stock. But the Ford F-series sizes are different.

Some Ford pickups come with P235/75R16s, which Zacharias thinks are too small for the vehicle. "Why Ford is doing that, I don't know," he says. He tries to get owners up to a P255/70R16 because "they have more rubber, they last longer and steer better." He says P255/70R16 tires come on Chevrolet's comparable pickup, the Silverado.

(The new 2004 Ford F-150 will come with 17- and 18-inch tire/wheel packages.)

"When you get into the 3/4-ton pickups, like the F-250, the LT265/75R16 10-ply is my most popular size." It also goes on the Chevy Suburban SUV.

In the commercial end, his most popular sizes for "the flat-bed trucks with dual wheels on the back" are LT215/75R16 for the F-150, and LT235/75R16 10-ply or LT225/75R16 10-ply for the F-250.

Zacharias says he is seeing a lot of people in Irving trading in their F-250 and F-350 trucks and travel trailers for small motor homes (LT215/85R16 10-ply tires, duals on back). "People are getting tired of pulling the 32-foot trailer."

Zach's Tire does not participate in the sport truck segment. "A lot of people are jacking them up and putting mag wheels and P285 tires on them," says Zacharias. "I'm afraid to align the trucks with those high risers."

Zach's Tire offers Bridgestone, Firestone and Dayton tires, plus Michelin Americas Small Tires (MAST) brands and Goodyear.

OE vs. aftermarket

The four most popular LT tire sizes at original equipment last year, in order, were all 16-inch, 10-ply sizes: LT245/75R16, LT265/75R16, LT235/85R16 and LT225/75R16, according to Modern Tire Dealer's 2003 Facts Issue. The fifth was an LT245/75R16 XL (not counting service trailer sizes), followed by a 10-ply LT215/85R16.

The top five sizes represented 68% of all OE tires in 2002. In 2000, the top five sizes -- LT245/75R16, 31x10.50R15, LT225/75R16, LT265/75R16 and LT235/85R16 -- accounted for 88.3% (size LT245/75R16 has been the most popular LT size at OE since 1993).

In the aftermarket, the most popular sizes last year were:

1. LT235/85R16, 15%

2. LT245/75R16, 14%

3. LT265/75R16, 13%

4. LT225/75R16, 9%

5. 31x10.50R15, 8.5%

The light truck aftermarket "has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, rising from $38.8 billion in 1993 to $74.1 billion in 2002," according to a new report by the AAIA, "The U.S. Light Truck Aftermarket: The Impact of Growing Pickup, SUV and Minivan Sales."

Modern Tire Dealer estimates consumers spent $3.5 billion on LT-sized tires last year.

Light truck aftermarket sales increased 7.4% from 2001 to 2002; the AAIA study forecasts 7.8% growth in 2003, to $79.9 billion.

Sizing up the customer

"I size up the truck customer," says Arthur Bradley, president and general manager of Ace Parker Tire Inc. in Sumter, S.C. "Does he use it for show? Does he use it for work or just everyday driving? Does he just want a sporty look?"

Bradley says his most popular pickup tire sizes are LT235/75R15, LT31x10.50x15 and LT255/70R16. "I normally sell the LTs because I think they last longer." To him, pickups refers to vehicles like the F-150 and F-250, and Chevy Silverado 4WD and 1500 2WD.

Ace Parker Tire sells MAST products, Mastercraft and Hankook. Bradley says when he needs 17-inch tires, he picks up some Goodyear, Firestone and a little Michelin.

Ace Parker Tire recently was named the "Best Tire Dealer" by the people of Sumter.

Sergio Rivera, a wholesale salesman for Interstate Tire Distributor Inc. in Commerce, Calif., says three of the top movers in the F-150/F-250 range are the LT235/85R16, LT245/75R16 and LT265/75R16, all 10-ply. Interstate's main brands are Cooper, Toyo and Mastercraft.

He says in his area, most of the tires on pickups have an all-terrain tread pattern, although not many people are traveling off-road. Commercial pickup tires generally have more of a highway design.

Tire sizes on the F-350 go as high as LT285/75R16 10-ply. After that, adds Rivera, you start to crossover to a 285/75R24.5 14-ply medium truck tire.

And just how large can pickup tires get? Earlier this year, Goodyear fitted "one of a kind" size LT315/60R22 tires on a special Dodge Ram "Cannonball Express" concept vehicle.

SUV tire buyers

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. profiles SUV owners as follows:

* Married.

* Age 24-54.

* 52% female.

* College educated.

* Professional/managerial jobs.

* More than $40,000 in household income.

* Outdoor/sports enthusiasts.

* Caucasian.

Goodyear estimates that there will be three new light truck models for every two new car models in 2004.

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