It may sound cliche, but don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to. In this case, the "wheel" we're not reinventing happens to be the Continental SportContact tire. It's now in its sixth generation, and improving on such an excellent all-rounder like the ContiSportContact 5P is no easy task; or at least that's what you would think.
So confident was Continental that it had succeeded with its new ultra high performance tire that it hired the demanding Bilster Berg Circuit in Northern Germany and invited us along to challenge the results of a development program that took its engineers three years to bring to fruition. Along the way, they have also dropped the previous ContiSportContact label, and the new tire is simply known as the SportContact 6.
An interesting statistic is that the overall market for high performance tires is growing, and more manufacturers are fitting wheels in larger sizes every year. Thus, the SportContact 6 will be available in 41 sizes from 19- to 23-inch diameter and already has more than 200 approvals for OE fitment on new cars. It has also been accepted for use by several prominent German aftermarket tuners whose cars push the high performance envelope even higher.
The clean sheet of paper meant a complete new tire structure, tread design, and rubber compound, the latter element benefitting from Continental's fabled "Black Chili" high-grip compound.
Meanwhile, the new Aralon 350 synthetic fiber used to reinforce the tire structure ensures safety up to the approved top speed rating of an amazing 350 km/h, while the tread blocks of this latest asymmetrical treaded tire use a revolutionary force vectoring technology to ensure optimal force transfer across the tread.
The performance improvement of the final mix is as great as 14 percent in steering precision, 11 percent in dry road handling, 4 percent in racetrack grip, and 2 percent in wet grip. Importantly for the higher mileage driver, wear rate and comfort are both up by around 7 percent.
Despite the vast knowledge accumulated over the years, this result was not a quick and easy process for the engineers. Consequently, much back and forth work was needed to arrive at the perfect solution. In the scheme of things, improving wet grip can compromise steering response and dry grip, while building a tire overly responsive can make a car feel nervous. To show us just how possible it is to make an unbalanced tire in terms of wet braking and sharp handling, Conti installed sets of prototype tires with these characteristics on Cayman S test cars so we could compare them on track against the production SC 6.
Many high performance rear-wheel-drive cars like Porsches use larger rear-wheel and tire sizes, and it is an additional challenge for the tire manufacturer to ensure that the different sized tires on each axle work together perfectly. It would have been too easy to tell us which was which, so the cars were simply numbered 1, 2, and 3, and we had to comment on the handling characteristics of all three and decide for ourselves.
There was both a subjective and objective part to this dynamic test. The former relied on our experience as test drivers and what the Germans call the "poppometer," or seat-of-the-pants feeling. The other was the on-board digital steering angle measuring device that the test engineers use to gauge the amount of steering deflection required to move the car away from the straight ahead at a given speed.
The first two corners after the pit exit were all it took for me to discern the pedigree of each tire. Knowing Bilster Berg and the Cayman S as well as I do meant I was confident to push hard from the word go. From the first sequence of corners after the pit exit, it was apparent that the first car was shod with the tires optimized for wet braking. Being softer, this wet optimized tire felt mushy on turn-in, with more understeer in the dry conditions. The back end was also not terribly precise by high performance tire standards, and it felt as if the car was running on good rubber meant for a family car. Tire two felt dramatically sharper through the helm. Turn-in was crisp and responsive and the tire felt great on the first lap. However, when I upped the pace on the second lap, the back end started to feel edgy as I approached the limit. The messages were coming through loud and clear, but these tires would make the car too nervous near the limit for the average driver.
The third and final Cayman was shod with the SC 6, which clearly combined the best of both worlds. This car turned in crisply, but now the back end felt much more progressive. I even tried lifting off near the limit in a bend to provoke the tires and just got a nice progressive tuck-in that was easily managed with throttle and steering.
As we saw later on printouts, the test instruments also recorded the larger steering angle required by the tire optimized for the wet and a smaller angle for the handling optimized tire. As expected, the SC 6 drew the line down the middle.
The next practical test with another group of three Caymans was set up to prove the wet braking capability of the SC 6 versus the prototype tires. As expected, the sharpest handling tire had the longest stopping distance, while the wet grip optimized tire and the SC 6 were not far apart. And once again, the instrument printouts showed that our test results coincided with those of the Continental test engineers.
Balance is the operative word here, a characteristic that this new UHP tire has in spades, along with about 10 percent more grip on a dry road than the CSC 5P it replaces as an OE and aftermarket tire. Speaking of the aftermarket, Continental also works very closely with reputable tuners like ABT, AC Schnitzer, Brabus, Lorinser and TechArt, and they each brought along a car fitted with SC 6 tires for the static exhibition.
There used to be a wide gulf between the capabilities of a road-legal track-day tire such as Continental's own ForceContact and a normal UHP road tire like the CSC 5P. With 11 percent more dry grip than its predecessor, the SC 6 moves closer to the ForceContact in outright grip on a dry road and is clearly better in the wet where its deeper tread and superior water dispersal ability shine through.
After the controlled tests, we had the chance to do some fast laps in the kind of car many enthusiasts with families might own, the hot-hatch. Conti had divided Bilster Berg into three sections, and on the demanding hill section of the track, an A45 AMG, Audi RS3, and Golf R all fitted with SC 6 tires were waiting for us. The A45 AMG press launch was held here two years ago, so I knew what this 360hp hot hatch could do on CSC 5P tires. I have a very good memory for these things, and driving this car on fresh SC 6 rubber was a revelation. It was crystal clear from the first lap that the turn-in and grip of the new tire had moved the game on significantly.
The way AMG has set up its version of the Mercedes 4Matic system, so long as you don't overdrive the car into a bend, makes it so you can get back on the power quite early, and then the electronically controlled differential looks after the rest.
With its big elevation changes and blind crests, Bilster Berg is one of the most daunting and demanding tracks in the world, and you really have to know which way the subsequent corner goes if you are to take the blind crests on full noise.
That knowledge, coupled with the rock-steady poise of the AMG's chassis and the grip of the new tires, gave me the confidence to go flat out. In fact, the more laps I did, the more I was impressed with the combination.
Compared to Bilster Berg, the flat and rather uninteresting Vallelunga Circuit in Italy where Audi launched the new RS3 earlier this year is not much of a challenge. The RS3 was not entirely happy at Bilster Berg. While its 367hp five-cylinder motor sounded far nicer than the effective but rather sterile-sounding AMG four, the Audi's chassis was the least happy of the three uber-hatches around here.
Turning in, even under trail braking, the RS3 clearly had more understeer than the A45 AMG. And where the Mercedes handled all of a piece, you could sense the RS3's differentials shifting power around to the point where the front and rear axles felt like they were not speaking the same language all of the time.
Subjectively, the Golf R chassis felt somewhere in between, and its engine sounded pretty good for a four-pot, but on the long, straight bits, its mere 300 hp meant it was outclassed in this heady company.
What came out of these drives is the fact that the Continental's new SportContact 6 is the best road-legal non-track-day spec tire I have tested by a noticeable margin, and its consistency and user-friendly handling enabled me to extract the optimum performance from each car I drove that day. So while they may not be able to reinvent the wheel, Continental has certainly proven it knows how to make one of the best ultra high performance road tires money can buy.