There's snow business like driving high-performance Audis on ice
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GO! Throttle is pinned and all four wheels spin, digging the Audi RS4 into the snow and throwing up a shower of white as the quattro system launches us from standstill.
It’s not as quick as the 4.1 second claim, but today it matters none. There’s an array of orange cones set up in a Winter Olympics slalom style, close to 100 metres long, but the trick is to dance in rhythm: ease, turn, gas… ease, turn, gas. The rear-bias lights up the rear tyres, swinging them around in a beautiful, smooth and wildly satisfying arc of power, sound, flying snow and smiles. The Audi pivots, the front wheels pull us straight again, and a mashed throttle pedal ensures the full experience of sight and sound from the 331kW/600Nm V6 engine, the car and, well, my own primal love of skids – simply swapping smoke and screech for fresh flung snow.
This day, this experience, is a dream. Audi’s ice experience is in its 12th year, and has become the staple of winter ice driving experiences. While some brands do a similar thing, and dozens of brands use the location for secret prototype testing at the locked and private Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds, only Audi persisted through this Covid-affected winter, sadly without any media invites this time.
Until, that is, I got a call on a Monday afternoon, to be on a plane to Queenstown 48 hours later, thanks to a late participant cancellation. Yip to-the-very-large ee!
What is Audi ice experience? A one-day adventure, throwing a range of cars on and at the snow, with professional tuition, over a series of increasingly challenging courses to improve driving skills and car control. Plus a bit of healthy timed competition thrown in, with social interaction, fantastic food, an icy blast-defeating Huffer X jacket, and two nights in a luxury hotel: ie, a must-do mountain of fun. Sounds expensive? Well yes, and no.
My advice is start planning for next winter because without global travel, it’s money very well spent. A single ticket is $3750, a couples ticket is $6750, plus transport to Queenstown from your locale. There’s also a Pro course for $5750/$9750 that’s even more intense and challenging.
As a first-timer, I joined the group of enthused guests, comprising Audi customers, partners, staff and even some government drivers for the PM, who must have been quite persuasive with their suggestion.
A pre-dawn early start had us on the bespoke Audi bus for the hour drive to Cardrona, and after a (literally) warm welcome by the fire, coffees, food and a short preview, we head out in the supplied Audi vehicles: this year an RS Q3, RS4 and an e-tron 50 BEV. They’re all standard, apart from a set of lightly studded snow tyres, for consistent, improved grip.
Driving fun is what it’s all about, but it’s presented in a learning, skill-development way, the day starting with an exercise to induce both understeer and oversteer and each remedy.
Then it’s into a slalom course, and the ability to transfer those fresh skills into a long, snowy, icy, slippery slalom, dancing the cars through the cones like a downhill skier on their first day: glimpses of excellence but plenty of mediocracy. And plenty of attempts.
Aided by Downforce driving instructors, the biggest driving challenge is the snow circle, as it demands aggression and control and feel for what the car’s doing throughout, but is the most rewarding as well.
With an exquisite buffet lunch, it’s time for the afternoon’s slalom course, which supplants the single cones, with double cones, making the course faster and even more fun. It’s all safe, too and with driver and car swaps throughout the exercises, there’s plenty of time to experience the characteristics of all cars, including the immediate torque of the BEV e-tron.
It culminates in the day’s ultimate challenge on a motorkhana course. Nerves descend when we’re told it’s being timed. Through a large 45-50 second course marked with cones and a tightish U-turn it ends with a stopping garage to test ABS, and observation of the increasingly slippery ice, the result of snow being driven on multiple times by 24 quattro-crazed petrolheads. And in true competitive spirit, times are kept secret until the awards function dinner.
It’s arguably the greatest way to spend time full throttling an Audi, without ever going over 80km/h, and by mid-afternoon, with the odd sneak peek at a prototype undergoing cold weather testing – including the 2022 Ford Ranger and 2022 Cadillac Lyriq EV – we’re back on the bus to let the adrenaline subside during the similarly stunning drive back over the Crown Range, back to The Rees hotel in Queenstown.
But not before a special VIP moment: Downforce lead instructor Tim Martin grabbed an e-tron GT and threw DRIVEN into the front seat for a special high-speed tour of one of the many handling tracks at the complex, basically a racetrack crossed with and snow rally stage, and amazing insight into the roads these cars are cold weather tested on. See our exclusive video.
The 2021 Audi ice experience concludes at the exemplary Amisfield Restaurant, where the food looks like decoration, or stones, or other deceiving delicacies. Motorkhana times are announced, awards are awarded, and drink is drunk, and after several hours, it’s back on the bus for the final night in five star accommodation.
In a time where overseas travel and motoring experiences are just not possible, this adventure is the perfect alternative and compensation, and from this first-timer, the Audi ice experience is for the auto addict like Christmas in July (and August), with the memories lasting a lifetime.