Just south of the Arctic Circle is the tiny Swedish town of Arjeplog, a sleepy outpost where moose and reindeer outnumber humans. Thanks to its ideal weather patterns and vast frozen lakebeds, Arjeplog’s population triples in winter months when car companies test and train there. This remote town is the undisputed mecca for cold weather driving; if a car, truck, or SUV has been stress-tested to cope with extreme conditions, chances are it was tested here.
Virtually every major auto manufacturer has been putting vehicles through their paces in Arjeplog for years. But this winter marks the debut of the Jaguar/Land Rover Ice Driving Academy, where pro drivers teach cold-weather driving skills on a massive 250-acre expanse of frozen surfaces using a fleet of nearly two dozen cars. We embedded into the inaugural run of the Jaguar/Land Rover program to hone our extreme driving skills. Here’s what we learned.
Think: Four-Wheeled Ballet
Ice driving requires hurtling two-ton vehicles across precariously slippery surfaces, but the act is less about brute force than it is about delicately modulated driving techniques. Though the school’s vehicles are equipped with studded tires that dig into the snow for better grip, it’s still easy to spin out like a four-wheeled Slip ‘N Slide. Low friction surfaces make it essential for drivers to make steering, throttle, and brake inputs that are gentle and progressive to significantly increase your chances of car control.
Jaguar/Land Rover’s icy proving grounds include a variety of challenging courses, from constant radius skidpads (testing your ability to cut a clean, continuous arc across a giant circle) to slaloms (great for heightening steering/throttle rhythm). Linking those car-control skills are circuits that combine corners, kinks, and straightaways.
When driving in snowy or icy conditions, imagine your vehicle as a teeter-totter balancing between the front and rear axles. Dab the brakes, and the weight shifts forward, making the tail lighter and more susceptible to sliding. Squeeze the throttle and weight transfers to the rear, making it harder for the front wheels to steer the car. As the tail starts sliding, turn the wheel in the direction the tail is headed and you can engage in a controlled drift. Time it just right, and you can get your vehicle aimed at the right angle as you power out of a corner and fling it into the next, steering and counter steering in the process. It’s frustratingly easy to get wrong, but seriously rewarding when you get it right.
Another Way to Turn
This involves the so-called Scandinavian flick, in which you quickly jerk the vehicle into the direction of desired travel, then flick it the opposite way in order to unsettle its balance before flicking it back again to initiate the turn. This trick is especially helpful on less powerful and/or front wheel-drive cars that lack the grunt to slide the tail using only throttle.
Choose Your Weapon
The Ice Driving program features three very different vehicles: the Jaguar F-Pace (a mid-luxury SUV), the Jaguar F-Type (a low-slung sports car), and the Range Rover Sport (a high-end SUV). Each handles remarkably differently than the next, thanks to variations in their all-wheel-drive systems, weight distribution, and handling characteristics. Nail the throttle in the V-6-powered, rear wheel-drive F-Type, and the tail slides happily out; do the same in the all-wheel-drive F-Pace, and you’ll enter a gentle drift that can be easily corrected with right amount of counter-steer; try it in the Range Rover, and its longer, heavier footprint prolongs the experience of going sideways. And there’s the snarling F-Type V-8, whose beastly 550-horsepower engine and all-wheel-drive system makes everything unfold dramatically more quickly. Be on your toes and pay attention to the subtleties as you bounce across each of these rides, and your car-control skills will stay on point. Disrespect their limitations, and you’ll write a check your vehicle can’t cash.
The Only Constant on Ice and Snow: Change
Unlike driving on warm, dry surfaces, piloting a vehicle through ice and snow means constantly adjusting to changing conditions. A fresh dusting of snow, for instance, can counterintuitively produce more grip because winter tires use tiny “sipes” to attract sticky snow, therefore enhancing cornering ability. Pure ice surfaces, on the other hand, greatly reduce cornering, braking, and acceleration capabilities, even when electronic aids like traction control and anti-lock brakes are used. And then there are seemingly a million shades of gray between the two — tacky snow, wet snow, sludgy snow, packed snow — that can have a surprise effect on how your car will corner. Pro tip: wear polarized glasses to better read the texture of the cold stuff, and you’ll more easily discern what kind of surface you’re driving over at the time.
Don’t. Think. About. The. Water.
Only 15 inches of ice separate you from the lake water below, which is part of the reason why engineers regularly monitor the thickness in order to ensure the lake ice remains robust enough to support the weight of vehicles. This is why instructors discourage students from parking too close to other vehicles: In order to keep the mass from concentrating in one ice-busting spot. The lesson here? Respecting nature’s delicate order will literally keep you above water.
What You Learn on Ice Could Save Your Bacon in the Real World
Because car control is learned by intentionally getting your car out of control and reining it back in, virtually all winter driving exercises are performed with traction and stability control in the ‘off’ position. Transferring those skills to the real world (and knowing when to keep those electronic nannies on) can keep your car on the road, especially when it’s wearing a proper set of winter tires. Maintaining car control in inclement conditions will help anyone become a better driver. Added bonus? Sliding around on ice, it turns out, is also just about the most fun you can have on four wheels.