EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — It was 16 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing heavily as we made our way from the Chanticleer Inn to frozen Dollar Lake in a red Subaru BRZ for the company's Winter Experience ice driving program. Or we would be making our way, if our Lappi tires spangled with about 400 four-millimeter studs could get any grip. We were stuck before leaving the driveway. The crew conferred, unsure as to whether the front brakes were frozen or the snow was just too deep, so we hopped into another BRZ. This one moved along fine, but the lingering fear of getting stuck remained as we headed through the woods and out onto the ice, carrying momentum through the deepening snow. Our concerns fell to the wayside as we approached the starting gate of the slalom course, where we'd get a feel for the BRZ before moving on to the WRX and STI.
Whipping through a slalom course on a frozen lake, and doing ABS testing in frigid conditions, really gives you a sense of how different vehicle drivetrains behave on the ice — and how studded tires behave under duress. The BRZ will happily swish its tail back and forth, and with traction off (or even just in track mode) the rear-drive coupe is forgiving if you make corrections about where the nose is pointed using the throttle. It takes finesse to balance the steering and acceleration, but when you get it, you're rewarded with a satisfying slide that turns into a gentle shove in the lower back as you transition out of a corner with snow swirling up against the side windows.
The all-wheel-drive WRX and STI have a completely different feel. You have to work harder to get them to drift, allowing you to maintain power and speed from corner to corner, and it quickly becomes a game of weight transfer. Where you can easily glide the BRZ from side to side, the sedans require a firmer hand in order to overcome their straight-line momentum. The visceral feeling when you get it right, as your angular momentum swings from one side to the other and back again with a boxer engine rumble in your ears, as your muscles finally commit to memory the ritual of dialing in opposite lock, is perhaps as perfect and reliable a dopamine hit as you can find on four wheels.
One of the great things about driving on a frozen lake is the lack of things to crash into. Sure, we had banks on both sides of the plowed course — banks that continued to grow and shift throughout the day — but what's the worst that could happen? We found out in the afternoon on the larger rally stage when, from across the pond, we saw a plume of snow fly high into the air.
"Stop, stop, stop, stop," came the now-familiar call over the radio. Cars had been pulled from the deep snow many times throughout the day, but in this instance, a pair of Swedes (one being pro rallycross driver Patrik Sandell) asked us for a ride out to the scene, where much shoveling was underway in an attempt to free the STI trapped high in the snow bank. We headed back to the start/finish to wait for the course to clear when we heard Patrik over the radio: "We need more people to lift it, or we'll have to leave it until spring."
Within minutes, a group of about eight Americans, Canadians and Swedes were knee-deep in powder and pack, pushing and lifting the STI back toward the course while an SUV pulled on the tow strap attached to the stuck car. After much grunting, the car came free without damage, the course went hot again, and we felt as though we had earned our keep for the day.
After some more laps, we'd get a chance to ride along with Patrik Sandell as he tackled the long rally stage in an STI. If we had felt heroic earlier, this hot lap was humbling. The pro's ability to toss the car sideways with a flick, maintain speed and toss it back repeatedly was uncanny – artistic even. "It's like dancing, but you're sober," Sandell said as we slid through the last few corners of the rally stage.
In the days following the drive, the experience is sticking with us in unexpected ways. As we go to rinse our coffee mug, we think of our caffeine consumption in terms of car balance, our overindulgence analogous to too much throttle too early in a corner. The chill of winter doesn't bother us so much this week, and the grey sky outside our office window holds much more promise than gloom. We're also sorely regretting selling that '04 WRX last spring. It's probably for the best, though. Our car budget doesn't include a line item for lakefront property.