I had it coming. Hell, I even asked for it, tossing out the phrase, “punish me,” to Audi’s black-on-black, uniformed driving instruktor, Rolf, as I eased into one of the 10 silver A8s immaculately parked on the glittering Austrian ice. As it turns out, punishment comes naturally in these parts, especially to a smart-ass American convinced that he already knows everything about extreme driving. Audi’s Ice Experience is a driving school created to showcase the company’s deep understanding of extreme winter driving. Also by design, it takes those “mad skills” you acquired on pavement, mud, and dirt, and it buries them deeply under a heap of humility, and a mile-and-a-half-long block of ice, high in the Tyrolean Alps. (The Ice Experience is open to the public, at prices ranging from $4,000 to $7,000.)
A two-hour trip down the Autobahn brought me into the dusky mountains of Innsbruck. I downshifted into the parking lot of the wooden-and-glass spa haus, hoping I’d have time for a peek at après-ski, a European delight where red-cheeked snow bunnies frolic in rivers of schnapps. Drifting past a ski-booted family attempting parking lot ice-dancing, my eyes fell upon a deep-blue Audi S3, accessorized with a light dusting of snow and a stunning blonde in full Audi gear. Europe can be good.
After a rushed signing of the insurance release, Rolf the instruktor ran a diligent theory session for a class of 10. He explained the latest feats of Audi’s engineers in synchronizing of the 4.2l diesel (350hp and 590 ft-lb), eight-speed paddle shift Tiptronic transmission, and Quattro all-wheel drive under various driving conditions and driver errors. Rolf’s explanations of dynamic load transfer—the shifting of vehicle forces under acceleration, braking, and turning—were aided by gracefully deliberate circular hand motions on an invisible steering wheel. It was an oddly beautiful rendition of Daniel-son’s “wax on, wax off,” with the dainty grip of tea-drinking royalty. I was anxious to get the hell out of school and into the car.
The next thing I knew, I had cones in my grill and the German rally racer in my ear. “This is not a tractor! Do it again.” And again. And once again. At one point, Rolf’s soft-spoken colleague, Wilfried, fell to his knees in cold, silent disappointment. From the comfort of a fully heated, 22-way adjustable seat, I gulped, rolled down the window and (thank you, sir) had another. “Your acceleration was early, your braking was late, and your handwork was awful. And please stop looking at me.” Good thing I had left a little room for improvement. Over two days with my ego stowed snugly in the spacious center console, improve I did.
The control achievable in the A8 Quattro in extreme conditions is astounding for a car of any class. I find myself comparing it to cars half its size, and most of them Audis. Look, I have nothing against blasting down the final straight at Laguna in a 400-hp rear-wheel-drive American monster. In fact, I love it. But there is a remarkable feeling of zen that envelops you as you peer out the side window of a 4,500-pound spike-tired banker-mobile, and deep in an 80 mph counter steer slide you feather the gas and chose a line between a giant fur tree and the river. Well worth the punishment.
*Click here for a video showcasing the Audi driving experience.
*In addition to the Audi Ice Driving Experience, Audi also offers the Audi Training Experience and the Audi Tour Experience. The Audi Training Experience features a broad spectrum of classic driving and safety training courses, from Compact to Executive Driver Pro training. The Audi Tour Experience features discovery tours and brand experiences. Prices range from $370 to $7,000. Click here for a full listing of programs and details.
*Click here for a map showing the locations for each experience.