All-Terrain vs. Highway Tires: The Main Differences

Last Updated September 9, 2022

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Looking at the market, it’s clear that SUVs are beginning to dominate it, and as much as I’m not a fan of those, I can understand why people would buy them. Roomy interior, softer suspension, and off-road capabilities are a few reasons why an SUV would be an attractive choice for some. Considering that we’re talking about a different vehicle type, the tires won’t be the same as with a passenger car.

All-Terrain vs Highway Tires

While there are some overlaps in terms of the sizes, for the most part, SUVs or even CUVs are in a different class. You may have noticed that manufacturers sometimes have the same model in a passenger variant and an SUV one. The reason is that there are some differences in the compound and construction and often in the application.

As you know, an SUV or a light truck can be taken off-roading, something a passenger cannot do. It means that you’re looking at a vehicle type that offers a flexible driving experience, but that also means that you’ll need different tires.

The type of tires you’ll get will depend on your driving habits, and today we have another comparison – all-terrain vs. highway tires. In some instances, there are a few similarities, while in others, they are completely different tires.

All-Terrain vs. Highway Tires

All-terrain tires are the industry’s answer to offering one model that can be driven in multiple conditions. Essentially, these tires have off-road capability but are also good on the road. Combining both means you’ll sacrifice a bit of performance in the most extreme situations, something that some people will be fine with.

In many ways, highway tires are like touring tires for CUVs, SUVs, and light trucks. They are designed for road use, so you will be getting a well-refined tire that can perform well in the conditions it’s intended for. As a result, you won’t be getting any off-road performance, at least not usable one.

What are All-Terrain Tires?

Even though I have explained before, I’ll explain again for the sake of this comparison. All-terrain tires, by definition, are models designed to be driven on multiple terrains, covering road and off-road usage. While you are getting excellent flexibility from a single set of tires, you should keep in mind that the performance won’t be on the same level as with dedicated ones.

All-terrain tires will be perfectly fine for most people, but I need to outline their weaknesses. Tires designed for multiple applications or conditions usually struggle with the more extreme situations, and these are no exception.

On the road, all-terrain tires will be fine for most drivers. The performance is good, braking distances are short, and the ride quality is good, which is the positive side. On the negative, when compared with road-going tires, you won’t be getting as much in almost all metrics. The aggressive tread pattern means the noise levels will be a bit higher. For driving and handling, I wouldn’t say it’s terrible, but don’t expect wonders or sporty-like driving.

In most cases, all-terrain tires are M+S rated, so mud and snow performance are available on the table. As all-season tires, you will get usable performance in lighter snow conditions, but again, don’t expect them to be as good as proper winter tires. Some models are 3PMSF rated, so you can get slightly better performance in winter.

The same average performance goes for off-road performance as well. All-terrain tires do a good job in off-road situations when compared with road-going tires. With that said, they fall short when compared with proper off-road tires. I have analyzed the differences between all-terrain and mud-terrain tires, so you can check that out if you want to learn more.

What are Highway Tires?

The name sort of gives it away, so you probably have a good idea what kind of tires these are. Highway tires are essentially touring tires for larger vehicles. As such, they are intended for road use primarily, delivering excellent performance and a well-refined experience. This means that you shouldn’t expect any kind of off-road performance, maybe a bit on a dirt road, but only if you must.

Highway tires come in a variety of all-season or summer tires, which is an important consideration. With the summer models, you won’t have any usable performance in winter conditions, while the all-season ones will remain decent in lighter conditions.

Since highway tires aren’t designed to be used on multiple surfaces, manufacturers can focus on improving the performance in a specific scenario – paved roads. It means that the tires will have excellent grip and traction without sacrificing refinement. Also, since they won’t be driven on rough terrains, you can expect to get some excellent longevity, which is why most of them come with a long treadwear warranty.

If you’re going for all-season highway tires, you’ll get some winter performance as well. Like all-terrain tires, most come with an M+S rating, so you can use them in lighter conditions. Even though both types may have the same rating, there may be some performance differences which I’ll get to in the following section.

Differences Between All-Terran and Highway Tires

Both tire types are designed for SUVs or light trucks, but their applications are different. Even though there are some overlaps in the performance that all-terrain and highway tires offer, they are aimed at different types of drivers with different habits.

Let’s start off with road usage, which is what both types have in common. All-terrain and highway tires are good for road usage, but the performance isn’t the same. Since highway tires are designed specifically for paved roads, they will offer better performance in terms of grip and traction. Naturally, there are some exceptions, but as a general rule, all-terrain tires are slightly behind. The differences aren’t massive, and while all-terrain tires will do the job, highway tires will be a bit better.

