Some high-performance automakers, like Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-AMG, offer a winter driving school for consumers and owners to partake in. Subaru, which has made a name for itself with its Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system that has helped owners tackle inclement weather and even the occasional gravel road, doesn’t – but that will change with the introduction of the Winter Driving Experience.
After glancing over Subaru’s webpage, you might be compelled to shrug it off, claiming that you already have superior skills for handling winter conditions and there’s no need to attend a course to get better at driving in the snow. But here’s a quick anecdote on why that’s not a good idea.
I moved to Detroit roughly two years ago from Northern Virginia (the Washington, D.C. area). Before I went, my friends and family all told me to get a proper SUV or truck with a four-wheel-drive system. “The way they get snow is different from how it snows here,” everyone told me. “How can snow be different?” I asked.
Either way, I caved, eventually purchasing a ’96 Toyota 4Runner before moving on to an ‘02. A few winters in Detroit affirmed my decision to buy a SUV with a proper transfer case and locking differential (even though I haven’t used the latter). But after experiencing Subaru’s first Winter Driving Experience in North America, I think I would’ve been okay with a Subaru WRX or BRZ with winter tires. And for all of the crossover and SUVs owners out there that believe your vehicle is superior because of its ride height, in the words of the great Kanye West, I’mma let you finish, but it’s not.
Unlike other automakers that choose to hold their events in Canada, Subaru’s Winter Experience is held in Eagle River, Wis. If you need a map to see where that is, that’s okay, we needed one too. Eagle River is a tiny city with a population of roughly 1,400 people that’s located nearly 30 minutes away from Rhinelander, Wis.
Upon arrival, it seems like Subaru’s brought people to the middle of nowhere, like the start of a terrible horror movie. The desolate location, though, is the perfect place because of all of the frozen lakes that are located in the city. The frozen body of water that Subaru has set up for us to drive on is a 30-second drive from the inn that we’re staying at. And you can’t beat that.
Getting You In The Car And Keeping You There
There’s also a larger reason for choosing a close local — cutting out the junk. Usually, when you take a driving course of any kind, there’s a lengthy class where they urge you not to crash for an hour. “Don’t crash, but if you do crash, again don’t crash, try not to,” they say. There’s none of that malarkey with Subaru’s Winter Experience.
There’s a quick introduction of the talented drivers that have flown in from around the world, including Patrik Sandell, Chris Atkinson, and David Higgins. We also meet the incredible minds of the program, the majority of which are from DirtFish, a rally school that uses Subarus to go sideways on dirt, and FlatOut Sweden, a company that helps facilitate peoples’ need to go fast on ice.
After that, we partner with another driver, and get into the cars to head over to the frozen lake. Before getting into the cars, we’re told that one of the key aspects of the driving course is to give attendees as much time driving as possible, which is evident in the way we’re shuffled around quickly.
Speaking of the cars, there are three Subarus on hand to pilot: the BRZ, WRX, and WRX STI. The cars are stock besides special Lappi tires with 2.5 mm studs. The tires are illegal on the Wisconsin’s streets, but are a necessity when traveling on something as slick a frozen lake.
The large lake is divided into sections that are meant to showcase the way a specific vehicle handles. For the BRZs, there’s a tight slalom course and a larger track that has tight corners. The WRX and WRX STI sedans, on the other hand, have their own course that’s longer and features turns that aren’t as tight.
Before getting to tackle the really fun stuff, we strap into a WRX and do a few braking tests. We do three runs, increasing our speed each time by 10 mph. It may seem like a nonsensical thing, but it’s a good warm up and gets you used to the slippery surface. And it’s a safe zone compared to the you-better-have-your-stuff-together BRZs that we drive next.
We take the rear-wheel-drive sports cars out onto a slalom course to understand the basics of how the tail-happy drivetrain wants to move around on the ice. Once again, we run the course three times, but each time we gain more control over the vehicle by switching to a different mode. For the first run, the car’s in control of everything, which is a stark contrast to the final run where it’s all on you.
Both of the first courses are meant to be stepping stones to get us ready for the real courses. Before we get onto the longer tracks, Subaru had a special treat for the journalists on hand. The automaker had a rally car that was set up by Vermont SportsCar that we would be given ride alongs in. Sandell was my driver and in his hands, the race-prepped machine was plain ol’ brutal.
