Circuit Mecaglisse, Quebec—Focus groups are a critical tool that product marketers use to gauge consumer opinion and response during product development. It’s a relatively small investment that if done well and at the right time can make a big difference on the sales charts down the road.
But a focus group for winter tires? Michelin believes so.
While developing its new X-Ice Snow tire, Michelin asked tire dealers and consumers what they think a good winter tire should look like. The overwhelming response was that it should look aggressive, as though it can dig its way out of trouble. In visual terms, that means blockier treads with larger grooves, and a complete absence of any sort of continuous line in the direction of rotation.
This is a marked departure from Michelin’s practice in the past; the Xi3 and previous versions had a continuous groove down the centre and relatively small spaces between the tread blocks.
Even the name for this new winter tire—X-Ice Snow—is intended to tell consumers that it works in all winter conditions. The logical name would have been Xi4 since it’s the latest in a line of X-Ice winter tires. But Michelin wanted to shake things up a little.
And it did: the latest generation of Michelin’s popular winter tire looks decidedly more aggressive thanks to consumer input. First, there is no longer a longitudinal groove down the centre of the tread. It’s more of a chevron or V-shaped pattern, meant to evoke the ability of the tire to claw through winter. Second, the grooves between the tread blocks are notably larger than before, adding to the aggressive appearance of the tire.
It’s not all for show, though. Michelin wanted to start with something customers liked, then develop the tire around those traits.
The purpose of the large grooves is to evacuate water, snow and slush as the tire rolls on the ground. This reduces the amount of float so the tire can dig down and find the most traction available.
The company has also made improvements in the siping — those narrow slits that are on every tread block. Sipes allow each block to flex to provide edges that grip better on packed snow and ice. They also suck up and expel water to maximize the tire’s contact patch.
The challenge is to provide siping without giving too much flex to the tire’s tread. That flex can compromise stability and handling. The traditional way to deal with this is to have partial-depth sipes that will eventually disappear as the tire wears.
One of the company’s primary goals in developing this tire was to have it perform almost as well at 3.2 mm tread (just above the wear bars) as it did at 8 mm when the tire was new. So Michelin has developed a three-dimensional siping system that limits how much the tread blocks flex under load, yet allows the sipes to continue for the full depth of the tread.
The rubber compound itself has seen improvements too. Silica content has been increased, which is key to having a tire that stays flexible as the temperature drops. And Winnipeggers are no stranger to frigid winter temps — tires that turn into bowling balls in the cold are no good to anybody.
Ice traction has received a boost too, thanks to hard, synthetic polymer-based particles throughout the tread that first improve friction on ice, then when they fall out, leave tiny voids that absorb and then expel the thin film of water that forms as the rubber rolls over icy surfaces. It would have been better if these particles were derived from natural materials, but Michelin assured us that research for more sustainable design is ongoing.
We had a chance to experience the new tires in action at Circuit Mecaglisse near Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. Event organizers had several exercises set up for us to test the tires against leading brands in various conditions. Mother Nature had other plans, though. The night before and morning of the event, 25 cm of snow fell in the area. This should have been excellent news for a winter tire event, but crews kept busy from 4 a.m. until noon to keep specific portions of the course as clear as possible so we could experience the tires’ performance on ice.
Despite their best efforts, though, snow was everywhere, even on the courses designated for driving on ice. But we did still get plenty of wheel time.
First up were all-wheel-drive Ford Escapes fitted with the X-Ice Snow and Nokian Hakkapeliitta R3 SUV tires. In deep snow, the Michelins were slightly better than the Nokians when it came to lateral manoeuvres such as cornering and climbing out of ruts. Although we didn’t get to experience for ourselves on that snowy day, we were told that ice braking distances are substantially reduced in the Michelins compared to the Nokians.
We also drove front-drive Hyundai Elantra sedans with worn examples of the Michelins against Bridgestone Blizzak WS90s. Both sets of tires were shaved down to a 3.2-mm tread depth and driven for at least 100 kilometres before we drove on them. Here, the differences between Michelin and its competitor were much more pronounced. Not nearly enough snow was being pushed out of the way with the worn Blizzaks, so they tended to float on top of the loose snow rather than digging through it. It was easy to lose momentum in the deep stuff, and on more packed surfaces the Michelins far outperformed the Blizzaks during acceleration and braking.
The new X-Ice Snow will launch this summer. By the end of 2021, it will be available in 123 sizes with a new focus on the 18-inch-plus rim diameters to meet market demand. 85 per cent of North America’s supply will come from Michelin’s Nova Scotia production facility.