GREENVILLE, S.C.-There are many types of pilots, but a barnstormer is what Michelin seems to have in mind as it plans the introduction of its ``Pilot'' line of ultra-high-performance tires to the North American replacement market. A name familiar in Europe since October 1992, the Pilot ``family'' of tires was introduced by Group Michelin at the Paris Auto Show to help buyers through what it then said was a maze of different tires available for fast cars.
Four years later, the high-performance market is no less complex, and even more competitive.
Now, Michelin North America (MNA) has decided to trade on the Pilot name's cache by barnstorming its way into the auto enthusiast community. And ``that's a significant departure for our focus in North America,'' an MNA executive told a dozen journalists from leading automotive enthusiast publications and trade journals.
The company's launch of two new Michelin Pilot tires began for the journalists Sept. 20 with a day of tire testing at MNA's Laurens, S.C., proving grounds, near its Greenville headquarters.
The event continued with a trip overseas for a ``ride-and-drive'' around the French countryside, concluding with comparative testing at Michelin's test facility in Ladoux, France, located just outside Group Michelin's headquarters city, Clermont-Ferrand.
In France, the group was given the opportunity to drive Ladoux's high-speed loop-with average speeds of up to 150 mph possible, depending on the vehicle-a privilege extended to journalists for the first time ever. Ladoux is the cornerstone of the firm's research, development and testing activities.
The Pilot line is much more than a few performance tires, said MNA's Chris Baker, technical marketing manager, sport and racing tires. ``It's a symbol of a new way of thinking'' that-based on the expressed needs of performance vehicle owners-has produced products ``for the enthusiast and by the enthusiast.''
To further cater to that crowd, company executives announced that Michelin intends to use its participation in the North American Touring Car Championship (NATCC) and its support of the Dodge Viper teams in IMSA endurance racing as a cornerstone of its Pilot advertising/promotional campaign. They hinted, as well, that Michelin would step up its racing activities in North America to underscore the performance image it is trying to create.
Besides the NATCC, Michelin is active in rallying in North America, while its BFGoodrich nameplate also is an ever-present contender in motorsports.
The new Pilot products-the SX MXX3, called the flagship of the line, and the XGT Z4-were described as ``customer specific'' by Mr. Baker. That is, they're tailored to certain applications for a vehicle segmentation ranging from ``super sport, sport, to sporty.''
The MXX3 is for the driver whose focus is on racetrack-type performance; the XGT is more for general street performance.
Mr. Baker and other self-professed MNA ``tire nerds'' (a.k.a. tire design engineers) made a point of stressing, ``If we hadn't really been fighting with the `bean counters' for this,'' the new Pilots ``would never have happened,'' since the tires come in a number of sizes that aren't widely used.
The XGT Z4, which won't be on the market until next January, was described by David P. Van Emburg, the engineer who designed it, as his ``baby.'' The sport tire market is looking for such a tire with a large footprint, he said, that exhibits optimal dry handling, comfort and wear, and a high-speed profile for control.
Featuring a directional tread pattern, three circumferential grooves, variable-width lateral grooves, with zig-zag as well as bridged sipes, the XGT Z4 offers ``dramatic improvements'' under any weather condition, he said.
The sipes aid performance in wet weather, he explained, and provide multiple biting edges for performance in the snow. But their design does not compromise dry handling, and the tire's tread-block stability helps provide superb cornering, he added.
The tire will have an initial offering of 17 sizes, ranging from 16- to 20-inch diameters and 35- to 60-series aspect ratios to fit a broad range of performance-oriented cars. Those include: Chevrolet's Corvette and Camaro models; the Mazda RX7; Dodge Stealth; Ford's Thunderbird, Taurus and Mustang lines; Toyota Supra; Oldsmobile Aurora; Pontiac's Firebird, Grand Prix and Bonneville SSE; Nissan 300ZX; and Mercedes-Benz 300 and 500 SL models.
On the other hand, the company said the Pilot SX MXX3 ultra-high-performance line offers unmatched handling, high-speed stability and firmness, with grip in both dry and wet conditions ``impressive enough to satisfy the requirements of the world's most demanding automobiles and discrim-inating drivers.''
To achieve high levels of overall performance, MNA said, its engineers developed new technologies, used innovative materials and revamped tire-making processes.
Via ``inventive'' rubber-mixing technology, the tires contain updated elastomers, new carbon blacks and silica reinforcements.
Although the SX MXX3 is already present in the North American market as an original equip-ment tire, Michelin said it will be widely available as a replacement-market option beginning in January 1997, initially in a range of 39 sizes with more to come.
From 15- to 20-inch diameters, and 30- to 55-series aspect ratios, the sizes will cover virtually all top-end and exotic autos, MNA said, either in their OE sizes or as a ``plus'' fitment.
Among those vehicles factory-equipped with the SX MXX3s are: Ferrari's F355 and 512TR models; the Dodge Viper GTS Coupe; Lancia Delta; Maserati Ghibli; Porsche 911; Mercedes-Benz C36; BMW's M3 and selected 5-, 7- and 8-series models; and the BMW-based Alipna B12.
The SX MXX3 is being produced exclusively at Michelin's Clermont-Ferrand, Cataroux, plant. MNA said it will import and maintain an ``appropriate'' stock of them, primarily in California and Texas, where the majority of the target cars are. A warehouse in Michigan will serve most of the northern states.
Earlier this year, when MNA launched its X-One all-season tire, the company took its promotional show on the road, setting up eight ride-and-drive events for Michelin dealers in a number of areas of the country. Under the tutelage of the famous Skip Barber Racing School, dealers had the opportunity to actually do some wet-performance testing on surfaces such as water-covered parking lots.
Thomas L. Chubb, manager, Michelin brand marketing, told TIRE BUSINESS the demonstrations received an ``overwhelming, positive response'' from dealers, many of whom said they don't get to do something like that very often.
MNA would like to conduct similar events for the ultra-high-performance Pilots, involving comparisons with major competitors, but Mr. Chubb said it may be more difficult to find suitable venues where dealers can test the tires under actual driving conditions.