BRITAIN'S top fleet operators can take the credit for helping create a range of car tyres that the maker claims offer significant improvements in operating life, fuel economy and road safety.
A dozen fleet executives who make up a special 'think tank', which meets several times a year to discuss industry issues, supplied much of the information that has gone into a new line-up of Michelin Energy high-efficiency tyres for the mid-range family car models that dominate the business transport sector.
Due to be launched next month, the Energy radials are claimed to set fresh standards in wholelife costs by helping fleets cut their overall budgets on tyre purchase. Already offered by Renault as original equipment on the new Megane range, the tyres, which are claimed to have a 20% longer operating life than regular tyres, have also been homologated for the Ford Focus and next year's new Volkswagen Golf. The group was asked to visit the high-security test centre operated by the French company at Ladoux, near Clermont Ferrand.
After two days of test sessions and meetings with development staff, the panel came up with the formula they believed would best suit the needs of operators.
Michelin's European car fleets manager Peter Philpott said: 'What the panel members wanted was the ultimate compromise of low rolling resistance for maximum economy and a mixture of compounds that would give longer operating life – and they insisted the benefits had to be achieved without any compromise in the area of safety.
'They gave us a hard time and left us with plenty to think about. After a lot of detailed research and painstaking development work, our engineers have managed to incorporate their wishes into these new products.'
As the company staged tests of the Energy and its new Pilot Sport range for high performance cars at the Paul Ricard test track in southern France, Philpott said: 'Michelin supplies 45% of the tyres used by the fleet industry. But having the lion's share of the market doesn't mean we can afford to relax our efforts to come up with new solutions.
'The whole point of our meetings with the panel is to try to identify the areas where we can offer added value to a sector we regard as crucially important and also to help operators better manage their costs.
'As we deal with 150 major companies which operate 1.5 million vehicles, the fleet sector represents a major part of our business. It could be argued that making products that last longer means our sales will fall, but we think the reverse will be the case because we will increase our market share.'
The new Renault Megane we used in a series of comparison exercises felt inherently safer over a spray-soaked course thanks to the Energy's ability to disperse more water as the tread blocks make contact with the surface and then lock together to provide better grip.
The blocks in the tread pattern on Michelin's other new product, the Pilot Sport for prestige and sporting cars, are also designed to react to different stresses. Homologated for the Porsche Boxster and 911 and the new Chrysler Crossfire, the Sport's footprint – the surface area of tread in contact with the road – increases as forces rise during cornering.
Tested on an Audi TT, the firm's first tyre to combine two different tread compounds is noticeably better than its predecessor at holding the line through bends taken at high speed in the wet. On a dry track, it is also less prone to squeal when it approaches the limit and, because the tread is less prone to squirm under heavy braking, it feels more stable.