At the Audi Winter Driving Experience, the first thing you need to do when you slide behind the wheel of the car is forget everything you've learned so far about driving in the snow.
This isn't your typical winter driving school where you learn how to stop slides. Not here. Opposite lock in an $80,000 luxury sedan while kicking up plumes of snow is taught and encouraged. Oversteer and understeer -- the moves that usually send you careening into a snowbank -- is met with an approving nod, a round of applause from your classmates, or maybe even a reluctant compliment from your instructor. The irony is that you'll still be in full control of the high-performance vehicle as it still manages to grip the ice.
The Audi Winter Driving Experience Intensive Training course (PDF) begins in at the Falkensteiner Hotel hotel in Seefeld, Austria, an alpine destination where outdoorsy families embrace the frosty climate for snow-filled getaways. But while most of the rosy-cheeked guests will be tucking into the hearty breakfast buffet to fuel a day of cross country skiing, gearheads are preparing for a much different winter sport.
Intensive Training is a two-day ice driving course taught by Audi's certified driving instructors who earned their stripes winning racing championships around the world and pushing the German manufacturer's cars to the limits on extreme testing grounds. Held on a nearby flooded pasture that serves as an ice track, you'll learn slaloming, evasive maneuvers, and the fine art of drifting in a performance sedan.
While most of us learned to drive cautiously on snow in hand-me-down beaters or family vehicles, your training tool will be a 372-horsepower V8-equipped Audi A8 TDI quattro, which packs more torque than the conventional gasoline-engine versions sold in the States. And instead of treating this luxury sedan with kid gloves, you'll be encouraged to manhandle the A8, pushed to drive outside of your comfort zone, and experience Audi's engineering technology limits. Driving school should always be this fun.
At the heart of the Audi A8 TDI's ice road-worthiness is its Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Quattro is part of what gives the vehicle its superior handling capability and stability on slippery surfaces (all surfaces, really) by sending power to the wheels that need it the most. With the A8, 70 percent of power can be diverted to the front axle or up to 85 percent of power to the rear axle, as needed. This means that even as you whip the sedan sharply around cones on a sheet of ice, the car remains surprisingly easy to control. Of course, the studded ice tires help.
Traction control is the enemy of these ice driving school exercises. In fact, the vehicle's standard electronic stability control is disabled for the duration of the class. All of the self-induced oversteer and understeer will be up to you to correct.
To prepare for the driving exercises, you'll make frequent and consistent use of the 10-way adjustable seats to find the optimal driving position, and enable the most important feature of cold weather driving, the heated steering wheel and seats. Although watching live TV on is one of the features of the A8's infotainment system, the only thing you'll use it for is to set the vehicle's engine and sport differential to the dynamic setting.
The day's exercises include a 360-degree drift, figure-eight cone slalom, and power slide. You also get to test your reaction times in high-speed lane changes and braking. Instructors demonstrate the course, break the maneuvers down into steps, and then expect you to copy them straight out of the gate.
Getting behind the wheel after a three-time rally champion exits the car doesn't do much to boost your confidence. Your instructors are professional drivers with 30+ years of experience under their belt, and this is probably the umpteenth time they've conducted the class that month. They make the power slides in the A8 look effortless and controlled. I made them look like a lawnmower driven by a bunny rabbit. Instructors are on hand to critique your skill, or lack thereof, and provide suggestions on how to improve after each turn in the driver's seat (tip: look where you want to go, not where you're going).
As with any good driving event, food is an essential of the experience, and an ice racing track in the middle of the Austrian Alps is no exception to this rule. Every meal, snack, and bathroom break is planned by Audi's team of well-prepared hosts. A nearby warming hut stocked with warm beverages and snacks serves as your post-lesson decompression retreat to lick your wounds or brag with fellow drivers.
Lunch is a catered buffet at the track where the backdrop of snow-covered trees and mountains encourages you to fill up on tomato soup and sausages. The first day of ice driving tapers off with a glasses of steaming Gluehwein (sans alcohol) served from an outdoor cauldron and a game of Kesselschiessen, a cross between bocce ball and curling.
On day two, after you've mastered the exercises--or at least gave them the old college try--you'll be put through the paces in an autocross handling course. The race is timed and tests you on all the skills learned in the previous 36 hours. Regardless of how you perform on the race (don't ask) or how many cones you've knocked over during the past two days, you'll be treated to a celebratory lunch back at the hotel, and presented a certificate of completion for the Intensive Training course. This piece of parchment by no means suggests you're qualified to hit Audi up for an instructor job, but it can earn you bragging rights back at your local Audi club.
If you're game
Audi hosts a range of winter driving schools in Austria, Sweden, and Finland each year. Classes range from single day instruction to week-long training sessions. The two-day Intensive Training (PDF) course in the Audi A8 TDI quattro runs approximately 1,380 Euros ($1,800 U.S., 2012 pricing) and includes two overnight hotel stays. The Audi Driving Experience team can create custom itineraries for self-catering or more personalized programs. The 2013 winter driving schedule will be posted in the fall.