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  • How to Choose the Best Tires for Your SUV

How to Choose the Best Tires for Your SUV

We use the Michelin Defender LTX M/S as the benchmark for what you should look for in an SUV tire

Christian Hazel
Mar 6, 2021
Not everybody comes to the table with the inherent knowledge of what does and doesn't make a good tire. Often when shopping for new tires for your car, truck, or SUV, price is the one and only determining factor. But we're here to tell you that price should be far from the first consideration when you're looking for new tires. Setting aside the fact that cheaper tires frequently wear out tens of thousands of miles faster than quality tires, meaning in the long run you'll be buying two or three times as many sets of tires over the life of your vehicle, there's a safety factory to consider. In many cases, cheaper tires are just way worse. We've driven bargain-price tires that made our vehicle super squirmy just driving a vehicle down the road in a straight line. And that's not to say anything of cornering grip, diminished stopping distances during panic breaking, loaded resistance to failure, and more. So when it comes time to reshod your mechanical pony, cheaper isn't always the way to go.
Photo 2/44   |   We installed a set of 275/55R20 Michelin Defender LTX M/S tires on a new GMC Yukon XL for the purposes of this story. The Michelins offered a much-improved ride, superior traction, and lower noise compared with the factory-issued tires.
We recently picked up a GMC Yukon XL and were thoroughly underwhelmed with the factory-spec tires it was wearing. In addition to some severe chunking of the tread rubber, they offered less than stellar grip for on-ramps and in emergency maneuvers. So when one of them got a puncture, rather than fix it, we took it as an opportunity to step up our tire quality with a set of Michelin Defender LTX M/S tires in the factory 275/55R20 size. We've always thought very highly of Michelin's light-truck tire offerings, so using these as the benchmark of what you should be looking for in a set of tires for your truck or SUV, let's learn a little about what all those numbers on the sidewall mean and how they translate into real-world performance, safety, and longevity.

Longevity - Treadwear Grades

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Photo 4/44   |   11 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
When shopping for tires, whether online or in person, the biggest determining factor next to price is usually its mileage warranty. That's how many miles the manufacturer promises the tread will last before the tires require replacing. In addition to this manufacturer mileage warranty, you should be able to find the treadwear grade. The treadwear grade is a U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rating given to a tire based on a standardized hands-on wear test, the results of which are compared against a test tire of a certain standard. A treadwear rating of 400 would indicate the tire should last 400 times longer than the standard test tire, and so on. The higher the number, the longer the tire should be capable of lasting before normal tread wear requires the tire's replacement. In addition to an exceptional 70,000-mile manufacturer warranty, the Michelin Defender LTX M/S tires in our 275/55R20 size have a treadwear rating of 800, which exceeds the factory-issued OE tires. Michelin cites its "Evertread" compound as the reason behind this tire's extreme long life potential, besting even its own Michelin LTX M/S2 tires' life by 10 percent.

Construction/Material

Photo 5/44   |   04 Tread Chunking And Cutting On Lesser Quality OE Spec Tire On GMC Yukon XL
Photo 6/44   |   05 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Back only a few years ago, the number of tread and sidewall plies were crucial in determining a tire's strength. Nowadays, with tighter polyester and steel weaves, manufactures are able to offer stronger tires with fewer plies, resulting in a lighter tire. Lighter tires handle better and require less fuel to turn. That said, the rubber compound, especially in the tread and sidewalls, is the big unsung hero in terms of traction, longevity, and even safety. The top photo is the tread surface of the OE tires that came factory on our Yukon XL. As you can see, the tread lugs have been cut, chipped, and chunked by gravel- and dirt-road driving. Over time, these chunks break away, leaving large voids in the tread that can not only affect braking and cornering traction but also increase road noise. The Evertread rubber compound of the Defender LTX M/S is highly resistant to chunking, cutting, and chipping, whether on- or off-road. And in addition to high mileage, the compound offers great UV resistance for the sidewalls to help prevent them from rotting during the tires' long lifespan, and it helps the tread surface grip in dry, wet, and winter conditions.

