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Truck/SUV Tire Buyer's Guide

A guide to the variety of tires on the market with tips on how to shop for your next set.

Don Weberg
Mar 15, 2004
Photographers: The Manufacturer
Today's trucks and SUVs perform tasks ranging from die-hard work tool to family hauler to boulevard statement to weekend-warrior off-road toy. Whatever hat your truck or SUV wears, it must have proper tires for an effective machine. You wouldn't run a marathon in work boots, nor would you show up at a black-tie opera in white sneakers, so why expect your rig to do so? Vehicle manufacturers are now producing trucks that can gobble up some Ferraris from the '80s, tow a house from its foundation and keep on going, ascend a 90-percent off-road grade and turn around to come back down, and much more. However, as capable as all these vehicles are, no one truck can do it all. As such, no one tire is right for all trucks.

Whatever you drive, you'll get an idea of the variety of tires on the market from this buyer's guide, as well as tips on how to shop for your next set of tires.
Alphabet Soup
Keeping all the numbers and letters straight on a sidewall can be next to impossible. But all that alpha-numeric soup is hard to live without; it's the tire's genetic code--it tells you the size, tolerances, and basic need-to-knows about the tire.
So what's the difference between a 205/55R1688 V XGT V and a 225/45ZR17 90W? Tire junkies will point out that one is a Michelin and the other is a Pirelli and that they're performance-rated tires. Who made them isn't important for this exercise, but the knowledge that they're performance-rated is. How can you tell? The alpha-numeric code breaks down like this:
205 = width of the tire in millimeters
55 = aspect ratio or sidewall height (percentage of tire width)
R = radial construction
16 = wheel diameter in inches the tire fits
88 = numerical code associate with the maximum load the tire can carry
V = tire speed rating (up to 149 mph)
XGT V = manufacturer's code for the tire design
Traction, Tread Wear, and Temperature
Like being in school, there are grades for above-average, average, and below-average performance. Except in tire talk, there isn't a below-average score, as it would be simply too dangerous.

If a tire receives an A for traction, it means it's exceptionally well crafted for braking in wet conditions, but cornering isn't taken into account. If a tire receives an A for temperature, it means it's exceptionally well crafted at dissipating heat and not generating an excessive amount of it. For tread wear, numbers are given out. A number of 150 would be able to wear one-and-a-half times as a tire graded at 100, and so on.
Speed Ratings
Vehicles are going faster every year, and this includes SUVs and pickup trucks, despite their obvious limitations. It's important to know if you need a speed-rated tire or not, and it's important to know which tires are high-speed rated and which aren't. Speed ratings were first developed in Europe, where the grades went from A5 (for 15-mph forklifts) to Z for speeds above 149 mph.
The United States began grading tires in much the same way, but also stipulated that every tire must be capable of at least 85 mph. In a way, a speed rating is much like a movie rating. The higher on the alphabet, the more adult performance you can expect from it. (Except for H--someone messed up with that one.) Here's a list of the most common speed ratings.
S = 112 mph
T = 118 mph
H = 130 mph
V = 149 mph
W = 168 mph
Z = over 149 mph
Tallying the Trade-Offs
--Bob Nagy
Choosing the right tire is a pivotal decision for any SUV or light-truck owner, regardless of whether you're spending time locked onto the tarmac or bounding around in the boonies. Here are a few key points to remember when selecting sensible shoes for your vehicle.

