Turning up the heat at the 2018 Rocky Mountain Redline Ice Driving Adventure
Driving a vehicle on ice usually means being careful and very slow so as not to slide or lose control. These things were completely thrown out the window on our visit to Winter Park, Colorado, for the 2018 Rocky Mountain Redline Ice Driving Adventure, where we were lucky enough to drive a variety of vehicles on ice under the supervision of race drivers. Here's what ensued.
Several great vehicles from brands like Acura, Alfa Romeo, Dodge, Honda, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Toyota were in attendance for this ice driving event, all wearing winter tires from Pirelli, Blizzak, and Michelin. The day was split into two parts: the morning began with vehicle and track familiarization, while the afternoon was a gymkhana of snow-throwing fun times where we threw caution to the wind. It all took place high in the mountains of Colorado somewhere in the Rocky Mountains off of U.S. Highway 40.
It didn't take long to realize some vehicles were more fun than others to skate around on ice in, but those that weren't necessarily fun to get crazy with were, in the end, probably the ones we'd want for normal driving in bad weather. The day was a showcase of both how much fun it can be to go wild in the snow and ice with a four-wheeled machine, and of how much modern safety systems add to our overall safety when driving in questionable conditions.
Acura NSX and TLX A-Spec
Acura brought two cars, both clad in Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 tires. The Acura NSX (pictured above) was definitely one of the vehicles we were happily surprised to see at this event. It's a beast on the track and a ton of attention-grabbing fun on public roads. Out in the snow, though, it's a blast to drive. The TLX in its all-wheel drive A-Spec setup is no slouch either, pushing strong power through its four wheels and showcasing what an AWD sedan is capable of when designed well.
In our early runs in the NSX, we were sloppy and not very good at hitting the mark with braking or corners. It takes time to learn to finesse the massive amounts of muscle this car puts to the ground and to maneuver its light weight in slick and unforgiving conditions. Learning to goose the throttle just enough and to turn the wheels just right takes time, but once mastered, the art of maneuvering on the slicks with the NSX can be almost beautiful. Despite its low clearance and extremely aerodynamic build, the Acura NSX can grab, push, and drift with the best of them. It's a difficult, but rewarding, machine to master.
The Acura TLX, on the other hand, is far easier to control. Power is planted to the snowpack carefully by the car's all-wheel drive system. Even with traction control and other things turned off, the TLX will keep power output even between the wheels, and with its well-tuned turbocharged six, it does so in a power band that can be intuitively understood. Yet, unlike the NSX, with the safety systems on the TLX will prevent slide or over-spin in all but the most idiotic of maneuvers.
Alfa Romeo Giulia and Stelvio
Alfa Romeo brought both the 2018 Stelvio (pictured above) and the 2017 Giulia for us to play with in the tundra. Both were wearing Pirelli tires, the Giulia wore Sottozero 3s and the Stelvio Scorpions. These two cars were a definite juxtaposition of what control systems can provide in weather extremes.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia, which we drove not too long ago, provides stable control with all safety systems on, but still gives a little slip here and slide there when the wheel is jerked into a slick corner or the throttle is kept down on a hard curve – it catches and recovers quickly, but allows some movement nonetheless. Without the safety controls on, the Alfa Giulia will spin, slide, and otherwise perform wonderfully as a fun machine. The turbocharged four-cylinder puts out a long, wide band of power.
The Stelvio, on the other hand, is supremely stable and sure-footed when its safety systems are active, with very little slip and almost no slide possible, even with the dumbest of winter maneuvering. The SUV remained upright and straight-and-narrow no matter what we tried. Even when propelling to relatively high speeds and slamming the brakes as the wheel is jerked to the side, the big crossover just went with it and turned. Where's the fun in that?
With those safety nannies turned down (they cannot be turned off), the Stelvio didn't change a lot. A little slide here, maybe some skid there, but not much. On our race course, the Stelvio proved itself to be as boring as any family crossover can be. Which, from a safety standpoint, made it very impressive.
