In any battle of tire giants, Michelin is not accustomed to playing the role of underdog. But Nokian's dominance of the winter tire industry goes back to the invention of the snow tire itself; the company holds more winter tire patents than all other tire companies combined. That has tended to leave everybody else who makes winter tires chasing after Nokian for technological advances, and generally trying to make themselves a Hakkapeliitta of their own.
Lately however, many reviewers have been pointing at Michelin's X-Ice Xi2 as at least the equal of Nokian's flagship Hakka R. With a decent price difference in favor of Michelin, many felt that Michelin had finally taken the lead. Given overwhelmingly favorable reviews from many sources, including customers and friends whose opinions I trust, I felt I had to agree when I ranked my top 5 snow tires, despite not having had a chance to drive the tires on anything other than dry pavement.
So does the Michelin X-Ice Xi2 take top honors? Having finally had a chance to drive the tire in snow, I can say, positively and definitively: Almost.
The Xi2 sports a silica-based tread compound called FleX-Ice. (I've noted before that it's pretty much expected nowadays to give your tread compound a really cool name, but definite bonus points to Michelin for accessorizing the tread compound and tire names.) Like Yokohama's new tread compound, FleX-Ice is temperature-sensitive. At lower temps the compound stays flexible for better ice and snow bite. At higher temps, as on wet or dry cleared roads, the compound firms up for stability and performance.
The multiple independent tread blocks combine deep zigzag siping patterns closely related to Nokian's Hakka Sipe, and tiny circular “pumps” designed to suck up the last tiny layer of water between the tire and theroad surface. Michelin also says that their “Cross Z” siping patterns, “increase tread and shoulder block stability to provide lateral and longitudinal stiffness” which suggests to me that the sipes have some form of interlocking topology under the surface to prevent the deeply cut tread from flexing too much.
The X-Ice also uses twin steel belts spiral-wound with nylon cords to optimize stability and performance at speed. Tire guy Gene Peterson at Consumer Reports told me that he doesn't think that spiral-winding the belts does all that much for performance. I myself have reserved judgment for lack of enough data, but the road feel of the Xi2 suggests to me that something is going on.
- The tires have ferocious linear grip. Acceleration is excellent; although the Mazdaspeed's torque can easily spin the tires if you drop the hammer, smooth application of throttle finds a strong bite throughout the power curve. Braking is authoritative even in deep slush, whether I pump the brakes myself or let ABS handle it. Even when I can cause the tires to slide by jamming the brakes, the car stays pretty controllable and recovers without fishtailing.
- However, the X-Ice simply does not match up to the Hakka R for lateral grip. I was consistently able to break the rear end loose and cause the car to oversteer – a bit. To its credit, the Xi2 recovers very quickly and crisply, allowing the skid to be controlled well short of a spin, but most fatal winter accidents are caused by loss of lateral grip. I can cause the same kind of skids on Hakka R's, but it is significantly more difficult.