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Review: Michelin X-Ice Xi2

Has Michelin finally caught up to Nokian's Hakkapeliitta R?

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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Michelin X-Ice Xi2

Michelin X-Ice Xi2

Tire Rack, Inc.

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.

Technology

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.

Handling:

Tire Rack, Inc.
My friend Mark runs 205/60/16's on his Mazdaspeed 3. We put them on the morning after the first real snowstorm to hit New England. The storm had dumped a decent carpet of extremely wet, heavy snow that was beginning to turn to slush underneath as the day warmed up. We found an unplowed parking lot with quite a nice variety of conditions going from pure snow through snow-on-slush to pure slush and proceeded to go play with the tires for a bit. From the first set of maneuvers a number of things became quite clear:
  • 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.
Overall though, I was pretty impressed by the Xi2's performance in the soup, if not entirely blown away. What blew me away was how they drive on both wet and dry pavement. Put these tires in the snow and they feel like snow tires should. Take these tires out of the snow and they feel... just like Michelins. The ride has a silky-smooth firmness to it. The sidewalls give under steering input just enough for comfort's sake, but respond like coiled springs to quick turns and fast curves. Performance throughout the city was both agile and decisive. I have to say that I have never driven a set of winter tires that get as close to the zen-like balance between having great winter grip and still being enormously fun to drive on clear roads.

The Bottom Line:

So, after driving the Xi2's in a good set of varying conditions, I remain confirmed in certain of my initial prejudices – I believe the Hakkapeliitta R is a better winter tire, and (based solely on what I hear from Nokian) upcoming improvements to the Hakka R may yet reset the bar. As well, with Michelin being among the many tire manufacturers increasing their prices in the next few months, the price advantage that counted greatly in Michelin's favor has lessened significantly. But where the X-Ice redeems itself is in its overall performance in all conditions, and its sheer personality. To have made a tire which performs extremely well in winter conditions and still retains the joi de vivre of a Michelin summer tire is an accomplishment worthy of note. So while Michelin may not have quite succeeded in making a Hakkapeliita, what they have done is make a great winter tire that is still uniquely Michelin. Vive le difference!
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