Dodge Challenger GT
Bo and Luke Duke never had to drive their Charger in the snow, sticking to Hazzard County's dirt and pavement most of the time. The current-generation Dodge Challenger is the throwback to that 1969-70 coupe. For this event, ours carried the iconic bright orange of the General Lee, but no "01" on the side or Confederate flag on the roof. In the Challenger GT model, which we reviewed last year and will review again before long, the vehicle gets all-wheel drive added to its bag of tricks.
The Challenger is a beefy, heavy machine that does things the American way: it throws a lot of power at whatever problem it might be facing, using brute force to get to the other side. That makes it the last of the truly American muscle coupes and in the case of our snow and ice adventure, it also made it unmeasurable amounts of fun.
Turning off the traction control made the big Challenger a completely rear-wheel-drive car. That meant rooster tails of snow and easy traction-breaking for hard curves. The huge size and heavy weight of the car gave it the ability to spin around and power slide effortlessly. Even with all of its safety systems on, such abilities were still present, just in smaller degrees. That may or may not be a downside, depending on what your plans are with a big 2018 Challenger GT, but we'd say it's probably not a serious downer given this isn't exactly a family car.
Honda CR-V and Pilot
The CR-V is a best-selling little crossover powered by a capable four-cylinder engine attached to a not-as-interesting continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CR-V does well with holding grip and keeping stability in heavy driving through snow and ice, but with systems off the CVT sucks power and returns lackluster RPM rates unless the throttle is held down. This prevents fun times in slick corners, as keeping the engine goosed for better power output to pull out of the turn means too much slide in the turn itself, making turnstyle spins the result. Control is very, very difficult to achieve without coming to a near-stop through a corner. Kudos to Honda for the nicely-done safety systems on the CR-V, but none for the soul-sucking CVT this crossover deploys.
On the flip side, the bigger, more family-appealing Honda Pilot (pictured above) with its V6 engine and robust automatic transmission was far different. With the nannies in place for safety, the Pilot performed as expected in these slick circumstances, keeping all four wheels firmly planted and moving in the driver's intended direction. Occasionally, weight would play a factor and force a slide or skid, but never for very long. Turning off those safety systems, though, gave a big surprise.
The 2018 Honda Pilot is huge amounts of fun to throw around an icy track covered in thick, slushy snow. It did power slides, flipped the rear end around in J-turns, threw snow aside inside the slalom, and otherwise made for a lot of fun out there. We suspect that the naturally aspirated, but powerful V6 and the ability to force gear selections in the transmission were a big part of this.
Without traction control, the AWD system forces a fixed split between axles and that allows for easier control of power output in and around curves. One thing to remember, though, is that safety systems or no, the Pilot will kill throttle input when the steering is locked to the left or right and the vehicle isn't moving in that direction.
Lexus IS 350
We weren't sure what to expect from the 2017 IS 350 F-Sport model Lexus brought to this ice driving event, knowing that it's largely built to have a great interior and a "slightly better than average" drive quality. That's been our experience with the IS, including the F-Sport models. Yet with this event, we found that although the IS is about average in terms of its ability to hold the course with all safety systems on, it's lots of fun when those are turned off.
Spinning and maneuvering is fun in this car, especially with the heated seats on – it was around 20° F (-6° C) out there, after all. The Lexus IS is well-balanced and has a good driver's position for performance maneuvering. Although not as powerful as the turbocharged Acura TLX and perhaps not as refined either, the Lexus did have a strong propensity for putting its Michelin Pilot Alpin tires into a spin when traction loss was the goal. The Lexus IS 350 isn't as athletic as some, but it has a low-to-the-ground feel that makes for fun weight redistribution when pushed into curves and slides.