Three main elements central to the design of any tire--P-Metric or LT-spec, radial or bias-ply--determine its primary characteristics: basic construction, tread design, and tread depth. As a rule, the more plies in a tire's carcass, the stronger and stiffer its sidewall. The additional structure in most serious off-road rubber makes it more resistant to trail damage, but the price is usually a marked reduction in on-road ride comfort.
Tread depth and tread design can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Tires optimized for pavement work generally have shallower tread depth and less open void area, features that contribute to lower noise levels, reduced rolling resistance, lower wear, enhanced steering feel with less squirm, and better overall fuel efficiency when used as intended. They often incorporate circumferential grooving--to better evacuate water and prevent aquaplaning--as well as more internal siping to improve bite in packed-snow conditions.
Off-road tires, on the other hand, tend to display exactly the opposite characteristics, visually and functionally. Both A/T (All-Terrain) and M/T (Mud-Terrain) spec have deeper tread and a far more open pattern with less integral siping and grooving, traits that ensure clear superiority when negotiating dirt or mud trails and better gripping surfaces for walking across rocks or logs. On the downside, those features have a corresponding negative impact on NVH, fuel economy, precision control, and longevity when driven on paved surfaces.
Rome Is Home for Pirelli--But Not Italy
Pirelli recently began producing tires at its new, state-of-the-art factory in Rome, Georgia. Costing over $100 million for the factory and $250 million for the entire project, the factory features Modular Integrated Robotized Systems technology. This technology allows for many benefits, one of which is the construction of tires with no joint in the design, meaning that each tire is a perfect circle of rubber.
MIRS technology is a Pirelli original, with mechanical and technological design assistance from universities and industry leaders and is the use of robots for virtually all aspects of tire assembly. So efficient is this system, that there's no overstock within the factory itself, as all the tires are shipped within the week they're made. Thus far, the robots require just over 3000 square feet of workspace to complete a job, which formerly took well over 9000.
It wouldn't surprise us if, someday, the whole plant could fit into a trailer, making it possible to produce tires at the races, instead of hauling them to it. The Rome facility is the first Pirelli plant in the United States and the first MIRS tire factory in the world, producing tires for the North American high-performance SUV and car markets. The tires produced at the factory will be the Ultra High Performance PZero Nero M+S, for vehicles such as the Viper and Corvette, Scorpion STR, for midsize truck applications, and Scorpion Asimmetrico, for high-performance truck applications.
Photo 2/13   |   Nitto Designed for use on light-duty trucks and SUVs, the Nitto Terra Grappler All Terrain Tire is now available in D or E load ratings, designations required by such trucks as the Ford Super Duty and GM Heavy Duty, but retain the sportier aspects expected from a tire for a smaller truck. Two extra-wide steel-belt construction improves the contact-patch and puncture resistance, while a rim-saver bead helps protect wheels. Nitto claims the design of the tires provide excellent traction on and off-road, in any weather condition. Available in a variety of sizes, there's more than likely a size for everyone. Nitto Tire; 800/648-8652. www.nittotire.com
Photo 3/13   |   Yokohama For those seeking a performance tire with solid speed, braking, and cornering attributes, the Yokohama AVS S/T might be the ticket. Most notably known for their more rugged mud and snow tires, Yokohama is a name many street cruiser and high-performance buffs with get to know better. Designed specifically to cover both load and speed ratings, it features durable, yet lightweight, nylon belt-edging construction, offering excellent handling characteristics, according to Yokohama. Available in 45-, 50-, 55-, 60-, and 70-series in sizes 16 to 20 inches, the AVS S/T also comes in H-, V-, or W-speed ratings. Yokohama; 800/722-9888.www.yokohamatire.com
Photo 4/13   |   Kumho Face it--when it comes to pimped-out trucks and SUVs, 18-inch wheels just don't do it anymore. Nowadays, only 20-inchers and higher need apply. In that market, Kumho introduces the ECSTA STX specifically for 22- and 23-inch tires. The new V-rated Kumho has been designed with tuner trucks and SUVs in mind and provide superb wet and dry handling rivaling that of passenger cars, according to Kumho. Offered in 14 sizes, the STX features two full-depth grooves to help remove water from under the footprint to avoid the hydroplaning chances, while nylon belt and bead reinforcement ensure durability. Kumho; 909/428-3999. www.kumhotire.com
Photo 5/13   |   Continental Designed for light-duty 4x4 trucks and SUVs, the CrossContact LX offers a good blend of on- and off-road performance ability, according to Continental. The tires features an open-shoulder asymmetrical design, specifically biased toward cornering and braking in light off-roading conditions, while maintaining precise steering and tracking on-road. Continental claims that road noise is significantly reduced over all surfaces. Available in 12 sizes, from 15- to 18 inches, the CrossContact also features flanged lower sidewalls to prevent damage to expensive rims. Continental Tire North America; 800/847-3349. www.conti-online.com
