Tire testing goes to extremes

From frigid Quebec to sweltering Dubai, we sample the latest in road rubber

Published: September 30, 2011, 6:00 AM
Updated: August 4, 2015, 3:24 AM

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DUBAI, UAE – Like all consumer products, tires have to be thoroughly tested before they come to market to ensure that they meet the standards set for them, both by legislation and by the engineers that designed them.

Tire testing can take place in a variety of locations, depending on the intended use of the tire. Late last spring we tested some new winter tires in northern Quebec and last month some new high-performance rubber here in Dubai, at the just-completed Autodrome.

The two events helped point out that tire engineers have a daunting task – designing tires that will provide the maximum possible traction over a wide range of conditions. In back-to-back tests with competitive product, we can report that Michelin and Yokohama have accomplished remarkable feats with their newest winter and summer tires, respectively.

Michelin X-ice

Michelin says Quebec and the Maritimes play an inordinately large role in Canadian winter tire sales with Quebec accounting for 60% of the total and the sparsely populated Maritimes 11% - compared to Ontario’s 12%. Fully one-third of Nova Scotia drivers switch to winter tires.

Obviously Maritimers, having to deal with such a variety of conditions – that change quickly and frequently – know the advantages of swapping their all-season or compromise tires, for special purpose winter rubber.

Consumers purchase winter tires for two main reasons – to feel safe and secure or due to a bad past experience with all-season tires.

According to Michelin’s research, ice and snow traction are equally important to consumers. With this in mind the company designed and produced the X-Ice and Latitude X-Ice tires for passenger cars and light trucks and SUVs respectively.

It says these tires offer the ultimate in winter driving safety and will retain that performance for at least three winters due to their leading-edge technology.

The trick is advanced silica rubber compounds and what the company calls "Progressive Stiffness," which allows the tread to remain flexible under a wide range of temperature conditions. We drove them on sheer ice, dry pavement and in both deep and packed snow and can attest to the amazing grip they provide.

Yokohama ADVAN

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of both tires and companies lies Yokohama and its new ADVAN line.

The Japanese company is a relatively small player in a world market dominated by the likes of Michelin, Goodyear and Bridgestone/Firestone. But as is often the case with smaller companies trying to compete with the giants, Yokohama has come up with some pretty remarkable product through the use of modern technology.

I was one of three Canadians who were part of an international group here to showcase both a new tire line and the company’s intent on making its mark on the world market. With Saudis on one side at the presentation, Russians on the other and Australians and South Americans across the room, the international nature of the industry was clearly evident.

During high-speed testing on the track,at the wheel of high-end Mercedes and Porsches, it was also quickly evident there is a wide variety of driving skill in the international community!

But we were here to judge tires, not drivers and thankfully Yokohama had enough faith in its product to provide direct comparison with the most famous high-end performance tires on the market.

To the company’s credit the new ADVAN line, which will serve as Yokohama’s flagship brand, was more than up to the task. Whether sweeping through high-speed corners at triple digit speeds, braking heavily for slower corners or maneuvering through a special wet section, it was obvious the scientists in Tokyo had done their homework!

Just as difficult as maintaining a wet track in the desert was arriving at a set of parameters that allow the new ADVAN line to stick in such a variety of conditions. Much of the advance is due to technology and the use of simulation, nanotechnology, remote sensors and new testing methods that include measuring the G-loads on facial muscles!

Combining this technology with experience gained in various racing series has allowed Yokohama engineers to develop the ADVAN Sport for high-performance automobiles and the ADVAN ST for sport utility vehicles.

Driver still the limiting factor

Enroute to the Quebec site, we witnessed a driver in a brand new SUV lose control on a snow packed road, fishtailing his way over the guardrail and into the woods at speed. He was not hurt, but it was going to take some serious work to retrieve his vehicle.

En route to some desert driving here, we learned of a terrible crash on the very same road the previous night when a driver lost control due to a light layer of sand that had blown unto the otherwise perfectly straight, dry and level road. He ended up under a truck on the opposite side of the divided road and would not be driving again.

Tires make a critical difference and are considered by most, including this scribe, as the single most important safety feature on a vehicle. But they are still only as good as the driver.

While there were 50 degrees (Celsius) and 5,000 kilometres separating the two tests, the locations had one thing in common – whether it be sand or snow, slippery surfaces can lead to crashes. The Michelin X-Ice is that company’s newest effort at creating a tire that will cope with a variety of extreme winter conditions. Canada is a unique and important market for winter tires, where they represent 22% of annual sales compared to 1.5% south of the border.