Light truck tire trends: Whether LT or P-metric, size does matter

April 1, 2002

LT-sized tires take a backseat to P-metric tires on light trucks and SUVs. More than three-quarters of the new replacement tires mounted on light trucks are P-metrics. At the original equipment level, the percentage is even higher.

In 2001, replacement LT tire shipments were down 11% compared to the previous year, while OE shipments were down 12%.

But there are signs that light truck tires (like the size 37x12.50R17 LT tires used on the Hummer military and civilian vehicles seen in the photo) are gaining momentum again. Their increasing popularity in a number of niche markets won't put them in the driver's seat, but it will add to your bottom line if you stay on top of the following light truck tire trends:

* LT vs. P-metric;

* size popularity;

* commercial vs. recreational;

* truck modification.

Defining the market(s)

For purposes of this article, "LT" tires refer to LT-size tires. This segment is broken down into two sub-segments: "recreational" and "commercial." P-metric light truck tires will be referred to as P-metrics.

Industry-wide, consumer LT tires represent more than 80% of the light truck tires shipped at the replacement level. In general, consumer LT tires are typically a polyester-steel tire with a heavier ply rating.

LT tires for the commercial segment are often steel-steel (steel-ply/steel-belted) tires.

According to Dave Beasley, marketing director, Commercial Tire Systems for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., typical vehicles requiring commercial LT tires are Class 3 through Class 6 trucks. UPS pick-up and delivery trucks, tow trucks, utility/service trucks and recreational vehicles are good examples.

"They need load carrying capacity and retreadability, plus durability that is superior to fabric/steel LT tires when there is a size overlap," says Beasley.

"Tires must perform well in fast-wear P&D service and have good resistance to sidewall abrasion and impacts."

Mark Richter, performance marketing manager for Yokohama Tire Corp., says LT commercial tires are designed to work hard all the time, which is why three-quarter-ton payload pickups generally come standard with 10-ply, Load range E tires. But that may change.

"The 3/4-ton pickup for the longest time was a commercial-only vehicle," he says. "But these trucks are so much more comfortable than they were 10 years ago. So regular people are using commercial-duty vehicles for commuter duty."

Shipment numbers

In 2001, replacement shipments of LT-sized tires dropped for the first time since 1991.

In that 10-year span, shipments increased 65%. However, the segment suffered a setback last year, as shipments dropped 11%.

LT tire shipments at the original equipment level have decreased for the last two years, dropping from a high of 8.4 million in 1999 to 6.5 million last year.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) says there was a 10.2% growth, to 29.6 million units, in the P-metric light truck tire market in 2001, but says increase was "mostly as a result of the Ford Motor Co.'s Customer Satisfaction campaign," which came to an end last month.

(Ford estimates that 82% of the 13 million Firestone tires it recalled, or 10.6 million units, were replaced.)

The RMA, which defines the P-metric light truck tire segment as tires "with light truck appearance and tread characteristics usually found on SUVs and the focus of the recall and replacement campaigns," predicts this market will decrease by nearly 16% this year -- a drop of more than four million tires. However, an 18% increase in 2003 will offset that decrease.

The net authorized growth rate in the next five years will be slightly less than 11%, compared to the overall passenger replacement market growth of 2.8% during the same timeframe, according to the RMA.

Predicting future shipment trends for the LT tire segment may be a little tricky. The RMA's Tire Market Analysis Committee is re-defining the way it records light truck tire shipments. It was unable to predict shipments for this year because "some trailer tires have been reclassified from passenger tires to LT OE tires and contribute significantly to the overall size of the LT OE market."

Sizing trends

Light truck tire sizing popularity is undergoing change right now. The LT235/85R16 that has been the most popular size for years is getting challenged by LT245/75R16 and LT265/75R16.

A similar trend is happening at the P-metric tire level, says Jim Looney, president of Looney's Tire Service Inc. in Little Rock, Ark.

"There is a tremendous amount of P235/85R16s on 1/2-tons. But the newer trucks are coming out with the P235/70R16s and the P255/70R16s. They offer a better ride. I just bought a Chevy Silverado with an extended cab, and it had P255/70R16s. We're also seeing more of the P265/70R16s."

Looney says when his customers want a more rugged tread design and they have P235/70R16s, P255/70R16s or P265/70R16s, they have to "size up" because tiremakers don't make these sizes with heavy plies. They might go to a 10-ply LT245/75R16 or LT265/75R16.

Commercial vs. recreational

Looney's Tire Service does a lot of business with construction, plumbing and utility companies running 3/4-ton pickups.

He says 90% of the commercial tires he replaces are 10-ply. An even higher percentage are radial. "There are very few light truck bias tires today."

