Some of us are old enough to have watched Julie Andrews sing about the hills being alive with ‘the sound of music’ in a 1965 film of the same name. Those hills were the Tyrolean Alps, a beautiful part of the world, made more breathtaking by fresh snowfall each year. But over the past few weeks, this scenic mountain range has come alive with the sounds of studded car tyres scrunching up ice on serpentine roads. Spotted cows might graze on this field in summer, but in winter, driving instructors from the German automobile company Audi teach motorists how to master ‘pure ice’— one of the harshest terrains on earth.
Let me get one thing straight; most cars today can seamlessly cruise on ice and other low-traction surfaces. And Audi—thanks to its excellent stability control system and Quattro all-wheel drive—can deal with almost anything. So the first thing our instructors, Harold and Ian, told us Indian automotive journalists was to switch off the stability control system. This is where I say, “don’t do this at home,” or rather, “don’t do this on public roads, ” because the stability control system helps keep the car steady and predictable.
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Cruising on ice
The cars were stable even on the iciest roads. That is until we switched off stability control and did what the instructors told us: Throw the car into a corner. Low grip conditions on ice meant the cars were slipping and sliding from corner to corner. And your skill as a driver was to control this slide. Now, I’m not the best driver out there, and this was not easy, but it was incredible fun.
And then came the cars: The Audi RS5, which is your typical extremely overpowered small sedan with a massive turbocharged engine under the hood. Lots of power and extreme fun on the ice. There was also the Audi RS e-tron GT, one of the best electric vehicles in the world when it comes to performance dynamics. Very different vehicles and quite distinct in terms of performance, as the massive battery pack that sits between the wheels on the e-tron GT kept it steady. However, the slight flick of one’s wrist could still make it spiral out of control.
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At the end of the day, driving on ice, or, for that matter, driving on any harsh terrain, is about managing physics—that is, controlling inertia, momentum and steering angles. You have to understand oversteering and understeering, situations where the car starts turning less or more than the steering input you give. Modern vehicles, even small hatchbacks, with the amount of electronics onboard, should never get into such situations. Maybe, just maybe, you will find yourself in a situation where you’ve turned a corner, and the car you’re driving sticks its tail out like an excited little dog running into one. But just as the dog manages its weight using its legs, you must do the same with your car, controlling its steering, throttle and braking inputs. Not just hand-eye coordination, hand-eye-leg coordination is essential. While it sounds complicated, it isn’t as tricky once you get the hang of it. Unless you’re me, of course, with the determination to take out the traffic cones marking the course. That is precisely why I dubbed myself the ‘cone man’.
But it is really all about having fun with some learning on the side. This course is not just something that Audi restricts to a few automotive journalists—the Audi Ice Experience is one of many unique ‘experiences’ the company offers.
There are different ice experiences as well, with varying difficulty levels. These courses are offered in Austria, where we were, as well as Finland and Sweden. I even attended the programme in Finland a few years ago, which took place on the vast expanse of a frozen Arctic lake. After our group left, Audi India took down a few of their premium RS vehicle customers for the same course as ours.
While speaking with Balbir Singh Dhillon, Head of Audi India, who was to attend this drive with customers, said that the carmaker is considering opening up the ‘ice experience’ to all their buyers globally. “It is important that we do that as it not only showcases our terrific vehicles but also builds customer loyalty,” he said. Audi customers in other countries can already buy slots for such experiences. This package, for instance, is being sold for 2,500 Euros (Rs 2.2 lakh), and includes training, hotel stay and meals. Interestingly, some courses are also available for non-drivers. I feel this is a fantastic experience for anyone who enjoys driving. Indeed, it isn’t just Audi that creates such experiences—several other companies do. If you are thinking of a landmark anniversary or birthday gift, this is genuinely something you could consider. The -10 degree weather is, perhaps, icing on the cake.
The writer was in Austria on the invitation of Audi India.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)