When we compare all-season highway tires with all-terrain ones, we can see some slight differences in snow performance. Sure, both will do fine in lighter conditions, but the all-terrain one will have a bit more traction. This is due to the tread pattern, the same one that helps it with performance on mud should help it with snow and slush.

Regarding refinement, we are looking at another advantage highway tires have over all-terrain ones. The comfort levels aren’t too different, and you can find very comfortable all-terrain tires, which can be very similar to the highway ones. Noise levels, on the other hand, can be a bit different. All-terrain tires are designed with a more aggressive tread pattern for off-road driving, which results in higher noise levels. They aren’t as bad as with mud-terrain models but are more noticeable than highway tires.

The final difference is in the off-road performance or the lack of one in terms of highway tires. They are designed for road usage, so the most you can get out of them is a short drive on a dirt road. While that’s doable, the performance won’t be particularly good, and since the rubber compound isn’t made for that, you will risk damaging them. With all-terrain tires, the rubber compound is mostly made to be cut and chip resistant, so the chances of getting a puncture from a rock as more minor. Also, the pattern means you can get mud or sand performance, something a highway tire won’t be able to do.

When Should you Get All-Terrain Tires?

Considering the type of performance all-terrain tires can deliver, I’d recommend these types of tires for people looking for a combination of on and off-road performance. As mentioned before, you won’t be getting the best of both worlds, but you will be getting a solid performer in both cases, which may be fine.

On the road, all-terrain tires will offer pretty good performance as long as you’re not expecting wonders out of them. Decent grip and traction levels, combined with short braking distances, make a tire safe, something that these tires can deliver. Even though most SUV or light truck owners don’t drive their vehicles on a track, pushing is something that all-terrain tires aren’t very good at. Normal driving and refined experience is what they can offer.

Combining on and off-road performance is available with all-terrain tires, so consider them if you’re doing some casual off-roading. I have to emphasize casual, as these tires won’t deliver the same performance mud-terrain tires can. On a dirt or gravel road, the performance will be pretty good, and the tires won’t be struggling too much to find traction. Mud and sand are a bit more difficult, but you can get some usable performance in lighter conditions.

One thing all-terrain tires cannot do well is deliver performance in extreme off-road conditions, so for that, you should look at mud-terrain tires. Their tread pattern and internal construction aren’t enough to offer even usable performance for rock crawling. It’s not unheard of, but you are risking damage or not enough performance, so try to avoid all-terrain tires if this is something you’re often doing.

Even though all-terrain tires don’t excel on the road or off it, they are still a good option for most people. If you don’t need a superior performance in extreme off-roading scenarios and do some light off-roading, then this is a good option for you.

When Should you Get Highway Tires?

Highway tires are for road use only, so consider these if you have a light truck or SUV that you don’t plan to drive in off-road conditions. Despite the off-road capabilities of these kinds of vehicles, some of them never see a spec of dust, so going for off-road capable tires is pointless.

By choosing highway tires, you’re ensuring that your vehicle will have rubber focused on road performance, and it will be a bit better than the one all-terrain tires have to offer. The grip and traction levels will be more than enough to cover your daily driving needs, which is something you should be aware of. As I mentioned previously, these are touring tires for larger vehicles, so performance driving is off the table. Highway tires can deliver good performance only under normal driving conditions. If you want more grip and traction with sporty handling, then you should look at UHP tires for SUVs.

If you do decide that highway tires will cover your needs, there is another decision you’ll need to make – all-season or summer. As you probably know, all-season tires have some usable performance in winter conditions, so that may come in handy, depending on the conditions in your area.

Refinement is the last reason why you should look at highway tires over all-terrain ones. I wouldn’t call all-terrain tires unrefined, but they aren’t on the same level as the highway ones. With these, the comfort levels aren’t massively different, the noise levels are. Highway tires aren’t compromised in the noise department by the aggressive tread pattern, so you can expect a quieter ride.

For road use only, the highway tires are a far better option for anyone.

Conclusion

Overall, choosing between all-terrain and highway tires is simple, and only one factor comes into play – off-road performance. If you drive an SUV or a light truck and take it off-roading occasionally, then all-terrain tires are the way to go. On the other hand, highway tires are the better choice if you’re doing a lot of road driving, and off-roading is something you only see on TV.

To be fair, it’s not all black and white, and there are some situations where you’ll need to think twice. In any case, as long as you’re aware of the limitations of one or the other type of tires, you’ll have a better understanding and make the best choice possible.

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