Tread Depth

Photo 7/44   |   06 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Photo 8/44   |   07 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Tread depth is one indicator of how long a tire's potential lifespan will be, but it's by no means the only factor. A tire with a tread depth of 12/32 inch but with a treadwear rating of 800 will most likely outlast a tire 15/32s with a treadwear of 600, so don't go by how deep the tread is alone. That said, the Defender LTX M/S in our test size has both a 12/32-inch tread depth and the 800 treadwear rating.

Tread Design and All Weather Features/ Mud & Snow Rating

Photo 9/44   |   08 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Photo 10/44   |   09 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Photo 11/44   |   10 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
These Defender LTX M/S tires do not have the mountain/snowflake branding, which indicates it's designed for severe winter conditions. Things like holes for studs, extra-large voids, and special rubber compounds are sometimes part of that "snowflake" rating. What the Defender LTX M/S does have is a mud and snow rating, as indicated by the M+S branding. That means these tires incorporated many elements to enhance their winter weather traction, such as fully siped tread blocks that open up to expose angled biting edges, including down onto the sidewall shoulder lugs; small ridges between the tread blocks to help release vacuum that would trap accumulated mud between the treads; and differing leading-edge tread block angles to help ensure the tire gets a many-faceted grip when being operated in low-traction conditions like wet, ice, snow, or mud.

Traction Grade Rating

Photo 12/44   |   11 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Among the myriad information plastered on a tire's sidewalls are ratings that particular tire in that particular size have earned via U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ratings for treadwear, traction, and temperature grades. We've already covered treadwear ratings. For the traction grade, a tire is subjected to a variety of tests to determine its straight-line wet traction as it skids across a standardized surface. The traction grade isn't a determination of lateral cornering or dry braking, but it is a good indicator of overall tread performance potential in terms of grip. We find tires with a better traction grade rating tend to exhibit better wet lateral grip as well as dry cornering and braking grip.
The traction grades are C (less than 0.38 g on asphalt or less than 0.26 g on concrete); B (above 0.38 g on asphalt or above 0.26 g on concrete); A (above 0.47 g on asphalt or above 0.35 g on concrete); and AA (above 0.54 g on asphalt or above 0.38 g on concrete). The Michelin Defender LTX M/S have an A traction grade. Although that's not the highest grade, most of the AA traction grade tires we've seen are more performance-oriented offerings designed for maximum grip and come with a much lower tread rating and tread warranty. In other words, for a daily-driven SUV you're not planning on racing at the track, a traction rating of A is excellent.

Temperature Grade Rating

Photo 13/44   |   11 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Another of the several ratings on a tire's sidewalls is the temperature grade. It's really a tire's resistance to heat against speed that's being assessed. In other words, if you must decrease speed because a tire is unable to dissipate the heat caused by driving or resist the effects of heat buildup, then the tire will receive a lower rating. A rating of C means speed must be reduced between 85 and 100 mph. A rating of B means speed must be reduced between 100 and 115 mph. And a rating of A means the tire speed can be maintained at 115 mph or above. The factory 275/55R20 tires that came on this Yukon XL had a temperature tating of B, while the 275/55R20 Michelin Defender LTX M/S have the highest rating of A.

