As I gently nudged the BRZ’s accelerator pedal, its back end loosened up, just enough to send us sideways through the corner, the desired result.
A whisker of counter steering dialed in with millimeter precision kept the Subaru under control as we negotiated the turn nearly broadside, though most importantly without spinning out or hurtling into a bordering snow drift. If ever there was an appropriate place for the disclaimer, “Don’t try this at home!” here it was.
If you’re interested in learning the finer points of vehicle control in icy conditions without risking life and limb or vehicle damage, participating in the aptly named Subaru Winter Experience is an ideal way to gain potentially life-saving skills. This year, the second time the automaker has hosted the event, participants took to special tracks carefully laid out on a frozen lake in northern Wisconsin.
In this icy environment, drivers learned how to carefully maneuver around obstacles and slide through corners, as well as the benefits of all-wheel drive. Subaru provides the cars while the rest of this program is largely managed by a company called Flatout Sweden with additional driving instructors provided by DirtFish rally school of Seattle, Washington.
If you’re not familiar with this driving event don’t fret. The Subaru Winter Experience is largely unknown because it’s still relatively new; the automaker has only hosted it twice. Around 212 people signed up in this year’s installment, which runs for three weeks through the first of March. This is a big increase compared to 2018 where around 100 folks participated.
The standard one-day program costs $1,295, though a longer two-day affair is also offered. With a price tag of $2,395, it covers the same basic stuff, in addition to learning about handbrake turns, the Scandinavian flick and other more-advanced rallying maneuvers.
Three vehicle models were available for testing including the WRX, a sporty four-door sedan, Subaru’s high-performance WRX STI and the BRZ sports coupe, the company’s only rear-wheel-drive offering. For enhanced grip on hard-packed snow and ice, all the cars were fitted with studded winter tires manufactured by Lappi, a Swedish company.
BRZ: Drift King
Out on the frozen lake, Subaru’s BRZ was an absolute pleasure to drift and slide, feeling like a mechanical extension of your own body, beyond intuitive to pilot. In the arctic conditions, without fear of smashing into parked cars or mowing down unsuspecting pedestrians, you could truly experiment with the handling, push the limits to a place that would be far beyond comfortable on public roads.
The BRZ may “only” have 205 horsepower under its hood, but without minimal effort, it could pirouette like a ballerina, though the salsa, minute waltz, or even chicken dance were also options depending on driver skill. The key was gentle, appropriately timed steering inputs. Of course, this sports car could be easily steered by throttle inputs as well and subtle was also key or you’d end up facing the wrong way, or worse, stuck in a snowbank.
In the hands of a truly skilled driver (not necessarily your humble reporter!) the BRZ could be made to swing almost like a pendulum, the backend swaying from one side to the other as it scythed through corners at all sorts of breathtaking angles. Looking forward at the next turn through the side glass is an unusual experience.
WRX: Point and Shoot
In comparison to the elegant BRZ, Subaru’s WRX family proved to be rougher and less pleasant to drift around on the ice, even if this range is ultimately more capable and sophisticated. The standard model brandishes a respectable 268 horsepower, the STI variant a shocking 310.
Supported by the automaker’s ubiquitous Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive System, you could absolutely feel torque shuffling around from axle to axle while maneuvering out on the ice. Naturally, this did wonders to keep you pointed in the optimal direction and out of harm’s way, which is ideal in real-world use if not on a frozen lake where slippin’ and slidin’ are what you’re after.
Getting sideways in a WRX STI was more difficult than in the BRZ, reaching deeper into the accelerator pedal’s travel was required, though it was by no means difficult since plenty of torque can be routed to the rear wheels. This car just never felt as intuitive or smooth as the BRZ, though it was still plenty of fun. In comparison, the WRX and STI models both felt tense and a bit intimidating while the BRZ was friendly and easy going.
Education Meets Exhilaration
The Subaru Winter Experience is valuable instruction for drivers of all skill levels and not just ones that live in northern latitudes. Anyone with a license can benefit from learning enhanced car control. Aside from the educational aspect, it’s also an absolute blast. Few things are more giggle-inducing that getting sideways under controlled conditions with essentially zero risk. If you’ve always wanted to hone your skills or give driving on ice a try this event is for you.
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