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Audi A8: Running hot on the ice

At Audi Winter Driving Experience Intensive Training, drifting, slaloming, and racing are par for the course.


SEEFELD, Austria--At the Audi Winter Driving Experience, the first thing I need to do when I slide into the driver's seat is forget everything I've ever learned about driving in the snow.

I'm not at 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 -- are met with an approving nod, a round of applause from my classmates, and the occasional reluctant compliment from the instructor. The irony is that I'm still 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, us 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. On a nearby flooded pasture that serves as an ice track, I'm learning evasive maneuvers, slaloming, and the fine art of drifting in a performance sedan.

An early morning start at day 1 of the Audi Winter Driving Experience Intensive Training class.
An early morning start at day 1 of the Audi Winter Driving Experience Intensive Training class. Audi

While most of us learned to drive cautiously on snow in hand-me-down beaters or family vehicles, my training tool is 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, I'm encouraged to manhandle the A8, pushed to drive outside of my 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 I 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.

The Audi A8 TDI's Quattro system helps the vehicle handle the ice by sending power to the wheels that need it the most.
The Audi A8 TDI's Quattro system helps the vehicle handle the ice by sending power to the wheels that need it the most. Audi

Traction control is the enemy of these ice-driving school exercises. In fact, the vehicle's standard electronic stability control has been disabled for the duration of the class. All of the self-induced oversteer and understeer will be up to me to correct.

To prepare for the driving exercises, I 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 live TV is one of the features of the A8's infotainment system, the only thing I use it for is to set the vehicle's engine and sport differential to the dynamic setting.

And then the exhilaration (or, truthfully, the humiliation), begins.

Learning to drift 360 degrees around cones on ice.
Learning to drift 360 degrees around cones on ice. Liane Yvkoff/CNET

The day's exercises include a 360-degree drift, figure-eight cone slalom, and power slide. I also get to test my reaction times in high-speed lane changes and braking. Instructors demonstrate the course, break the maneuvers down into steps, and then expect me 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 my confidence. As mentioned above, the instructors are professional drivers with 30-plus 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 my skill, or lack thereof, and provide suggestions as to how to improve after each turn in the driver's seat (tip: look where you want to go, not where you're going).

Classmates learning to power slide in the Audi A8.
Classmates learning to power slide in the Audi A8. Liane Yvkoff/CNET

As with any good driving event, food is an essential element 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 has been planned by Audi's team of well-prepared hosts. A nearby warming hut stocked with warm beverages and snacks serves as the post-lesson decompression retreat where we lick our wounds and brag with fellow drivers.

Gluehwein warms you up after a day spent on the ice track.
Gluehwein warms you up after a day spent on the ice track. Audi

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 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 2, after we've mastered the exercises -- or at least given them the old college try -- the class is put through their paces in an autocross handling course. The race is timed and tests us 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 any of us are qualified to hit Audi up for an instructor job, but it can earn bragging rights back at the local Audi club.

If you're game
Audi hosts winter-driving schools in Austria, Sweden, and Finland each year. Classes range from single-day instruction to weeklong 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.

The Audi A8 TDI Quattro
The Audi A8 TDI Quattro Audi