Driving sideways on snow is more fun that you’d think, once you’ve been shown how.
THERE ARE some thrills in life that Australians are forced to go overseas to experience, like eyeballing a lion in the wild, punting up the Cam in Cambridge, running with the bulls, or firing a machine gun at a paper target painted with the image of Donald Trump (if you can’t do that in Vegas yet, I’ll eat lead myself).
When it comes to car-related experiences, driving a three-wheeled pencil-sharpener look-alike would make the list, as would driving on a good quality public road at whatever speed you damn well like. And, until very recently, sending a car spraying sideways on snow.
The more Germanic car companies have been offering well-heeled customers the option of flying to New Zealand (or Italy, or Mongolia with Lamborghini) to have flurries of fun at the Snow Farm - the only purpose-built alpine testing facility for cars in the southern hemisphere - at daunting expense.
Finally, though, the determined fellows at the Audi Driving Experience, led by TV personality, some-time Wheels driver and all-round good guy Steve Pizzati, have come up with a way to let a few lucky Australians loose on the white stuff at Mt Hotham.
If you’ve never tried driving on snow, you need to know that it really is as much fun as it looks. Try it on normal street tyres, of course, and you’ll be lucky to make it a car length without either spinning aimlessly on the spot or sliding gormlessly into a snow bank.
Audi prepared a fleet of its brand-new Q7s with snow tyres (which grip like a cat with Velcro paws), and the instructors were delighted to discover that, in contrast with the previous model, all the electronic aids can be turned off, completely, in this new, and freakishly quiet for a diesel, posh SUV.
This is an equally vital requirement before you can properly enjoy the low-grip, high-slip fun of snow driving, which Pizzati and Co warmly encouraged us to do.
This 200kW, 600Nm 3.0-litre über diesel - which is apparently capable of hitting 100km/h in a faintly ridiculous 6.5 seconds (thanks to shaving 240kg off the old model; mind you it still weighs more than 2.1 tonnes) - turns snow into flying chunks of ice in short order, and turns drivers’ faces into gurning, grinning cartoons.
Coming around a long, tight corner you are told to throw the steering wheel savagely to the right and to stand on the throttle as hard as you dare. On the road, this would be disastrous; on snow, it is hilarious.
Over a few goes, our goal was to try and get the slide just right, getting off the power and winding back the steering in time to power through the next set of cones looking like Colin McRae.
Getting it right is extremely satisfying, but the other people we saw trying it, particularly some of the ladies, seemed more determined to put the noses of their cars where the back ends used to be.
This makes it almost as enjoyable as a spectator sport as it is to take part, so you don’t mind waiting for your next turn.
Customers who drove up to Hotham themselves could go silly on the hard-packed snow course for a highly reasonable $230 (which includes an Audi beanie, scarf and ski jacket to take home), while customers in Sydney could fly down for the Audi Snow Driving Experience, do the drive, have a posh lunch and go for a quick ski or snowboard, all for $600 (including the Audi clothing blag).
There was a practical side to the day as well, with a separate course set up to teach you how to brake and swerve on traction-less ice, and how to activate and enjoy ABS.
As Pizzati pointed out, Australians get their licences without ever being taught a thing about driving in low-traction, highly icy conditions, and yet we are all allowed to try our luck each winter on the roads to the snowfields, often with disastrous results.
A common error on frozen roads is getting into an understeer situation and continuing to pile on more steering lock, rather than backing off the throttle, or even carefully applying the brakes. Yet another cone-swerving activity taught us what that situation feels like, and how to handle it.
For Audi, the ice-driving activities are a handy way to point out the advantages of its quattro systems, and to impress people with the sporting abilities of its new and impressive, $103,900 Audi Q7. But for punters it’s a rare chance to experience the kind of fun and snow frolicking that Icelanders and other Nordics take for granted. It’s a mighty ice way to spend a day.