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It’s just a couple of years since we tested the big-selling 225/40 R18 high-performance tyre, but development is moving fast, driven in part by the at-a-glance labelling system that allows buyers to easily compare three key factors: wet grip, rolling resistance and noise.
Tyre makers now strive for ‘A’ ratings in wet grip and rolling resistance, which is a good thing, but the labelling addresses only a couple of tyre characteristics. It doesn’t tell you how a tyre performs in other wet tests such as aquaplaning, or on a wet circuit, nor does it tell you what it’s like in the dry or, crucially, what it feels like. Our comprehensive tyre test does.
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Once again, most of the premium brands are represented this year, the key exception being Bridgestone, which again declined our invitation, as did Yokohama, while Hankook cited supply issues. Among the seven tested, Goodyear fields its new Eagle F1 Asymmetric 5, while Nokian, better known for its winter tyres, makes a first appearance with its new Powerproof design.
Volkswagen’s Golf GTI was our mule for the bulk of our tests, its clean, precise responses and adjustability providing an excellent platform for revealing the character and ability of our test tyres. Its steering gives good feedback and its front end exploits all the grip a tyre can give. Traction is tested by the strong low-down torque of its 2-litre turbocharged engine and its handling is poised but not averse to letting the rear be loose for maximum agility. A specially equipped non-GTI Golf was used to gather data for the braking and aquaplaning tests.
Pirelli’s Vizzola test track near Milan combines medium- and slow-speed corners at one end with a fast lane change, high-speed braking while turning, and higher-speed turns at the other. There are also special surfaces on site for assessing NVH. For dry handling we decamped to the Varano racetrack a couple of hours away. It’s easy to learn but tricky to drive precisely, and features a fast chicane and a couple of demanding, long hairpins.
We devised a circuit of about 1.8km from the various permutations offered by the sprinkler-fed asphalt of Pirelli’s wet circuit. The layout saw speeds gradually building through the first half of the lap; chicanes tested agility and stability on the way in, and a quick left-right that fired the car onto a long straight tested outright grip and confidence, as did a fast lane-change and braking and turning for a tightish left at the furthest point. The return run featured a demanding double-apex left where you’re trying to build speed and hold the line. We drove with stability control off.
The P Zero set the pace in its own back yard and the best of the rest was the Michelin, some 1.2sec a lap down. Almost a second down on that was the Continental, and fourth fastest, a further two tenths down, was the Dunlop. The last three – Falken, Goodyear and Nokian – tied on 84.4sec, 2.3sec behind the Pirelli.
Not surprisingly, lap times and subjective ratings were closely matched, the Pirelli again clear of the pack. ‘Terrific turn-in is the standout feature of the P Zero – from the moment you start to turn you can lean on it relatively hard because it grips so well,’ I noted. ‘The tail can swing a little on the brakes but it’s predictable. Impressive.’ The Michelin demonstrated similar characteristics, its turn-in bite and traction being just a little softer but it held its line tenaciously, notably through the fast double-apex left, and allowed good precision everywhere.
Wet handling - lap time
Wet handling - subjective
A straightforward test of lateral grip, and the Pirelli cemented its wet circuit performance with the fastest average time around the large-diameter circle. Again, it held a decent gap to the second-placed tyre, which in this instance was the Continental, with the Michelin not far behind. The last four were very close, with little to choose between the Goodyear, Falken and Nokian, and the seventh-placed Dunlop just a fraction behind.
Braking and rolling resistance
Pirelli tops the table in the wet braking test, stopping from 100kph in 37.5m, a whole metre better than the next tyre. It scores a top-three result in the dry test too, also from 100kph to zero. Second place in the wet is a great result for the Falken, though that is offset by a seventh place in the dry.
The Michelin is more consistent, finishing third in the wet and almost a match for the top-placed dry-braking tyre. That’s the Continental, which leads with 35.2m but is a little off the pace in the wet, a full 2.2m behind the Pirelli. The Nokian scores decent mid-table results in both tests, while the Goodyear and Dunlop are in the lower half of the table in both tests, the Goodyear performing marginally better.
The upside for the Dunlop and Goodyear is that they produced the lowest rolling resistance figures and so should be the most fuel efficient. The Nokian, Continental and Michelin are close behind and are all officially rated in class C. The oddity is the Goodyear, which is officially in a lower class, E, but shows less resistance than those ‘C’ tyres in our test.
Bringing up the rear are Falken and, with the the highest resistance by some margin, Pirelli.
When a tyre is aquaplaning – effectively surfing on a layer of water rather than clearing it and biting through to the road surface – you have no steering or braking. We measured the speed at which each tyre over-speeds by more than 20 per cent in a straight line and the maximum lateral acceleration it can generate in a precisely wetted corner. Star performer was the Dunlop, which was best in the curved test and second in a straight line. The Michelin was consistently good too, while the Goodyear easily topped the straight-line test but was sixth in the curved test. The Pirelli was merely mid-range in both, while the Falken and Nokian were a bit further off the pace.
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Varano circuit, or Autodromo Riccardo Paletti as it is officially named, is strung out over a long, narrow plot and its 2.35 kilometres feature lots of right-angle, medium-speed turns, a couple of traction-testing hairpins and a fast ‘esse’. It demands precision, not least because it has big kerbs where corner cutting would give a useful advantage.
