Now in its third year, the Subaru Winter Experience is a celebration of snow, held on the foot-thick ice of Dollar Lake in Northern Wisconsin. Hosted by both Flatout, a Swedish motorsport event company, and Dirtfish, a Washington-based rally school, the Experience is intended to educate drivers on the necessary skills to drive in slippery winter conditions. It also happens to be about as hilarious as swinging from a deer-horn chandelier.
“When you eat cake every day, sometimes it's nice to have a change,” says lead instructor Nate Tennis. Ordinarily, he and his crew spend their days teaching gleeful students the art of sliding sideways in sticky mud. For the next month, however, it's going to be all about the frosting.
The blend of cheerful Swedes and toque-wearing Pacific Northwesters that runs this event is pretty much what you’d expect from Subaru. In many ways, the company has supplanted Saab and pushed Volvo upward into the luxury sphere by being the most Scandinavian-feeling Japanese mainstream brand on the market. Any owner will attest to how capable its cars are on snow (given the correct footwear).
Here, that means that a fleet of Subaru STIs, WRXs and BRZs that have been fitted with Swedish-made Lappi tires with three-millimetre studs. The tires are not exactly road-legal, but they are the only modifications made to the cars.
“We wanted you to be able to feel the cars, even on the slippery surface of the ice,” says Swedish native Patrik Sandell, driver for the Subaru USA Rally team. “Too little grip and you'd just slide. Too much grip and you might go too fast until something went wrong. This setup lets you feel the joy.”
Fully crossed up in a bright blue BRZ, shooting roostertails of snow from its rear wheels, it's certainly easy to see the appeal. Subaru's rear-drive coupe takes a little finesse to get up to speed on the slippery ice, but once moving, adding throttle just increases the angle.
Through a slalom of pendulum turns, the BRZ swings its hips to a rhythm in a manner that could give Shakira dancing lessons. Set traction control on, and fun time is over. Turn everything off, and some injudicious throttle will have you facing backwards. The Goldilocks setting is the track mode, which allows enough rotation to be fun, but keeps you away from the snow banks.
As a car that is intended for the everyday enthusiast, the BRZ works well here. It’s entertaining and challenging, yet comes with a built-in safety net. Dirtfish also reports that the BRZs in their loaner fleets have far more robust powertrains than the STIs, with longer service life even under abusive conditions.
However, there is a reason why the last rear-wheel-drive car to win a top-level rally did so in 1983. It's the same reason Subaru makes such a big deal about all-wheel-drive. When the snow starts falling, it's best to have a little more traction.
If the BRZ encourages you to drive in a manner that will not pass muster with your local police department (best save it for some sanctioned ice racing or snowcross), then the lessons learned behind the wheel of the STI are more practical in application. First, look where you want to go, as you'll most likely end up there. No, not at that snowbank. Oops – call the tow vehicle.
Second, trust your safety systems. The days of pumping your brakes on snow are long gone. ABS and traction control are likely quicker than you are, so stay firmly on the brakes in an emergency situation.
Perhaps most importantly, have a little patience. Jack Harrison, one of the Dirtfish instructors, lays things out in a conversational tone as he drifts an STI through a long sweeper.
“On gravel, the car will react in about a second. On the ice, it’s more like four seconds. You’ve got to be patient with your inputs.”
Sure enough, staying away from the throttle while the car rotates towards the corner's apex takes an internal one-two count. But it's worth it when you get back on the power and slide out for a glorious exit.
Being patient and gentle on the throttle and steering is the quickest way to get around this frozen lake, and coincidentally the safest way to get home in slippery conditions too. After a full day of instruction, we head back to shore, with visions of snow rally glory dancing in our heads.
If the BRZ exhibited a charming ballet and was the car the instructors stampeded to, the real surprise here is how good the STI still feels. The car is a half-decade old, and its 2.5-litre turbocharged flat-four has roots that go back to the mid-2000s. Yet continual updates have kept it fresh, while still retaining a notchy, mechanical driving experience. It’s still the one Subaru rally fans dream of.
Subaru’s Winter Experience starts at $1,295 for a single day, and is already sold out for this year; that’s about half the price of similar snow-driving events from Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. The school is growing, and will be back for next year. If you’re looking for similar instruction sooner, then Dirtfish operates year round, and has options for nearly any skill level. Alternatively, you could just sign up for your next local snowy rallycross, and pick up your own skills via trial and error.
Just remember, winter’s not only a time for hibernating. If you’ve got the keys to a Subaru, and a frozen lake close at hand, it’s the ideal chance for a little winter recreation. Just try to remember what’s really important as you hang the tail out, leaving a sparkling cloud of ice and snow hanging in the air. You’re not having fun. This is purely educational.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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