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Sliding on Lake Winnipeg during the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy in Gimly, Man. (Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail)
Sliding on Lake Winnipeg during the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy in Gimly, Man. (Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail)

Winter Driving

We let Mercedes-AMGs run wild on frozen Lake Winnipeg Add to ...

In 1875, the volcano Askja erupted, spreading fire and ash that blanketed the fjords of Iceland. As a result, a large segment of the population fled forever, settling in the Canadian prairies. Thus, a small town in Manitoba boasts the largest concentration of Icelandic peoples outside of the tiny frozen island itself. Now, the volcanic action is back.

It’s Ragnarok courtesy of Affalterbach, the home town of Mercedes-AMG. Snarling V-8s have descended on Gimli en masse, bellowing from their squared-off exhaust pipes and flinging huge rooster-tails of snow. It’s fire and ice, together once again – though this time, those Icelandic descendants are more likely to reach for their iPhones than their suitcases.

Photos by Brendan McAleer

AMG’s Winter Sporting driving academy is a three- or four-day experience that puts driving enthusiasts on ice. Over the winter, consistently cold temperatures freeze the surface of Lake Winnipeg to a depth of a metre or so, easily strong enough to support a car. AMG’s dedicated driving experience team arrived at the beginning of the season with plans for a sprawling course inspired by famous racetracks: Tremblant, Mosport and Laguna Seca.

This is the first time AMG has opened a winter-driving program in Canada, though there is a similar program in Sweden. Using local contractors to cut paths, flood, then retexture the ice, AMG’s crew created a challenging, highly technical playground. Then they get to work on the cars.

Three different AMG sedans make up the fleet of 15 or so cars used over the program: the agile CLA45, the rear-drive C63S and the heavy-hitter CLS63S. Each has specially made lower valences and skid plates to protect against damage if an overexuberant driver does a triple-axel into a frozen snowbank.

Each car is also fitted with Lappi winter tires, hand-made in a small village in Sweden. Each one has some 400 2.5mm studs, all glued in to ensure that they don’t break off on the ice and then fall into the lake when the spring thaw comes.

So-equipped, the cars are monsters. AMG doesn’t ease you into things either. On arrival day, with the sun setting quickly over the flat horizon, we strap in, flick on the heated seats and file out into the night.

Navigating through a frozen harbour in the dark is eerie; the bulk of a year-round research vessel looms suddenly in the headlights. Then we’re out past the breakwater, splitting off into teams for exercises.

First, the C63S, the spine of AMG’s lineup. Equipped with a 503-horsepower twin-turbo V-8, and the lone rear-drive vehicle, it should be uncontrollable on ice.

However, over the years, AMG has tweaked its traditional blunt-instrument recipe. On dry land, the C63 is no lumbering power-soaked goon, but a relative tarmac scalpel. And out on the ice?

With all stability controls deactivated, the C63 gets sideways with just a dab of throttle. Apply maximum lock, keep the revs at around 4,000 rpm and it glides in a perfect arc – right until you goof up and perform a lovely little unintentional pirouette.

If the C63 is a drift machine, then the CLA45 proves itself to be a complete pinball. Navigating a slalom course made by inserting rubber reflectors into the ice, the CLA rotates so much the markers disappear into the blackness. We might need to install headlights on the doors.

Last, the CLS63S. Despite its dreadnought length and massive 5.5-litre twin-turbo V-8, the CLS is perhaps the easiest AMG with which to achieve controlled drifts. Its mighty engine roars into the night, but thanks to torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive, maintaining a slide is a matter of adding a dose of steering.

In the brilliant daylight, the full extent of AMG’s course becomes evident. The tracks and sliding areas fill the mouth of an entire bay. Instructors reiterate the basics – squeeze the brakes while turning to get the nose to bite, resist the urge to pin the throttle while drifting – and soon we’re all let loose on the ice.

With room to stretch their legs, the personalities of the cars become even more clearly defined. The CLA45 is a hooligan’s machine, the car you buy when you want a Subaru STI without the showy wing. Simply lifting off the throttle lets you chuck the CLA into a corner, then pin the revs to 5,000 rpm or so and carom off the snowbanks.

The C63, on the other hand, requires and rewards a little more finesse. It also sounds better and, if you can get the nose straight briefly, is alarmingly quick on the ice. The CLS takes the most work to initiate a turn, but rewards with the best soundtrack and epic sliding.

In the end, you have to wonder what the point of all this sideways action is. True, driving on ice reinforces the basic principles of weight-transfer and throttle management, but how many AMG owners are going to be fitting handmade Swedish snow rally tires to their cars?

Further, as much fun as it is to apply a dab of opposite lock and hold a massive slide through a corner, I can’t imagine the RCMP awarding you any style points for doing so. No, not even in Montreal.

So, don’t expect to come away from AMG’s winter school with an enhanced regard for winter safety. For between $3,995 and $4,995, expect to come away with a massive grin on your face, ruddy cheeks, and a new appreciation for the frozen prairies. The people of Gimli are descended from the Vikings. Go act like one.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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