Having topped the time sheet on the wet circuit, the Pirelli did it again in the dry, stringing together a highly impressive 87.3sec lap, almost a second better than the second-placed tyre. It felt great, too. ‘You can feel the grip, take the speed into the corners, pick up the throttle early and sense the limit,’ I noted. ‘Planted, accurate and you can get away with overdriving it a little, too. Superb.’
The Michelin was a strong second, just 0.8sec behind and almost a full second ahead of the third-placed tyre, and scored well subjectively too: ‘Great steering feel and response, sweet agility and good grip. Just lacks traction getting out of the low-speed corners’.
Third fastest was the Dunlop, though the rest were close behind, third to seventh separated by just two tenths. Compared with the top two, the Dunlop was good but wasn’t as convincing; it was agile and let you know where the limit was, but lacked the strong traction and confident steering feel of the best.
Joint fourth fastest and a mere tenth down on the Dunlop were the Continental and Falken, though they got things done differently. The Continental was smooth and quiet and just seemed to lack the outright grip of the best, while the Falken was poor in feel, its light steering combined with modest, easily breached grip. It had good balance but had lost what edge it had after two laps.
The Nokian was there on lap time, and despite an off-putting scrubby sound it was willing and adjustable. Slowest was the Goodyear but subjectively it was good, with a very similar character to the Dunlop.
Dry handling - lap time
Dry handling - subjective
The road route concentrates on everyday attributes, the feel of the steering and its responses, the ride quality over various surfaces and the accompanying road noise. Topping this subjective assessment was the Continental, which although lacking some steering connection feel, more than made up for that with great refinement, dealing impressively with all manner of road surfaces and road features. A polished performance.
If you’re prepared to sacrifice some refinement for tactile, responsive steering, the Pirelli and Michelin deliver. Both gave the Golf direct, precise steering at the expense of a little refinement, with certain surfaces catching out the Michelin – it reacted sharply to expansion joints and the like – while the Pirelli was generally a bit noisier, harsher and more abrupt.
The Nokian wasn’t far behind. It offered good steering feel and decent refinement, but compared with the best lacked directness at moderate speeds and was rather noisy over the more challenging surfaces. It was a similar story with the Goodyear, which delivered good steering weight and precision but was generally rather noisy. Once again, the Dunlop and Goodyear were similar in character, though here the Dunlop was a little less refined.
Bottom of the table was the Falken, which had neither feelsome, direct steering nor ride refinement in its armoury.
7th Falken - 89.6
Delivered a good performance. Scored well in all the measured wet tests and wasn’t far away in the dry either. However, subjectively it lacked steering feel and gave only average refinement.
Blackcircles says… A tyre that our customers have responded well to, although not as popular as some other models. However, it has been praised for its excellent value for money, coupled with good cornering and reliable braking.
6th Goodyear - 92.4
Best in the straight-line aquaplaning was this new tyre’s top result and it scored well with low rolling resistance too. It failed to shine elsewhere though, and subjectively it lacked steering feel.
Blackcircles says… Despite being a relative newcomer, this tyre has quickly proven to be a customer favourite, with a rating of 4.6/5. Reviews have noted good handling, grip and braking performances.
=4th Nokian 92.8
Didn’t top the table in any measured test but performed solidly across the board for a good overall result. On track, it felt skittish in the wet. In the dry it was agile and willing. On the road it offered a decent compromise, delivering good steering feel with reasonable refinement.
Blackcircles says… Blackcircles does not currently stock this tyre, meaning we are unable to provide any insight into its performance or popularity with our customers.
=4th Dunlop 92.8
The lowest rolling resistance and the best curved aquaplane result were the high spots, though overall its measured wet results were the least impressive. It felt capable and agile in both the wet and the dry, but was held back by limited traction.
Blackcircles says… Over 1500 customer reviews have seen this tyre achieve an overall score of 4.6/5. Highlights include strong grip and handling. Some suggest it could improve by delivering a softer ride.
3rd Continental 94.4
The number one choice on the road, where it was the quietest and least disturbed by bumps. It scored well in wet handling too, proving itself effective and exploitable. Solid objective wet test results and low rolling resistance add up to a capable, refined performance tyre.
Blackcircles says… Customers at Blackcircles.com also rate this tyre highly – with an overall score of 4.7/5. Many reviews have noted the tyre’s quiet ride, improved fuel economy performance and even its stylish appearance.
2nd Michelin 95.2
Although it never topped the table in any or our tests, it was almost always in the top three and delivered the most consistent performance here. It was capable and exploitable in the wet and in the dry, and felt great too, giving direct, tactile steering. A great performance tyre.
Blackcircles says… A tyre that is highly regarded by Blackcircles.com customers. Over 3800 reviews have resulted in a rating of 4.7/5. Good levels of grip in mixed weather conditions are often remarked upon in customer reviews.
1st Pirelli 97.9
Scoring no fewer than six top results, the Pirelli was especially impressive in the wet and by far the most impressive tyre subjectively. It set fastest laps in the wet and the dry and you could feel the grip. Rolling resistance is a little high but this is an outstanding performance tyre.
Blackcircles says… A popular tyre among Blackcircles.com customers, with over 1500 reviews. They often state an appreciation for the tyre’s low noise levels and excellent grip, the only recurring downside being a desire for a slower wear rate.