With Sandell behind the wheel, the vehicle acted like a hummingbird, changing direction at a whim at what felt like obscene speeds. Needless to say, we were sideways the whole lap. The ride along was ridiculously fun, and seeing someone with the talent that could get the most out of the vehicle was difficult to comprehend.
The ride along won’t be on the agenda for regular attendees, as it’s a little too brutal for the majority of people and squeezing into and out of the car isn’t the easiest thing to do. But for us, it’s a first-hand example of what our perfect runs are supposed to look like. Spoiler alert, there’s no way anyone can get that closed to the real deal.
Putting It All Together
After the boneshaking ride, we started to tackle the longer courses. In the BRZ, the rear end is always on the verge of letting go, especially when you turn all of the nannies off. Keeping the rear wheels in check and stopping the car from sliding out, even at 20 mph, is a tough task. Difficult, yes, but also very fun.
The WRXs on the other hand lull you into a safety net. The longer courses and wider turns are a necessity for the all-wheel-drive sedans, as you have to be going at higher speeds and turn in more aggressively to get the cars to go sideways. After getting used to the WRX and seeing how it wants to act, I start to push harder and harder. Eventually, I push a little too hard, running over a part of the concrete like barrier surrounding the courses that sends a shudder throughout the car.
A little distraught, I head back to the starting line of the course where an instructor is waiting. “I might have overdone it,” I state. “I hit one of those barriers pretty hard.” As I get out of the car, I’m just hoping that the damage isn’t too bad. “Let’s take a look,” she says, as we both curiously examine the front driver’s side wheel.
Mercifully, there’s no damage. “It doesn’t look that bad,” she says, inspecting the back of the rim for a substantial amount of snow. “Next time, push a little harder.” Where else can you crash a car and get told to push harder?
We trade the WRX’s keys for ones that lets us get behind the wheel of a WRX STI, which is a different animal. Unlike the regular WRXs that claw for grip, the STI-badged cars don’t freak out if it’s not available and are more willing to hold a slide. It’s the quickest of the set of vehicles on ice and easily the most manageable.
Acting Like A Real Rally Driver
After spending roughly six hours on the frozen lake, you would think that we would’ve gotten bored or run out of things to do. But the crew had one last track for us to run — a large course that incorporated all of the smaller circuits we had sampled. Unlike before, we ran all of the cars at the same time in a staggered setup, like a real rally stage.
Going from one car to another was a difficult task and required us to use everything we had learned that day. It also happened to be entertaining. Chasing down a BRZ in one of the faster all-wheel-drive sedans made me feel like a carnivorous animal, hellbent on getting its dinner. Switching to the BRZ for a few laps put me in the shoes of the helpless rabbit, frantically scrambling to keep its rear end in check to survive for another day.
As the sun started to set, we were given the opportunity to hop into one of the vehicles with a rally driver behind the wheel. I naturally accepted and had someone sling me around in a WRX STI and BRZ. All I will say is that it was both a humbling and entertaining experience.
Is It Worth It?
We spent nearly eight hours driving on ice and at the end of the day we were all pretty tired. The point of the class isn’t to turn you into a rally driver, but at the same time it’s not a program where you can just go wild in some vehicles either. It’s somewhere in between and adds a dose of car control, as well. There’s also plenty of help, as the instructors brave the blisteringly cold weather to stay outside, providing tips and feedback through the entire day.
But all of this comes at the steps price of $1,450, which doesn’t include airfare, boarding, or food. When you consider the fact that this is only a one-day course, it’s pricey. That’s a shame. In that price territory, it’s something a lot of enthusiasts will have to save up for or it could be flat out of their budget.
While expensive, Subaru’s Winter Driving Experience is something I can see myself coming back to. It’s also something that I wouldn’t have a problem recommending for drivers that want to improve their skills in wintery conditions in a safe place. It will definitely make you a better driver and show you that you don’t need a SUV to get around when it snows.
The next morning, we set out on the trek to the airport at the crack of dawn through what appeared to be a serious blizzard. Inches of snowfall had already accumulated on the roads and more was coming down by the second. The three of us in the car wondered whether our flight — one of just two the entire day — would be delayed. But we never once doubted our Subaru Outback’s ability to get through the harsh conditions, as we had seen how capable the automaker’s cars were on ice the day before.
Secretly, in the back of my mind, I was wishing the wagon would get stuck in the middle of the road. Then, I would’ve been able to go back to the frozen lake, grab the keys to a BRZ, and go drifting for another couple of hours.