He sells five 10-ply sizes: LT245/75R16, LT265/75R16, LT 235/85R16, LT215/85R16 and LT225/75R16. The last two are his least popular sellers.

According to Goodyear, the most popular LT sizes in the commercial segment are:

* LT225/70R19.5

* LT245/70R19.5

* LT235/85R16

* LT225/75R16

* 8R19.5 LT

* LT215/85R16

The commercial segment is a "growing segment due to rapid expansion of package delivery and RV business," says Beasley. "The move is toward metric/low profiles sizes and away from conventional sizes."

Mike Wilborn, manager of Allen Tire Co. in Lakewood, Calif., says the LT commercial segment is always fairly steady. "The LT sizes, the 235/85R16s and the 245/75R16s, on the big trucks are pretty constant. They don't want to change sizes because they don't want to lose their load range, their 10-ply size."

LT tires also are in demand for recreational use. "A lot of people will tow a jet ski on a trailer and they will get an LT tire because P-metrics won't do the job," says Mike Scott, manager of Tires Warehouse Inc. in Fountain Valley, Calif. "They don't have the load-carrying capacity.

"The latest segment of the market is the mud-type tire. The younger kids who lift the pickups like them for mud terrain applications."

Roughly half of Scott's business is LT-sized tires, both commercial and recreational. "We do commercial LT business with small vans, ambulances, emergency vehicles and construction vehicles.

"The trends are greater ply-carrying capacities and larger vehicle applications for all off-road applications, usually a 10-ply or an 8-ply that carries the load."

Only in California, for now

Tricking-out light trucks with big tires and wheels is nothing new in California. But a Ford F-450?! Oh yeah.

Customers in Southern California are asking dealers to take off their original equipment LT225/70R19.5s and replace them with LT245/70R19.5s, giving their trucks a 20mm bump in the process. Lift kits are raising the vehicles even higher.

"They make them into motor homes," says Scott. "It's a joke. It's amazing the money they spend on a vehicle. It's a statement out here."

The two most popular sizes at Tires Warehouse are LT315/75R16 and LT285/85R16. "I can't keep them in stock," says Scott. "In particular, I've watched LT315/75R16 tire sales blossom. I see them on Ford F-150s, Chevy Blazers -- even on the lots, car dealers are tricking them out before they sell them. Bigger tires are a hot end of the market.

"Even mom and dad are going nuts. And the female market now? They've got to have bigger tires too."

Tires Warehouse handles Bridgestone, Firestone, Maxxis, Falken, Yokohama and Dunlop LT tires.

Bigger tires and wheels

The light truck tire market is evolving to meet the needs of consumers. This month, size 37x12.50R15 LT will be available for the first time in Goodyear's Wrangler MT/R line (a pre-production 37-inch tire for the Goodyear/Skyjacker Extreme Rock Crawling Nationals was produced at Goodyear's technical center in Akron, Ohio, last year).

According to Goodyear, it is the most requested size from off-road enthusiasts. "As the sport of off-roading grows and evolves, enthusiasts are asking for larger tires," says Mark Cherveny, Goodyear product manager for light truck tires. "Not long ago, the 31x10.50R15 LT and 33x12.50R15 LT tires were considered large. Now, the 35- and 37-inch tires are in demand."

The largest Wrangler MT/R size, 37x12.50R17 LT, is manufactured in the company's Topeka, Kan., plant for Hummer military and civilian vehicles.

The Parnelli Jones Dirt Grip line, a private brand from Dirt Gripz Inc. has 38-inch, Load range E sizes designed for both off- and on-road terrain.

Light truck tire rim diameters also are getting bigger, the same as in the P-metric segment," says Cherveny.

Weighty issues

Only if you determine the use of a light truck owner's vehicle can you provide the correct LT or P-metric light truck tire with the proper load-carrying capacity.

According to The Tire and Rim Association, the maximum load on individual light truck tires is determined by the manufacturer of the completed vehicle. It should include the following:

1. Curb weight, defined as the manufacturer's weight of the completed vehicle with standard equipment. Cab and/or utility body weight and the maximum capacity of engine fuel, oil and coolant should be taken into consideration.

2. Driver and occupant weight, defined as 150 pounds per occupant for the vehicle's designated seating capacity.

3. Accessory weight, or the combined weight of those installed regular production options not previously considered in curb weight weighing five pounds or more. If such options replace standard items, include only the excess if the excess is more than five pounds.

4. Extra equipment weight, defined as the weight of any non-standard item other than accessories which are affixed to the vehicle.

5. Cargo load, which consists of weight in the cargo area. "Consideration shall be given to all possible ways the user can load the vehicle approved by the manufacturer, including uneven loading side to side."

Also keep in mind that the speed of the light truck can affect the inflation pressure the tire needs to carry a load.

Source: The Tire and Rim Association

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.