Lexus recently invited us along to partake in some ice driving, or rather to ‘experience amazing’ as the marketing tagline reads. But is ice driving really worth getting cold toes over?
One of the many good things about the mountainous, cold climes of the South Island is that they provide us Kiwis with an opportunity to hit the snow in a variety of ways. And our preferred method around here is to take to it on four wheels.
The best venue for such escapades is the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground. It’s located across the valley from the Cardrona ski field on a relatively flat-topped mountain range where car makers, tyre manufacturers and component suppliers come to test their wares in cold and slippery climates. That’s while all the other such facilities in the northern parts of the globe are closed for summer.
There are numerous facilities dotted about the place up there, and are usually out of sight from the others so rival firms can be at it simultaneously without giving too much away. The facility has been around since the mid-90s with Toyota being the first automotive company to make use of it. The SHPG has been host to various ice driving programmes for the past decade but Lexus is a relative newcomer to the experience, having recently offered a programme to its customers.
They say it’s a natural extension of the Lexus performance drive days which have been held on track over the past few years. In fact the pros in charge of the day’s activities reckon this is better than the track days for on the snow you can turn all the safety aids off. While the speeds are relatively contained you can still get a big slide on.
They emphasise the day is not so much about driver training or coaching but rather having some fun. But then in saying that, it’s certainly a lesson in car control. They work participants through a series of exercises during the day, starting with an ABS stop to highlight just how slippery, and how much further it takes to stop on the snow. You then work your way through the subtle art of the slide, the first lesson being to make sure you defeat both the traction and stability control, as they really do work as intended, curbing fun in the snow.
Helping you along the way, the gathered pros are always in your ear via the walkie talkie telling you what you should really be doing behind the wheel. And they help make you feel slightly inferior by reeling off all the exercises perfectly by means of a demonstration. But being a customer-centric event there are all skill levels in attendance and you won’t be alone in spraying off course, but you will have fun. And you’ll get a chance to sample a variety of Lexus vehicles on the day.
Our line-up included a couple of IS models, the RC in four-cylinder and V8-powered F guises, a GS F and a couple of the delectably tasty LC 500 models. Thankfully they’d left the large and lardy SUVs behind. Who needs added traction when the name of the game is big skids? Some of the other exercises had us practising the art of the transition trying to make our way around a coned loop shaped a bit like the body of an acoustic guitar. This had us trying to master a drift around the top and the bottom of the course while managing a transition from left to right through the middle.
It’s a delicate balancing act, both on the go pedal and the steering. It’s about knowing just when to power on and when to hold it steady, and just how much steering to dial in and how much of that lock needs to be wound off again to keep you from looping out. It’s difficult to master, even with the helpful guides on the comms. A typical line of instruction might sound something like this; ‘throttle, more throttle, less steering, now counter steer, counter steer, a little less gas, hang on, stop; I’ll just get that cone out from under your car’. The ultimate balancing act of throttle and steering is the drift circle, trying to maintain a decent slip angle around a circle of cones.
Making life more difficult, there’s another participant attempting to do it at the same time, 180 degrees away. Ideally you need very little input on the wheel once you’re sliding, most of the steering being done via management of the throttle.
It’s here you discover there are various degrees of slipperiness on the snow and ice and they do a good job of interrupting your flow. As you saw away at the steering wheel, you remember them saying you won’t need to do much wheel work, it’s more about throttle control. Clearly we’re doing it wrong. And just when you think you’re getting it right, the person also out on the circle has just got into a spin.
Yep, there are equal amounts of joy and frustration on the day. But there are more grins than grimaces from the Lexus customers out there, some of whom were back for a second crack at the ice. Most seemed to agree with the pros, saying it was a better experience than at the track. For those wondering about sustenance during the day on the mountain, the facility has an excellent lodge serving warm treats throughout the day, including a hearty lunch.
And the thing to note with ice driving is that it does rely heavily on the weather, and the presence of snow and ice. Cancellations aren’t uncommon while, being an alpine area, the weather can change pretty rapidly.
We managed a purple patch as a little bit of snow the night prior gave the ice a good covering and the weather itself was sunny for the most part. However when the clouds rolled through during the day, visibility went from crystal clear to a milky-like murk in seconds. The day concludes with a run through the slalom and a crack at a gymkhana through the cones.
We failed at the latter, having forgotten the golden rule of ice driving, remembering to ensure to switch the stability aids off completely. So our best shot in the GS F was stymied a little. However we’d probably have looped it out going for gold fully unleashed. Not all was lost as there were extra grins to be had winding our way through the slalom, especially behind the wheel of the V8-powered LC 500 and RC F.
A stab on the throttle unseats the rear and you quickly wind on the lock to counter the slide. When it’s again pointing in the right direction, another good prod on the gas gets it going the other way before you’re ready with the opposite lock to catch the slide again.
It’s about this time, at the end of the day, that everything starts to gel, and it’s hard not to grin as you bang into the lock stops, fishtailing your way down the line of cones. And it was good to get the instant throttle response of those big, rev-happy V8s after the slightly stodgy delivery of the boosted fours.
It’s a great way to end the day.
The full package for paying customers includes accommodation and dinner at Millbrook. And judging by the people in attendance, those asked reckoned the $3000 required for a spot was well worth it.