Boutique brand Pirelli is expected to give big mass players a run with its new tyres

PIRELLI is the only tyre manufacturer that launches its tyres on the same scale as car makers roll out their products. After all, the company is arguably the leader in the tyre field, and wants to project its image far beyond its modest size - perhaps emulating the other famous Italian, Ferrari.

If the latest P6 and P7 tyres - revealed to the press in Barcelona recently - sound familiar to some of you, they should. Pirelli has decided to return to these monikers some 20-30 years after they were retired. In its ensuing effort to rejuvenate and simplify its range, Pirelli seems to have merely added two more models to the confusion. 

To help navigate the confusion, here is the range in brief.

Pirelli's top tyre is still of course the P-Zero, found on exotic machines like Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches. It has the highest speed ratings and performance levels.

One step down is the P7000, a specialised tyre for the performance aftermarket tuners like Alpine, Brabus, Koenig and the like. Then one step down, but a leap up in comfort, are the P6000 and P6000 Powergy models. These usually end up on luxury marques like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar.

Lower down, you will find the P4000, which is mainly a base model OE (original equipment) tyre.

As a pure marketing ploy, Pirelli has coined the term e-tyres, referring to sidewall-embossed addresses of the dedicated websites www.pirellip7.com or www.pirellip6.com - which tell you more about the products and, perhaps, even allow users to pose questions to the engineers.

For the first part of the P6/P7 launch, journalists were allowed to test the products on a wide range of cars, including the new Audi A4, VW Passat, VW Golf, VW Beetle, Peugeot 607, Seat Alhambra, Seat Leon, Jaguar S-Type, BMW 3 and 5-series, Alfa Romeo 147 and 156, Volvo S80 and S60, and Mercedes-Benz C-class.

Most were shod with the P7. To satisfy our curiosity, we made a determined effort to sample the P6. As it turned out, we only had the P7 for the first part of the test route. Its sporty disposition was readily noticed through the steering, feeling notably positive and secure during high-speed tracking. Its grip was to be tested at a track facility later.

Although the tyre felt sporty through the steering wheel, this did not translate into a penalty in the ride department. Noise levels seemed par for the course, correlating with Pirelli's own figures.

Suspicious that there might be a reason why Pirelli had included so few P6s in the test fleet, we were surprised to find the extraordinary comfort provided by the tyre. True, it was not as sporty as the P7, but the substantial gain in comfort, and, more importantly, lower noise levels, should make this a successful tyre in the local market. Perhaps Pirelli had over-estimated what the journalists were hoping to find in terms of outright performance and neglected the excellent P6.

At the test track, all the test vehicles were shod with P7s. Pirelli even had on hand two vintage P6 and P7-shod cars of the 70s - a Ford Escort Mark I and the first BMW 5-series - just to highlight how far tyres and machines have come.

The old Escort, on original P6s, was a real handful, oversteering at the slightest mistake. Somewhat better was the BMW 5-series, which had original P7s on. It was fun to drive around the wet circuit, but when it really oversteered, the car was hard to correct. Most times, it did allow some leeway to play around with, which one could attribute to the handling of the P7, then Pirelli's top tyre.

In the newer cars shod with new P7s, grip on the wet-handling course far surpassed the old tyres. The test vehicles showed surprising handling safety, not being twitchy or displaying high tendencies to break into oversteer or understeer. Of course, much of that ability could be attributed to the sophisticated electronics on the cars.

Over the dry handling course, the tyres were really put through a hellish time. The P7 performed respectably. Despite trying our best to outdo the tyres, we once again came away feeling how secure and safe these tyres were. Except for a few bent rubber circuit cones, there were no accidents - which was far more telling than the heated laps on the high-speed circuit actually revealed.

At the end of testing, we were impressed to see how well the tyres stood up to abuse. They were all evenly worn, with no evidence of tears or chunks being ripped out. A remarkable feat since these were full-depth ordinary street-going tyres and not really meant for track use or abuse. Credit must be given to Pirelli for allowing a group of international journalists to subject their tyres to the extreme cruelty which no normal driver would dish out to his own wheels.

Thanks to the huge success of the current P6000 range, by Pirelli's own admission, the P6 will not replace the P6000 - yet. But the P7 is likely to replace the P7000. The plan seems to be for Pirelli to concentrate on the OE market and develop tyres specifically for car manufacturers.

With the current range, only the P6000 is targeted at the OE market, while the P7000 is strictly aftermarket. The new P6 and P7 are for the OE market. With the wider spread of performance from the P7 and the comfort of the P6, it should not be difficult for Pirelli to gain a larger share of the high-volume OE market.

The new tyres are expected to be available here by June, and will be priced between $170 and $250 each. 

Dr Lam tests tyres and sports cars when he is not at his dental clinic