Choosing the right tyres for your 4X4 or SUV

The tyres chosen by manufacturers for their brand-new vehicles are no accident. Tens of thousands of testing kilometres are covered by engineers on a variety of tyres to ensure that the rubber every new car wears brings out the best of that vehicle.

It stands to reason that Porsche wouldn’t let its barnstorming 911 GT3 RS onto the market wearing cheap tyres, nor would Nissan bless its Leaf electric vehicle with a set of ultra-high performance tyres that prioritise grip over efficiency.

We’ve explored the science that goes into homologating ‘marked’ tyres for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs, also known as the car company) in this article about tyre technology.

While there might be marginal gains in traction or fuel economy by deviating from your vehicle’s OE tyre pattern, choosing the right tyre for your vehicle is crucial, especially if your aspirations include exploring the Australia that lies beyond the bitumen.

The off-road, adventure and lifestyle vehicle segments in Australia continue to boom, however, even the most capable off-road vehicles can leave the showroom floor somewhat shackled by the OE tyre fitment.

What are Highway Terrain (H/T) tyres?

“Most new 4×4 vehicles come fitted with Highway Terrain (H/T) tyres because they have to meet emissions and fuel economy targets before going on sale,” explains Russel Stewart from Bob Jane T-Marts, Australia’s leading independent tyre retailer.

It’s easy to focus on the name, but don’t assume that Highway Terrain tyres are only suitable for sealed road driving. Highway Terrain is a category of tyre that are designed to spend about 80 per cent of their life on sealed roads yet still be suitable for mild off-roading. We’re talking a fire trail to your favourite mountain biking or bushwalking track, not trudging through mud or scaling a rocky escarpment.

What are All Terrain (A/T) tyres?

If your touring goals have outgrown the factory Highway Terrain tyres then the next step is the All Terrain (A/T) category. Compared to H/Ts, A/Ts have a more aggressive tread pattern, often with squarer shoulders to improve traction on loose surfaces.

It may help to think of off-road tyres as a spectrum. At the left of the spectrum are perfect on-road manners, and at the other end we have uncompromising off-road performance. Thanks to this, we can see that a tyre optimized for on-road use will make compromises off-road and vice versa.

On this spectrum, A/T tyres would be somewhere near the middle, boasting enough grip and puncture resistance to hold their own off-road but with a tightly-packed tread pattern and construction method to ensure they don’t significantly impact fuel economy, vehicle braking performance, on-road grip and ride quality.

“A modern A/T is a capable tyre, but most people overestimate the kind of off-road driving they’re looking to do. They instantly gravitate towards an aggressive tyre like Mud Terrains, but that’s where advice from professional tyre dealer will help. They can talk with the customer about their vehicle and their intended use to recommend the best tyre for their needs,” adds Russel.

What are Mud Terrain (M/T) tyres?

Speaking of Mud Terrains (M/T), if we go back to our off-road tyre spectrum, the Muddies would sit at the far right of the scale – excellent off-road performance, but the trade-off is compromised on-road manners.

Like the A/T, Muddies have broad, square shoulders, often with tread blocks that creep down the tyre sidewall for increased grip in extreme situations and for superior sidewall puncture resistance. The tread face of the tyre is typified by tall, widely-spaced tread blocks designed to grip the surface – almost like a pair of spiked football boots – to find traction in the most challenging of circumstances.

This amounts to a tyre that’ll overcome just about anything you can throw at it off-road, but where does that leave Mud Terrains when you’re using them to commute?

The first thing you’ll notice is the noise. Muddies are measurably louder than A/T or H/T tyres both inside the car and outside. Even if you’ve never driven on a set of M/T tyres you’ve probably heard the distinct drone as a Muddie-equipped jacked up four-wheel drive goes past on the highway. The same chunky tread blocks that contribute to increased road noise also make the tyre less effective in emergency braking or emergency swerve situations.

Russel has noticed more enthusiasts combatting this poor on-road performance by purchasing the Mud Terrain tyres with a separate set of steel wheels. Then the owner switches to Highway Terrain tyres for commuting and puts the Muddies on when they plan to go off-road.

“If you do the switch at your local tyre store,” says Russel, “they’ll be able to help with a pre- and post-trip safety check as well, and double-check your alignment after a weekend of four-wheeling. This will ultimately extend the life of both your Highway and Mud Terrain tyres.”

The name ‘Mud Terrain’ can be a little misleading though, because while they’re exceptional at finding traction in muddy or slick situations, the reality is that Muddies are a rugged off-road tyre that are capable in all situations including across rocks, shale and even in the rigours of the desert.

“Your tyre choice should always come down to the terrain you plan to drive on, and if you’re looking at touring through the Victorian High Country or the Glasshouse Mountains, for example where there’ll be a wide variety of terrains and obstacles, you’ll want a tyre that’s up to the task,” explains Russel.

That’s as far as off-road tyres used to go, however some manufacturers have responded to market feedback and engineered new ‘Hybrid Terrain’ tyres that offer the aesthetic of a Mud Terrain with the manners and on-road performance of an All Terrain. Russel says Yokohama’s X-AT G016 is one exciting example of such a tyre. We’ll explore this segment of the market more in the future as it continues to proliferate.

One other factor to take into consideration when choosing off-road tyres is whether they are of ‘Passenger’ or ‘Light Truck’ (L/T) construction. This is a measure of how tough the tyre is. L/T tyres boast better load carrying capacity, increased sidewall puncture resistance and better suitability to prolonged low pressure operation (typical of sand driving) thanks to the extra steel belts used in construction. However if you’re not anticipating relying on any of these features then Passenger construction tyres are lighter, will provide better on-road comfort and deliver better fuel economy.
Regardless of what tyre you choose, it’s important to upgrade your spare tyre to suit, especially if you’ve moved on from the OE wheel size, tyre size or both.

“If you’re upsizing you can’t keep the factory spare,” explains Russel, “and if you’re looking at serious touring and going really remote, then you might want to consider a second spare wheel and tyre,” he adds.

While it’s easy to be guided by your heart when making investments like a set of off-road tyres, it’s important to be realistic and make the right choice. Tyres are one of the most important components of any off-road or touring vehicle, and the wrong choice can undermine the capability of other modifications – a statement that’s as true for picking tyres that are too aggressive, as it is for choosing tyres that aren’t up to the task at hand.
“You need to really think not only about the percentage of time you’re spending off-road, but also the severity of the terrain,” says Russel. “Ultimately, your tyres are responsible for keeping you safe on the road and off, so you can’t just buy tyres based on off-road performance.”

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