Having done my fair share of tyre test events over the years, I can tell you that they’re the most tiring and wearing trips. Morning till evening, lots of waiting between sessions, and always accompanied by blazing heat, but we still enjoy them nonetheless. Why? Unless you’ve got good connections with the Sepang International Circuit boss, it’s not always that one gets to test the absolute limits of grip in a controlled environment without the risk of breaking car and bones.

So we jumped at the chance to test Michelin’s latest – the Pilot Sport 3 – in Thailand. Making it more intresting was the unheard of track in the middle of nowhere – Kaeng Krachan Circuit near Hua Hin. We also hoped to find out if the PS3 is the new benchmark for performance tyres, as claimed by its maker.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

The Pilot Sport 3 is described by Michelin as a “natural evolution” of the PS2, but it’s also meant to replace the Pilot Preceda 2 (PP2) which is positioned lower than the PS2 (PS3 also replaces Pilot Exalto 2, which is not sold here).

Michelin is therefore replacing two tyres with the PS3, and the new model has an enlarged brief reflected by the variety and range of sizes. Both the PS2 and PP2 are still available at the shops for now, but will eventually be phased out.

Unusual for a high performance tyre, the PS3 size chart starts at 15 inches (RRP: RM 228) all the way to 19. There are a total of 26 sizes with speed rating from V to Y, 55 to 35 series and 185 to 285 section width. This means that anything from a Mazda 2 to the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG is covered; a good thing for most of us who don’t own performance machines but enjoy enthusiastic driving and want to have the best in tyre technology. Michelin’s latest is already the factory fit tyre for new cars such as the Audi A1 to the abovementioned AMG, and the list of European manufacturers joining the bandwagon is growing.

The PS3s sold here are either Thai or European made; the smaller sizes come from our Northern neighbour but Michelin says that standards are the same, regardless of which plant the tyres roll out from.

After a slow bus ride from Hua Hin, this still groggy writer arrived at Kaeng Krachan Circuit, which is said to be a private track of a rich local designed by himself. It’s a fascinating little place; although the narrow 2.9 km circuit occupies a relatively small footprint, there’s a big variety of corners and gradients. Forget sand traps and run off areas, make a mistake here and you’re in the drain! Along with the achingly cute event assistants, the Thai sun also came out to greet us with full force.

After a brief briefing, first stop for us was the wet braking station. Now, the PS2’s dry handling and braking levels were considered good enough to maintain, but Michelin felt that it needed to catch up on wet performance, which is the single biggest improvement over the PS2, still considered by many as a benchmark performance tyre.

The PS3 debuts Michelin’s Sport Power Compound, one of two main factors responsible for the improved wet performance. SPC is a unique formula that combines three ingredients for the first time: Wet Grip Elastomer, a dense flexible polymer that “cuts through” the water surface to “find” dry ground to stick on; Long Lasting Elastomer that benefits mileage; and Silica for better fuel consumption. The first of that three works hand-in-hand with Anti Surf System, which concerns the tyre’s shape.

Anti Surf basically rounds off the square edges of the tyre when viewed from the front. Michelin says that by better keeping the tyre’s shoulders off the water, the risk of hydroplaning is lower, and water evacuation becomes more effective. With all these improvements, the French tyre maker says that its latest UHP tyre stops three metres shorter than its PS2 predecessor, as tested by independent firm TUV (using 245/40 ZR 18 samples). Three metres is a big difference, and the PS2 isn’t exactly poor in this respect.

For the event, the control tyre used as a yardstick was the Yokohama S-Drive. Personally, I would have liked to see the PS3 fared up against the Goodyear Eagle F1 Assymetric, which in my opinion is the best UHP on sale today. But the Yoko was picked as it wasn’t easy to find a control tyre that was relevant to each and every country represented at the event, Michelin explained, and the S-Drive is one tyre that was sold in all countries. The event had media members from across Asia including India, Korea and ASEAN countries.

We accelerated to 80 km/h in Corollas before standing on the brakes, and the distance needed for the Altis to come to a complete halt was recorded. This was done twice on both PS3 and S-Drive tyres (225/45 R17), and as you can see from the scoreboard, it was an easy win for Michelin (yours truly is No. 11). Would it have been closer if say, the Bridgestone Potenza RE001 Adrenalin was used? Pierre Azemat, Michelin Asia Pacific Product Manager said that the Bridgestone was used in a similar media event in Australia, and the gap was bigger. Michelin’s internal testing data also says that the PS3 stops 9% shorter than Goodyear’s Eagle F1 Assymetric – very impressive if it’s true.

Besides wet braking, the PS3 also trumped over the S-Drive in wet handling. We guided the Altis through a drenched haripin bend without brakes at about 70 km/h, and it was very apparent that the Yokohamas broke away earlier, and felt more nervous throughout. At that speed, the PS3’s just found enough grip to complete the bend.

Michelin PS3 on the left, Yokohama S-Drive on the right

For the “sport handling” station, both PS3 and S-Drive tyres were fitted on non M-Sport BMW 325i test cars. The loop consists of a hairpin and an S-manouver in the middle of a bend; we were to change direction quickly to duck the cones at about 70 km/h without brakes. It was without surprise that the PS3 outgripped the Yokohama, resisted understeer better, and was easier to guide and control at the limit. In the safe confines of a track, I found the S-drive to be more fun as it enabled the E90’s tail wag around more easily, but you wouldn’t want that kind of fun on a winding road in the real world.

Now, while most won’t put “long lasting” as a top priority when shopping at this segment, a durable performance tyre is still good to have. To ensure the good vibes last longer, Michelin introduces “programmed distortion” for the PS3 (don’t worry, I was initially as clueless at the press briefing). A result of 50,000 hours of simulation and 100,000 km of road testing, this tech works by keeping the rubber tread at optimum temperature at all times – it heats up quickly at low speeds for flexibility needed for good traction and maintains stiffness at high speeds to prevent overheating. This is beneficial to both steering precision and tread life, which are improved over its predecessor.

There was also a “scenic drive” session where we got to try the PS3 on normal roads. The quality of the roads surrounding the circuit wasn’t in tip-top condition; just as well, because only then could we gauge the PS3’s comfort levels. I was given a Mini Cooper, and the Michelins definitely did not add to the Mini’s already lively ride. Cruising at 100km/h, I found the PS3 to be quite silent for a performance tyre as the Mini moved along without roar or any high pitched hum. Steering feel was great and turn in sharp, but that’s mostly down to the car, not the tyre.

So it was a resounding win for the Michelin, but we didn’t expect anything less. While the Yokohama S-Drive is a decent sport tyre, it didn’t offer the stiffest of competition to the PS3, to be frank. Personally, I would have liked to see the Pilot step into the fight club with the Eagle and the Potenza, or even the Continetal SportContact 3, but it’s not easy organising a regional tyre test event to please everyone, and we fully understand Michelin’s constrains.

Let’s not take anything away for the Pilot Sport 3 though. Every new tyre is designed to better current benchmarks, and Michelin aimed at the top when developing the PS3. But what I like the most here is the philosophy behind this product; although it’s built to rival the best UHPs in the market, the PS3 also opens up the benefits of a top sport tyre to the wider public. Thierry Rudloff, Michelin’s regional marketing director sums it up by saying: “You don’t have to be very skilled or have a sophisticated sports car to feel the difference.” This is democracy of technology, and we fully agree!