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Fashion Over Function: Our Problematic Love Affair With Off-Road Tires

Have we lost our way with the application of off-road tires on our vehicles? Fashion supersedes function way too often.
Rubberband mud-terrain tires(Photo/Bryon Dorr)
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I was recently in a closed-door meeting with an off-road tire manufacturer. The meeting revolved around the look of the tire’s sidewall and tread and had nothing to do with the tire’s performance. I think this is the trajectory of the off-road tire market — fashion over function.

With that said, most new off-road tires from major manufacturers are quite good. While there are definitely some major differences in performance, the general consumer will most often not notice them and could be in a situation where the strength or weakness would be revealed.

But consumers sure do notice appearances.

Off-Road Tire Variety

2023 Chevy Colorado ZR2
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

As part of my job, I drive a wide range of vehicles and tires, sometimes testing them back-to-back. Since I review these products for a living, I can generally tell the differences more readily than the average user.

Even I can’t tell some of the differences between some off-road tires. Sure, some are louder on the road, some slide more readily in heavy rain, and some even have thinner sidewalls prone to tearing — something that became readily apparent on an OEM tire on a recent press trip. But many are just very good tires that compare favorably to each other.

(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

While the now iconic BFG KO2 has been eclipsed in terms of all-around performance on the current all-terrain tire market, they are still a go-to choice because of their unique look and known reliability.

Rough-Terrain Tires

Toyo Open Country R/T Trail tire review
Toyo Open Country R/T Trail tire; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

One recent trend that supports my theory is rough-terrain (R/T) tires. Basically, these are all-terrain (A/T) tires with more aggressive mud-terrain (M/T) looks. They also tend to have very stylized sidewalls, again pushing forward looks over function.

These tires are being made in response to consumer demand for rugged-looking tires, like an M/T, but with the quiet and fuel efficiency of on-road-leaning A/T tires. That isn’t necessarily bad, but creating an all-new class of tires that is essentially just based on looks seems silly.

I’m sure the R/T tire manufacturers don’t think the strong sales numbers are silly and are laughing all the way to the bank.

Heavy Tires, Little Cars

Subaru Crosstrek mods
(Photo/Andy Lilienthal)

Another trend is taking small crossovers and wagons and putting off-road tires, usually A/T tires, on them. Many times these tires are slightly oversized over stock. Think Subaru Crosstrek with slightly larger than stock A/T tires, a tiny lift, and maybe a skid plate.

These tires are almost always considerably heavier. Heavy tires put massive loads on suspension and driveline components — especially CVs. Off-road tires generally have stiffer sidewalls — for durability — as well, making them ride rougher on and off the road. All that combined adds up to less on-road traction, high wear of parts like brakes, components that are more prone to early failure, and a rougher and louder ride.

To hammer home my point, most small crossover owners won’t take their vehicles off-road, especially in rough terrain where A/T tires are needed. The on-road performance losses and strains these tires put on the vehicle do not pencil out compared to the largely on-road use they see, especially if you remove rugged looks from the equation.

Rubber Band Mud-Terrains

Rubberband mud-terrain tires
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

Probably the penultimate use of off-road tires as a fashion statement is rubberband-thin sidewall M/T tires wrapped around massive deep dish wheels used on lifted show trucks. These trucks will never be used off-road. They are for showing off, and that is all.

I will fully admit that aggressive M/T tread looks way better than smooth street-oriented tread on these big trucks. Most of these trucks also show little concern for ride quality and performance, so the losses from the heavily lugged tires and increase in road noise aren’t really an issue.

Also, it’s easier to spin up M/T tires and create a lot of tire smoke, so in that way, they are functional additions to this class of custom vehicle.

Rubberband mud-terrain tires
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

Form Over Function

It’s pretty clear that fashion is a big deal for tires. And hey, if you want to customize your vehicle in a way that hurts its performance, more power to you. I love that people customize their vehicles and make them look how they want. Carry on with your bad self.

But some tire choices are genuinely bad. The functional downsides of some inappropriate off-road tires will genuinely wreck your vehicle’s performance.

If you’re good with that, well, it’s your choice. But I want people to recognize that, sometimes, bigger and burlier doesn’t mean better, at least for real-world use. OK, rant over. Go back to enjoying your awesome ride.

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