Sometimes the tire business strikes me as very much like an arms race. One manufacturer comes up with a tire that blows away the competition, a state of affairs that lasts until the blown-away competition comes back with an even better tire that takes over the lead. Rinse and repeat, forever and ever, amen.
Such is the state of affairs in the Ultra High Performance All-Season niche. Some months ago I reviewed the Bridgestone Potenza RE970AS, and declared it the new champ, narrowly edging out Michelin's Pilot Sport A/S Plus. Michelin, of course, does not take such things lying down. Enter the Pilot Sport A/S 3, fully prepared to rejoin the battle. In this round of tire wars, Michelin has obviously followed the advice of the great French tiremaker Napoleon, who famously counseled, “L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!”
Audacity is indeed the hallmark of the A/S 3, which claims groundbreaking grip and performance in all conditions; wet, dry and snow. For most tires it would perhaps be audacious enough just to beat out tires like the Potenza RE970AS and Continental's Extreme Contact DWS for the All-Season UHP crown, but not for Michelin. Michelin maintains that their new Pilot Sport All-Season tire even beats out some of the best summer tires on the market. Does it count as audacity if they're right?
- Spectacular progressive grip.
- Precise and crisp steering response.
- Smooth and confident feel.
- Snow grip is an unknown as yet.
Rather than using a directional tread, Michelin has gone with an asymmetric design for the Pilot Sports. By putting more rubber on the outside tread, the outer tread blocks are made more rigid, which increases lateral grip and stability, decreases noise due to wear and allows for easier rotation of the tires.
Variable Contact Patch 2.0:
First introduced in Michelin's Pilot Super Sport, and derived from ALMS racing tires, VCP 2.0 has been improved over the original technology. The tread blocks are slightly angled to even out pressure and temperatures under high g-loads. This allows for better performance when cornering, braking and accelerating. VCP also evens out wear and prevents high temperature damage (chunking).
Extreme Silica Technology:
“Extreme Silica” simply means that the tread compound contains very high levels of silica, which is “not so easy to do” according to Michelin’s engineers. “It's like baking a cake. If you think more flour is good, well that's easy to think, but if you keep adding flour at some point you just can't mix it anymore... There's a lot of secret behind how you incorporate that amount of silica into the tread compound and actually be able to process it, and manufacture the tire.” High levels of silica gives the tread compound more grip.
– Derived from sunflower oil, Michelin's proprietary Helio biodegradeable rubber compound provides excellent cold-weather grip.
Variable Thickness Sipes:
You might initially think that this means that the thickness of the sipes varies - I did - but the name actually means that the internal topology of the sipes varies in thickness. Essentially, this means that these are what other tire manufacturers call 3 Dimensional Interlocking Sipes, which have basically become an industry standard for siping patterns. Interlocking sipes allow for relatively dense siping patterns while preventing the tread squirm and accompanying high wear that used to characterize simple cuts in the tread blocks.
Inside the circumferential grooves of the A/S 3 one finds a pattern of small ridges that function as biting edges for snow traction, a technology derived directly from the “worm drive” pattern found inside the grooves of Michelin's X-Ice Xi3 snow tires.
Along with some 60 other journalists and “key influencers”, as Michelin describes us, I had a chance to try out the A/S 3 at the brand-new NOLA Motorports Park in the suburbs of New Orleans. NMP is a beautiful membership-supported facility - essentially a country club for car guys - which boasts a challenging professional track that hopes to see an American Le Mans race take up residence there someday soon. Throughout the course of a long day, we were able to use different parts of the track to experience wet and dry braking, wet and dry autocross, and a simple road course with slalom and evasion maneuvers laid out.
When I was given the opportunity last winter to try out Michelin's X-Ice XI3's, I and several other reviewers noted with mild disappointment that the tires provided for comparison were perhaps not the most top-of-the-line competitors available. While I am perhaps not yet heady enough to think Michelin listened to me alone, for the Pilot Sport A/S 3, they had clearly gone to the other extreme; not only allowing us to compare directly to their best competitors, but also providing us with a group of summer tires to compare pure dry performance against their All-Season tire. This is a decision so audacious as to seem almost arrogant... except for the fact that the A/S 3 actually delivers the goods.
On the road course, the Pilot Sports offered tremendous precision and control, hugging the hairpin turn and eating the evasion maneuver and various slalom gates for breakfast.
At the dry and wet braking station, the cars were equipped with GPS receivers capable of providing braking distances to the tenth of a foot. The PSA 3's not only beat the competition badly in dry braking, but laid down a wet braking distance that literally beat many of the competitors' dry braking scores.
The autocross courses showcased the A/S 3's “progressive grip.” Progressive grip is essentially a subjective measure of how the tires perform at or near the limit of their capabilities. Do they let go all at once or do they keep some amount of grip even into a skid,losing control gradually as G-forces increase? Good progressive grip allows the driver to take the tires right to the very limit and hold them there at the edge through the turn, controlling the skid with small throttle and steering modulations. The Pilot Sports delivered a progressive grip that was as close to perfect as I have ever experienced.
The Bottom Line:
Most of the time, tire testing is highly subjective. Except in braking tests, where it's possible to get empirical data, I try to experience and compare the “feel” and “performance” from one tire to another as best I can. Given that all these tires will eventually go on different cars, different suspension setups, with different drivers, and even that the reviewers have different styles and methods of reviewing; when we reviewers are being honest with ourselves I think we know that a truly objective comparison is simply impossible.
Having said that, in my opinion the Pilot Sport A/S 3 edged out the Potenza RE970AS on the wet course – not by much, mind you, but enough to feel the difference. On the dry course, the Pilot Sports simply blew away a set of top-of-the-line summer tires so completely that I found it difficult to believe - even after thoroughly annoying some of Michelin's people by taking air pressure and tread depth readings just to make sure. I didn't expect to find any funny business, and I didn't, in fact I learned more about how the tires heat-cycle than anything else. However, I have learned in my not-so-vast experience that some companies are not above trying to nudge their reviews on occasion.
So while the Pilot Sport A/S 3 is probably not nearly an All-Weather tire in the class of, say, Nokian's WRG2 and their actual treadwear and capability in snow is unknown as yet, when it comes to Ultra High Performance tires, few can even come close. These are definitely bleeding-edge tires at the very top of their class, and boy are they fun to drive.
The Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 3 will be available in the summer of 2013, in 65 sizes ranging from 175/65/R15 to 285/35/ZR20