Photo 6/13   |   Bridgestone The latest iteration of an all-terrain tire from Bridgestone is the Dueler A/T Revo. Carrying on the tradition of solid all-around abilities in conditions as diverse as deep sand to punishing jagged rocks, the Revo is looking to be the best of all worlds. Designed for light-truck and SUV applications, the Revo features a pronounced and aggressive tread pattern with finblade accents, making it an attractive tire for some. Offering dual-layered tread compound, Bridgestone claims the Revo holds wet and dry roads well, while durability off-road is enhanced by way of two polyester body-ply design. Bridgestone; 615/937-5000.www.bridgestone.com
Photo 7/13   |   Firestone In the quest to be unique, or simply to have a cool tire with the potential of future collectibility, Firestone has introduced the Firehawk Indy 500 tire. Featuring raised white lettering, as well as the famed Indianapolis 500 wing and wheel logo, the tire is certain to set any light-truck or SUV apart from the rest. The S-rated tire comes in 17 sizes, meaning that there's something for just about everyone. The Indy tire is designed using Long Link Carbon that absorbs road stress over a larger area, making for a tire better able to resist cracking, tearing, and excessive wear, according to the company. Firestone; 615/872-5000.www.firestonetire.com
Photo 8/13   |   ToyoDesigned specifically for midsize trucks and SUV applications, the Toyo Proxes are now available in 20-inch sizes. Featuring all-season design technology, as well as a mud and snow designation and an A-Rating for traction and temperature, the new Toyo also features a rim protector to keep expensive wheels from curb hits. With a multitude of sizes from 15 to 23 inch and 40- to 60-Series, there's something for everyone interested in upgrading their wheel and tire combination. Check with your local tire stores to get the right information if you plan to go up or down in size from your vehicle's stock offerings. Plus one, two, or three sizing can be tricky. Toyo Tires; 800/442-8696. www.toyo.com
Photo 9/13   |   Mickey ThompsonWhen Mickey Thompson and Dick Cepek team up to build a tire, it's more than likely going to be an off-road brute. The new Radial F-C II is just that, featuring a tread pattern that provides quality off-road prowess and a smooth, quieter-than-you-think ride on the highway. The tire is offered in several sizes but will best suit the full-size truck or SUV that loves to get into the backcountry for some peace and quiet. Expect the same tough durability of previous Fun Country tires, with more voids in the tread to grip the road. Mickey Thompson Performance Tires; 330/928-9092. www.mickeythompsontires.com
Photo 10/13   |   PirelliA few new Scorpions join Pirelli's line of high-end high-performance tires for trucks and SUVs. The STR has been designed to satisfy a variety of trucks, SUVs, crossovers, 4x4s, and MPVs, making it one of the most versatile tires on the market. The STR blends the technologies of high-performance tires and off-road tires into one. For trucks and SUVs requiring a bit more grip on the road, there's the Pirelli Scorpion Zero Asimmetrico. The idea behind the Asimmetrico was to offer light trucks and SUVs the ultimate in steering and braking response, especially in the wet, but still offer the grip and growl for those occasional weekend exploration trips. Pirelli; 800/747-3554.www.us.pirelli.com
Photo 11/13   |   MaxxisOffering a slightly odd-looking, V-grooved, center-channeled tread for truck and SUV performance tires, Maxxis has developed the Marauder. Featuring dual steel-belt construction with a jointless spiral-wrapped full nylon cap, the tire boasts high-grade durability components to both protect it from road debris and rough terrain. Road shock is absorbed by double polyester body plies, while the unidirectional tread pattern offers not only excellent traction and handling, but also aggressive looks for street trucks. As with all unidirectional tires, make sure your local dealer knows how to read, mount, and rotate these tires properly for maximum Maxxis performance Maxxis; 770/962-8229. www.maxxis.com
Photo 12/13   |   GoodyearFor the few and proud rock crawler types that like to take their vehicles to the edge of destruction, Goodyear has introduced the Wrangler MT/R in a 37-inch spec for 15-, 16-, and 17-inch rims. While this type of aggressive look isn't always needed for the street, it's excellent to have that kind of size and tread under your truck while dealing with mini boulders or decomposed granite. The Durawall sidewall construction contains high-tech silica compound and three polyester piles for excellent cut, tear, and puncture resistance. The sidewalls are designed to flex, resist punctures, and grab terrain. Goodyear; 330/796-4114.www.goodyear.com
Photo 13/13   |   General Imagine a tire designed to disperse water, grip the road, and clean mud, snow, and other debris from its treads and keep virtually any truck up to a 3/4-ton capacity rolling quietly down the highway or trail. Sound too good to be true? General Tire claims to have developed just the animal with the AmeriTrac TR. Featuring Triple Traction, the TR's extra-wide and deep grooves are designed to handle a higher-than-average amount of water, while an irregular tread pattern of deep smaller grooves helps to self-clean. Inside, durability is improved by the use of dual, full-width steel belts, while the outer compound is said to be chip and cut resistant, making most road hazards non-hazardous. General Tire; 800/847-3349. www.generaltire.com

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