Mercedes-Benz AMG C43
This wasn't the same car we drove for review late last year, but the 2018 AMG C43 4Matic was identical in every way other than color. So we were very familiar with this car's performance capabilities in general, as well as how well it does in somewhat inclement weather with standard summer tires in place – which was admirable, but not as great as it was with the Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3s put on it for this event.
With all of its safety systems on, the C43 is a wonderful study in short wheelbase, low-profile coupe performance under any conditions. It applied power with smart distribution for the conditions, keeping the car pointed in the direction the driver wished most of the time – although not known for this kind of capability, the Mercedes-Benz AMG was well-suited for it.
Without those safety systems, though, the little coupe was a flying circus of good times. It would pirouette, throw rooster tails, and slide around with abandon. All with good control once the driver got used to its power outputs (which are high, given its turbocharging) and over-responsive braking. Of all the cars present at this ice driving event, the AMG C43 was the one most likely to be spun in circles by the uninitiated upon first try.
Porsche Macan GTS
Of great interest and much-anticipated fun was the presence of the 2018 Porsche Macan GTS. This is a much-talked-about vehicle and the subject of whispered conversations at many a track event. The Macan GTS and Turbo models are well known for their adherence to the "performance first" mindset at Porsche, and the Michelin Latitude Alpin tires on the Macan's maroon and black exterior only added to its ambiance as a winter-ready powerhouse. Sadly, once we tried driving it, we had a terrible time.
It held firm in the turns, stayed on course in the slalom, and did little snow throwing and no sliding whatsoever. With all of the safety equipment on, that is. With it off, it was as difficult to master as was the Acura NSX supercar, but became hordes of fun once that mastery was reached. Experts present included a Macan owner who regularly drives his on the ice and he was more than happy to show us the tricks required to make this crossover dance its ballet.
Of all of the vehicles we drove at the event, the Porsche Macan GTS returned the most reward for our troubles. It gracefully slipped through the winter course offering extreme control. It slid, threw snow, and pushed with the kind of precision the Germans are famous for.
Toyota RAV4 Adventure
The Adventure grade is new for the RAV4, adding a little bit of ride height and a lot more exterior appeal to the little crossover. Like both the Hondas at our event, the RAV4 was both disappointing and surprising. Disappointing in that its little four-cylinder without turbos or strong power output was no match for the intended fun to be had here, and surprising for its capability as a snow-pushing, muck-slogging little machine.
Unlike the CR-V, the RAV4 Adventure has a geared transmission that allows more control over its power output when performance is demanded, but isn't capable of delivering much of that demanded performance. Still, when the going got tough, the RAV4 stayed on course and had no trouble keeping itself safely going where we wanted it to go. No fun when the goal is to slide and bounce, but great when it's about keeping on the road when the going gets treacherous.
The finish line
There were a lot of take-aways from this ice driving event. We learned that in supercars like the Acura NSX, getting to grips with control and balance of the vehicle is the name of the game. Without those things, the NSX is just a powerful vehicle that is as likely to spin out of control on the ice as it is to slide well through a corner and into the (imaginary) ditch on the other side of a set of cones. The same can be said of the Porsche Macan GTS, though the learned control is more about managing the superior traction capabilities this crossover has with its application of power. Turning later and applying varied throttle inputs created ballet-like moves through the course with just enough traction loss to make it fun.
In the Dodge Challenger, most of the event was about managing brute force in terms of both power application and, more importantly, vehicle weight dynamics. Muscle was king and its judicious use returned fantastically hoopin' and hollerin' results. It was hard not to give out a "Yeehaw!" when playing with this car.
Comparing vehicles from Rocky Mountain Redline's ice driving event is a largely pointless exercise. With perhaps the exception of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, none of the vehicles were truly comparable. The event itself was just as much about learning how safety systems can affect control in winter conditions as it was about spinning around throwing snow on a Colorado mountain. We learned that every vehicle present had its own strengths and weaknesses, as is always the case.
We also had the time of our lives.