Farah Tested, Farah Approved: Michelin Pilot Sport 4S

Michelin’s Pilot Sport update takes a good thing and makes it better.

byMatt Farah| UPDATED Jan 24, 2017 2:13 PM
Farah Tested, Farah Approved: Michelin Pilot Sport 4S

The automotive media doesn’t do a very good job of covering tires. Mostly that’s because tires are boring. There’s no flash, no sexy horsepower figures, no exotic materials to brag about, no shiny things to bling off. Rappers don’t take photos with Hublot Big Bangs laid across a new set of snow tires for their Range Rovers. Tires are dull and nerdy. But as I’ve said here before—and as some of you already know—tires are the single most important (four) item[s] on your car. Think about the fact that four patches of rubber, collectively the size of a legal pad, are all that keeps you and your $400,000 McLaren from hurtling through a wall at triple digits. If a certain Carrera GT had new tires on it…. Well, you get the idea.

When it comes to tires, there are two kinds of people: super autocross/trackday nerds who would spend their own money on a dozen different tire combinations in search of the quickest times, geeking out on every available resource.... and everybody else. The great majority of the population who simply logs on to Tire Rack, plugs in their car, scrolls down to find a reasonably well-reviewed tire at a good price, buys, and then drives on those tires until it’s time to replace them (and in California, often long past that.) You’re either incredibly serious and diligent about your tires, or you’re fairly aloof—or so it seems, judging by the people I interact with. Odds are there is a silent middle ground as well that takes recommendations from friends, forums, or so-called “experts” like yours truly.

I’m a tire nerd, and because I drive so many cars for my One Take series, I get a nice cross section of tires each week to try out. Most aren’t so fortunate, and so I figure my choice in tires carries some weight—a theory which has now been (somewhat) proven, as people frequently show up to One Take shoots with my Ultra-High Performance tire of choice, the Michelin Pilot Super Sport, freshly fitted to the car for my drive.

I have personally purchased four sets of Michelin Pilot Super Sports in the last five years, and regular viewers of my little program will know that I speak about them often. I think they strike a great balance of grip in the dry, progressive slip in the wet, ride quality, quietness, and longevity. Since there is no free lunch in this world, the downsides of the Pilot Super Sport have always been price and availability – it’s one of the most expensive road tires on the market, no matter the size, and getting a set can take months of waiting.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never received a set of Michelin Pilot Super Sports for review; only purchased them through retailers. However, Michelin did provide a set of older Pilot Sport 2’s, for review on my Fox Body, and a set of Pilot Alpin snow tires for review this winter. Reviews of those products coming once I actually drive on them.

So, when Michelin announced the replacement for the Pilot Super Sport, the Pilot Sport 4S (Hereafter referred to simply as PSS and PS4S) would be at the Thermal Club Race Track, which had conveniently been stocked with supercars and sports cars, I agreed to attend, excited for the opportunity to try out the tire on road and track. I drove to Palm Springs in my Focus RS on Pilot Super Sport tires, to try to program my brain to the local road feel before trying the new tire. Ford actually offers the even stickier Pilot Sport Cup 2 as no-cost optional equipment on the RS, but for a road car, the Super Sport is the better tire, as the Cup 2 has a very short lifespan and makes a ton of noise on the street. It’s one of those “make it an option so we can go run the Nurburgring and call it standard” deals that you really don’t need in your own life.

EVEN MORE FULL DISCLOSURE: Michelin wanted me to drive on this tire so badly they put me up in the Ritz Carlton, Fed me Dom Perignon, a bunch of other red wine, and a six-course dinner by a chef with three Michelin stars, which was exquisite. They also gave me a gift bag containing, I shit you not: a Jacket, a shirt, and a pair of boxers by Under Armour. Also, a pair of moon-boot looking shoes with Michelin rubber soles, also by Under Armour. They gave me a book about Michelin-starred chefs, a series of Michelin-branded creams, a Samsonite “Padfolio,”a laminated poster by some artist I’ve never heard of, and a freaking video camera.

They also hired what appeared to be about a 60-person film crew from Vice Media, who would film your own little personal reality show about the experience (as long as you signed away your rights to Michelin to use the footage as well). At the autocross, a field producer said out loud to my group with a straight face, “When you get out of the car after your run, we’re going to have a camera there, so be sure to act really excited, especially when you get out of the Michelin car.”

All the crap they gave me I will be giving away to fans on my Instagram (@TheSmokingTire) as this piece goes live. The clothes are all in my size, but feel free to log in and have at this ridiculous amount of schwag. END FULL DISCLOSURE.

If you made it through those last paragraphs, you’re probably asking yourself, “How the hell is this dude, or anyone really, supposed to be objective about a potentially life-saving product when he’s apparently just in some sort of gifting suite marketed as a tire test?” #branding

I honestly don’t know, and that’s a shame. The product is better than that. The people who make the tires are better than that. So I’m going to do my very best to tell you what I think about these tires, and you can believe me, or not, but that’s the deal.

The Pilot Sport 4S is the replacement for the Pilot Super Sport, and if this is gonna be tl;dr, that is truly all you need to know about it. You can stop now, educated.

On the roads through Joshua Tree and around Palm Springs, I had about 30 minutes in a Ferrari California T and 30 minutes in a 2017 Audi R8. In both cases, at road speeds, the PS4S is indistinguishable from the PSS it replaces. The PS4S demonstrated excellent ride quality, albeit in two cars which I already know ride well. Road noise is minimal, and I honestly feel you would need very sensitive instrumentation to tell the difference from the PSS to the PS4S on your commuting roads. Michelin says that on a (unnamed) dry, 1.6-mile road course in Germany, the PS4S is 0.18 seconds per lap faster than the PSS; an incremental improvement that doesn’t sound like much until you extrapolate that number to the length of LeMans and the size of Circuit de la Sarthe, and you realize the PS4S is literally minutes ahead of the PSS by the end of that race. In your Corvette or 911, are you going to feel 0.18 seconds per lap from the drivers seat? Most likely, no, you are not.

