Why Michelin's hi-tech treads for super SUVs are gripping stuff

Michelin's new tyre for SUVs cuts carbon emissions and hugs the track, says Alex Grant

We live in a confused world. Despite car manufacturers moving towards greener technology and the SUV becoming ever more demonised (and taxed), buyers are increasingly ditching the traditional family car in favour of an off-road vehicle. And despite vocal opposition, the trend is set to continue, with the global population of 4x4s by 2011 expected to be double what it was in 2001.

So, love them or loathe them, they're here to stay. This presents a wealth of challenges for the automotive industry, especially those responsible for keeping these gargantuan machines glued to the black stuff; the tyre makers. Michelin is the latest to try its luck at defying the laws of physics: the new Latitude 4x4 tyre range promises much.

It is no small task. SUVs are heavy vehicles that put a huge amount of stress on their tyres, so the rubber needs to be strong. It also needs to be able to hang on to the road in all conditions and, unlike a conventional car tyre, be able to withstand heavy off-road abuse just in case the owner feels the urge to get their alloy wheels dirty.

As if all this weren't enough, an SUV tyre needs to last like a car tyre. There's no room for compromise, and Michelin claims to have solved the problem with its Latitude Tour HP.

The name "Latitude" perhaps doesn't translate as well into English as Michelin expects - in the sense of freedom to explore. But the message is nevertheless clear, this is a tyre made for adventure, for touring the world and for coping with whatever you can throw at it. The people at Michelin have done their homework, too, finding out exactly what customers want from an SUV tyre before spending three years working on new technology to meet those needs.

The tyre, says Michelin, is durable yet safe, thanks to a unique compound that reduces rolling resistance, and thus fuel consumption and carbon emissions. It's, also, says the company, comfortable yet stable, thanks to deep, locking tread sipes. And it's stiff and precise, yet supple enough to deform for the best contact patch. All this new technology sounds great on paper, but what's most impressive is that it actually works. On the toughest off-road conditions, the Tour HP gives just the right feedback to keep the driver informed, while its wet Tarmac performance is a quantum leap forward compared with its predecessor, the Michelin MXV4+. It performs well.

Of course, the SUV market is just beginning to diversify, with the arrival of a somewhat bizarre new breed. It's not so long ago that a high-performance off-road vehicle outside the Paris-Dakar rally would be as likely as a sumo wrestler winning a 100-metre sprint. It's not the most logical pairing of ideas but, as Porsche has proved with the mighty Cayenne, it's possible to hit the mark without completely compromising the vehicle's off-road ability.

Central to this is tyre choice, and with a 47-year history of co-development, Michelin was the obvious choice when developing a tyre for the 2007 Cayenne.

The Latitude Sport, which will be factory equipment on the new model and other performance SUVs, is the result of a close partnership between the two companies. The Cayenne is a surprisingly confident car around a tight Tarmac track, even with the Latitude's predecessor, but with the new tyre it's quite staggering.

Steering response is far smoother and roadholding is dramatically improved, with enough grip on offer to instil the slightest fear that the Cayenne's weight would simply rip up chunks of Tarmac while cornering. Like the Porsche itself, the Latitude Sport marks a successful fusion between technology aimed at epic on-road performance and 4x4 strength.

As SUV sales continue to boom, it's reassuring to see new technology fighting to keep up with the unusual demands placed on the vehicles.

Michelin has met a difficult brief with the Latitude range, producing an uncompromising new tyre fit for a uncompromising new market. And, whether you agree with the rise of the sports utility vehicle or not, it's quite an achievement.

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