Speed Rating

Photo 14/44   |   12 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Photo 15/44   |   13 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Most of us have probably dreamed of driving the autobahn, singing along at sustained speeds of over 140 mph. But for those of us who have actually done it, you know it's really more of a stressful exercise in which you're mostly watching for German lorries that precariously pull into the left-hand lane in front of you without warning. Besides, here in the U.S., the highest speed limits we tend to see with any frequency is 75-80 mph. More than the solace that you'll be able to keep up with the Bimmers and Benzes of the autobahn crowd, a tires' speed rating is often an indicator of quality construction and materials. It takes a good level of precision to make a tire that's balanced enough to earn a speed rating of over 100 mph, so given the large 32.2-inch diameter of these 275/55R20 Defender LTX M/S tires, the speed rating they've earned by testing at a certain pressure at the tire's maximum load rating is a great indicator of quality.
The 113T rating of these Michelin Defender LTX M/S tires may seem confusing at first because the "113" in the 113T rating is not an indication of their rated speed. Rather than miles per hour the "113" refers to the tire's load index at maximum pressure, which for 113 translates to 2,535 pounds at this tire's max pressure of 44 psi. To determine the speed rating, the tire is inflated to its maximum load pressure and then tested at its simulated maximum rating. The speed rating is actually the letter following the load index; higher letters indicate higher speeds, with "T" corresponding to 118 mph. So in other words, these Defender LTX M/S tires offer an exceptional 118-mph speed rating when run at their max load of 2,535 pounds if inflated to their max load pressure of 44 psi. That's among the best ratings for a family sedan/SUV tire, with higher ratings generally reserved for sport sedan and coupe light vehicles.
So just be warned, if you see something that looks like an impressive speed rating, remember that an indicated 122L doesn't mean your tire is capable of 122 mph, but rather it means your tire is a 122 load index tire with a max carrying capability of 3,307 pounds, and the actually speed rating is "L," which is really 75 mph. Bigger is not always better in terms of the number, so focus on the letter. The higher the letter, the higher the speed rating.

Load Range and Carrying Capacity

Photo 16/44   |   14 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
We've just gone through with some detail about the load rating of these particular tires, with a capability of 2,535 pounds at a maximum of 44 psi. Many light truck (LT) tires have a higher load range capacity, so if you're shopping for a pickup truck that's expecting a max tire pressure of perhaps 65-80 psi. In that case, these tires would not be a feasible alternative. Conversely, an LT tire is made to a different set of standards, with LT tires usually having thicker bead bundles, more plies, and much heavier construction that's just overkill for a passenger vehicle or general use SUV. An LT tire will almost always offer a slightly rougher ride and diminished comfort, so unless your owner's manual dictates the need for an LT type tire, you're just buying a bunch of extra rubber and load-carrying capability that your vehicle isn't designed for.
The TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) on this Yukon XL is only expecting to see 35 psi in normal use, which is well below the max pressure of 44 psi. If we were towing a heavy trailer, we would inflate the rears to 44 psi to handle the load, but once again, an E load range tire with 65-80 psi is just overkill for an application like ours.

MPG and other Factors

Photo 17/44   |   15 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Photo 18/44   |   16 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Photo 19/44   |   17 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
In addition to selecting the appropriate tire type for your application (in other words, not going for a huge, heavy LT tire that will take more fuel to spin and keep rolling) tread design and rubber compound do play a huge factor in your potential mpg. In the best-case scenarios, these two elements come together to help reduce scrubbing and friction as the tire rotates into contact with the road surface, resulting in increased mpg. Michelin claims its MaxTouch Construction does just that while still optimizing traction and long tread life. As for hands-on testing of this, we will keep generating our mpg numbers with this vehicle and will update this story after we've had a chance to run about 35,000 miles on the Defender LTX M/S tires, but in the short term, we've found the Defender LTXs are going about 5-10 percent better at the pump that the old OE tires, which were geared toward fuel economy, so we're pretty happy. Another thing that makes us happy is that these tires are manufactured in the U.S., which always plays into our purchasing decisions. Whenever possible, we'll buy stuff made in this country, but when it's a product as good as these Defender LTX M/S tires are, it's a slam-dunk, no-brainer.
Photo 20/44   |   18 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Photo 21/44   |   19 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Specs:
Michelin Defender LTX M/S
Size: 275/55R20
Mileage Warranty: 70,000 miles
Section Width: 11-inch (on 8.5-inch wheel)
Eco Feature: MTP
Overall Diameter: 32.2-inch
Max Load, Single: 2.535 pounds @ 44 psi
Revs/Mile: 652
Tire Weight: 39.95
Recommended Wheel Width: 7.5- to 9.5-inch
Tread Depth: 12/32-inch
Photo 22/44   |   20 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Photo 23/44   |   21 How To Choose The Best Tires For Your SUV Michelin Defender LTX
Source:
Michelin
866.866.6605
michelinman.com
 
 

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