Sliding sideways on a sheet of ice at 120km/h isn't something you do every day in Australia.
Actually, it's something I've never done in our wide, brown land.
Neither is sitting beside a 60- something crazy man; as he flings a Saab 9-3 Turbo X along a snow-covered forest track at close to 200km/h with nothing but a wall of snow between us and a disastrous trip into the trees.
Yet this is all everyday stuff for one-time rally champion Per Eklund and the team from Saab Ice Experience.
Every year, they take small groups of journalists for a deep-frozen dip into the history of Saab, the engineering of its cars, and what makes Sweden different from the rest of the world.
It's all done deep inside the Arctic Circle, in a white wonderland that's as far from Australia as you can possibly imagine.
It's beautiful in a desolate way that contrasts with the hot, dusty plains of the outback, but a huge shock when you land at minus 20 after taking off from Australia at plus 30.
There's a special hook for the Saab Ice Experience this year, as the company is about to bring its first all-wheel-drive cars into showrooms.
If that sounds a little unusual, given the ultra-slippery winter conditions in Sweden — and most of Europe — it has taken Saab a while to gather the money and enthusiasm to upgrade from its traditional front-wheel drive.
But it's about to feed more than 200kW to the road with the limited-edition 9-3 Aero X and Turbo X models, which are close to local showrooms.
These are family vehicles, not Lancer Evo-style road rockets, so Saab felt it was essential to upgrade to all-paw grip.
“If it works here, it works anywhere,” Saab engineering chief Anders Tysk says.
“We do it the Saab way, with the latest Haldex drive system. It's always on, always all-wheel drive."
“We want to eventually have it on all our models, because of the safety.”
Saab calls its system cross-wheel drive, written XWD, and there's no doubt it has put a lot of work into the task, from the gearbox hook-up to the electronic brain that controls the active rear differential fitted to the Aero X.
The technical talk is nice, and the Saab people — who now operate as part of the GM Premium Brands team in Australia, where the family includes Hummer and Cadillac — are warm and welcoming. But we want to drive.
Soon enough, we're standing on a frozen Swedish lake alongside a line-up of pristine silver Turbo X automatic wagons.
Per Eklund, a one-time World Rally Championship firebrand who still wins in rallycross with a very special Saab 9-3, introduces us to the event.
The idea is that we will run through some safety demonstrations and exercises before a bit of fun against the clock on a twisting course; that has been carved through the 60cm-deep snow covering the ice.
“We start a little bit slowly, to get a good feeling; later, we maybe have some fun,” Eklund says. “Here, you have a chance to try all the things in these new Saabs, like the cross-wheel drive and the turbo engine.”
Eklund points to the 100 steel studs in each tyre, their to give some grip, but also points to the waiting bulldozer — with a tow rope that gets plenty of action each day — as he gets to the warning about driving technique.
“A lot of people close their eyes when something goes wrong. This is not a good solution,” he says, with typically deadpan Swedish humour.
“You have to drive the cars. Eventually, computers will do it for you, but not today."
“Always do something. Do not stop driving. Otherwise, there will be some problems — and you have the chance to take some nice pictures while the tractor comes to tow you out.”
So we get down to action and quickly learn that a simple braking exercise is much, much tougher on sheet ice than it is on dry bitumen.
Try turning the wheel as well, to steer away from a make-believe moose (a man in a snow suit with antlers on his head), and it's easy to trigger a potential disaster.
When we head to the twisty forest track for some fun, and to see what cross-wheel drive can really do, things hot up. A lot.
It seems impossible that any car can go so quickly with so much control, although it's easy to slide over the limit and into the powdery snow banks. The tractor gets some work, including one tow for us.
We learn about the need to be gentle, smooth and elegant to drive well in these conditions — lessons that should flow back to everyday driving without the white, icy edge.
Then Eklund and another rally champion, Kenneth Backlund, show us how it's really done when they jump into a pair of black Aero X weapons equipped with narrow snow tyres and giant rally studs for extra grip.
Whereas we struggled to get through the icy corners at 60km/h, Eklund and Backlund are sliding sideways at well over 100km/h on the ice lake, before uncorking the Saabs on a mock-up rally stage through deep snow in the forest.
They are silly fast, with the speedo needle twisting around past 190km/h, yet the cars feel safe, secure, comfortable and toasty warm.
So, what is different? Apart from the drivers and the studs, absolutely nothing. These are showroom-stock Saabs, exactly the same as the cars that are coming to Australia. And that is massively impressive.
So, what did we learn? Probably not a huge amount, beyond the quality of the new cross-wheel-drive Saabs and the potential for a significant Saab sales boost in Australia once the Aero X and Turbo X hit our shores.
But the ice-driving experience was a reminder of the need to learn to drive well — really well — to get the best from your car and to avoid the sort of nasty incidents that are so common on Australian roads.
Make a mistake on the ice track, and you get an embarrassing tow out of the white stuff for another go, but there's no second chance on the road in the real world.
- The Sunday Telegraph
20 March, 2008
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