During my road course and autocross sessions at the Thermal Club, I had the unique privilege of testing the PS4S in heavy rain and standing water. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I did not get to have another go in the dry.

First, on a 1.6 mile section of road course, I got behind the wheel of a BMW M4 DCT with HRE FlowForm wheels and did a 10-lap lead-follow session behind a Thermal instructor. Though speeds were way down due to visibility, inexperience with the track, and standing water, the combination of the tire’s strong wet performance at the front and BMW’s impressive traction control at the back proved to be a winning formula even at speeds up to 100 MPH on the front straight, full ABS engagement at the end of the back straight, and intentional ham-fisted steering into a tightening left-hander. Though you could make the tire brake away with enough of any combination of inputs, it broke free progressively, and attentive inputs could bring it right back quickly.

Admittedly, as a near decade resident of California, I don’t have the strongest wet trackday record, so in conditions like that, I’d honestly just stay home and not be out racing, but I would not be the least bit worried about getting my sports car home safely on a set of those tires, even in terribly wet conditions. I did not have any comparative tires to test during the road course segment, but walked off the track impressed nonetheless.

After a quick OTF with the Vice Media crew (that’s a “On The Fly” interview for those of you who aren’t in the business of making reality television) we were ushered to a well-laid out autocross featuring a row of identical BMW 340i sedans. Two Bimmers were shod in PS4S tires, and the other five wore competitive brand tires. Michelin, to their credit, offered to demonstrate to all of us the identical tire pressures, wheel sizes, and all that, but honestly, it was a downpour out there and we gave them the benefit of the doubt that the cars were prepped correctly, rather than spend half an hour kneeling in puddles, getting pissed on, looking at a tire gauge.

We were allowed to choose one Michelin car and two competitive cars for the wet autocross and 60-0 braking test. I opted for the Pirelli P Zero and Goodyear Eagle F1 Assymetric 3. The Pirelli P Zero I wasn’t really into at all. When it broke free at the front, it took longer than I liked to get it back. It was manageable at the back on light throttle, but easily broke into wheelspin at more than 50% power. Its shortest of two 60-0 stopping tests yielded a 181.4-foot measurement. The Goodyear Eagle F1 Assymetric 3, to its credit, was not only significantly better than the Pirelli, especially in getting the power down at the back, but also it was markedly better than any other Goodyear tire I’d ever driven on. The grip at the front under braking was responsive and predictable, and I liked the resistance to hydroplaning in standing water. It seems Goodyear has finally developed a tire worth looking into, so good for them. Their best of two 60-0 stops was 168.1 feet. The Pilot Sport 4S, unsurprisingly given the Michelin-chosen competitors for the test, performed admirably in the autocross, with progressive break-free, good grip under power, very communicative feedback, and the shortest stopping distance of 162.9 feet, 18.5’ shorter than the Pirelli (that’s the length of a Chevy Suburban) and 5.2’ shorter than the Goodyear, roughly the length of a Vespa; potentially life-saving differences, there. It also provided the most confidence through the steering wheel.

While I did not personally do the autocross or braking tests in the dry, each driver’s results were plotted on a large chart, and, again unsurprisingly, the Pilot Sport 4S showed shorter braking distances than its competitors when averaged across drivers of hugely varying skill levels. I wanted to try a set of Pilot Super Sports under the same conditions, but there were no Super Sports available to mount. In fact, aside from the “0.18 seconds per lap” comparison shown during the presentation, Michelin made very few public comparisons, and offered no opportunities for direct driving comparisons, to the Pilot Super Sport.

Rather than stick around the track for a second six-course, Michelin-starred dinner, I asked for a ride back to the hotel, got in my Super Sports-shod Focus RS and drove back to LA, stopping only at the Morongo Casino Hotel’s drive-thru In-N-Out. After an entire day of seat time on the new Pilot Sport 4S, I noted that I couldn’t tell the difference getting back in my own car on the highway. By the time people were wrapping up dessert, I was back in Venice, in bed, reflecting on the experience.

For those of us who want to know if the best sport tire on the market got better, the answer is yes, it did. When your Super Sports wear down, get a set of the PS4S, and you won’t be disappointed. They are the same price as the Super Sport, and they will be phased into production as the Super Sport is phased out, first in 19”, 20”, and 21” sizes this year, then 18” and 17” next year. The tires are good, you will like them, whether you’re a trackday nerd or a guy who just wants a good set of rubber on your performance car. But you do not need to prematurely toss your Super Sports to get them, because you probably won’t notice the difference unless you’re serious about the stopwatch, and then you probably just want Sport Cup 2’s.

I can imagine some board room somewhere, where people at Michelin had the same conversation we just had in the opening paragraphs of this column: the fact that the Pilot Super Sport was the best tire on the market, in both objective and subjective testing, and that their replacement tire is all new, yet feels mostly the same and the performance is incrementally improved; that is not sexy. 0.18 seconds improvement around a road course, for a street tire alone, is not sexy, though it is impressive if you know anything at all about racing.

Dinners, Champagne, gifting suites, Vice film crews, ride-alongs in Supercars with racing drivers, that’s sexy stuff that mindless “influencers” eat up and regurgitate #branding to their sheep. Watch what these people say about these tires, or any product really, with their #branded moon-boots on, and have a little chuckle to yourself.

The rest of us can be relieved that behind all the fluff, the engineers have still done their jobs, and the product still gets top marks, at least in short term tests.

That is, if you can believe anything I say.