Review: Michelin X-Ice Xi3

One Tire To Rule Them All

Michelin North America, Inc.

Let's be clear: I don't necessarily think that the Michelin X-Ice Xi3 tires were forged of eldritch enchantments in the bowels of a fiery mountain. I'm pretty sure that the furry little things in Michelin's snow tire commercial are beavers rather than Hobbits. But there is a pride like fire among Michelin's Xi3 engineering team that makes one suspect that they're secretly thinking, “One Tire To Rule Them All...”

I first wrote about Michelin's excellent X-Ice Xi2 snow tire several months ago, and my only real issue was that the lateral grip was merely moderate rather than clearly superlative. Others had questioned its performance in deep snow. All seemed to agree that the overall handling was something special, and snow-tire geeks like myself have been eagerly waiting to see what the still-accelerating quantum leap going on in in siping technology would bring to Michelin's next generation.

Well I have Been Up To The Mountain – quite literally! Michelin kindly allowed me to join a number of other journalists for the launch of the X-Ice Xi3 at a track called Mecaglisse, near Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, where I got to drive the tires - pretty hard - for about a day. So what I can say for certain about the tires boils down to this: The Xi3 is clearly a much better snow tire than the Xi2.

Much better.

Technology

The Xi3's arrive packed with a carload of new technology, including a new self-locking siping pattern, more tread blocks, tread blocks at variable angles, and an interesting "caterpillar drive" feature in the central circumferential groove.

  • 15% More Tread Blocks:
    By making the blocks more compact, Michelin has increased their number. The engineers claim that more blocks mean more channels and grooves, making the tire more efficient at water and snow evacuation.
  • Cross Z Sipes:
    Michelin calls their siping pattern the Cross Z Sipe. (Cross Zed if you speaketh the Canadian.) The Cross Z sipes on the Xi3 are the latest in 3-dimensional self-locking technology. The sipes feature the now-familiar zig-zag biting edge pattern, but with an inner topology in which the points of the pattern are offset to one side or the other deep into the tread. This pattern allows the tread blocks to flex just enough to open the sipes and present the gripping edges to the surface, but locks the tread block together to prevent any more flex than intended. This prevents the kind of overflex in the tread block that stresses the block, leading to faster wear and the kind of "squishy" dry-road performance that everyone hates about snow tires.
  • Microedges:
    The tread blocks also feature serrations on the leading and lateral edges. These are intended to bite the surface even as the tread block is flexing upwards and away, or when the block is flexing laterally.
  • Micro Pump Sipes:
    The now-proven technology involving tiny holes in the tread that vacuum the last tiny layer of water off road surfaces appears on the Xi3 as well, but only half as many as on the Xi2. Michelin's engineers explained to me that the tread blocks, being hot from friction, generated most of this layer of water themselves. Setting micro pumps only on the last part of the tread to contact the surface ensured that water was removed just at the point of the tread block's maximum flex and grip.
  • Variable Angle Sipes:
    The Xi3's tread blocks have siping set at three different angles to enhance lateral grip.
  • Teardrop Siping:
    Cutting a small teardrop shape into the end of each sipe eases the shear force at a high-stress point that can crack the sipe. This also allows the block to flex more easily.
  • Caterpillar Drive:
    The central channel on the Xi3's features a number of small raised blocks that are staggered to grip onto deep snow packing the channel in a kind of "caterpillar effect." Michelin's engineers expect that this will improve performance in deep snow.

Performance

But does all this high-tech actually work? Oh yeah. It works.

Put simply, the Xi3's showed authoritative grip and response in all conditions that I was able to test. Linear acceleration is smoothly confident under controlled power and surprisingly powerful even when dropping the hammer from a standing start on sheer ice. The lateral grip is... extremely impressive. The tires break loose almost reluctantly and recover almost joyfully.

They are tactile, responsive, aggressive and a genuine blast to drive.

I was mildly disappointed to find that we would not be able to make a direct comparison between the Xi3's and their closest competitors; the Nokian Hakka R and Bridgestone Blizzak WS70. Although the Toyo Observe and the Goodyear UltraGrip are decent snow tires, to be brutally honest they are simply not playing in Michelin's league on the best of days. We did drive on Xi3's, Hakka R's and Blizzaks that had been shaved to 4/32nds of tread to in order to compare tires at the end of their treadwear - a useful comparison, to be sure, and one that the Xi3's clearly won, but ultimately it is a secondary comparison.

Driving on several lesser-quality tires did tend to bring into stark relief how very progressive the grip on the Xi3's is. When these tires do break loose, they do so gradually. They give a lot of warning, unlike other tires that simply lose grip all at once.

Across the spectrum of comparison tires this could clearly be felt as the difference between managing the degree of a skid, and simply accepting the inevitable skid and using it to put the car where you wanted it to go.

I also noticed a few other things that impressed me about the Xi3's; when breaking loose at high speeds the tires would begin by wanting to understeer, but quickly gain enough grip to throw the car into oversteer before recovering very positively.

I saw this pattern repeatedly, sometimes nearly independent of throttle or steering inputs, as this controlled-pendulum effect shed energy rapidly while keeping the car on the same general vector. I think that the variable angle siping must have at least a major part in this effect.

I unfortunately had no chance to drive the Xi3's on cold dry pavement, which would have been a major logistical undertaking at icy Mecaglisse, so there are things I still don't know about the tires. One of the things I liked best about the Xi2's was their extraordinary performance on dry roads.

One thing is for sure - the tires I drove had no noticeable weaknesses. The Michelin X-Ice Xi3 may not actually be the One Tire To Rule Them All, but it is most assuredly La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

Michelin's X-Ice Xi3 will be available this fall in 33 sizes from 14" to 18" and will carry the GreenX logo indicating low rolling resistance and ecological construction. It will also carry Michelin's 40,000 mile treadwear warranty.