Cars

Published on April 8th, 2017 | by Subhash Nair

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Ice Driving with Audi’s quattro System

People love underdog stories. And in automotive canon, Audi’s quattro is perhaps the best underdog story ever told. In the early 1980s, the Audi brand began to really shine as a World Rally Championship star with its quattro all-wheel drive system laying to waste just about every competitor out there.

Those victories propelled the brand to its current standing, putting amongst the very best automakers in existence. Since then, just about every automaker has tried its hand with an all-wheel drive system. But Audi’s early adoption of quattro gave them a pretty big head start. One that has helped to distinguish the way their cars drive to this day.

Today, the quattro system is well into its sixth iteration and can be specified on all their models. But back then, ‘Quattro’ referred to just one car. A car that single handedly elevated the brand. A car that went through rigorous testing in a little Finnish town called Muonio, located some 150 kilometres north of the Arctic circle.

Last month, we paid Muonio a visit with a small fleet of Audi S4 Avants – all equipped with the latest and greatest version of quattro. Here we spent 3 days driving across a vast frozen lake. Where Audi once tested their original legendary Quattro, we would be experiencing how far they system had come in the last few decades.

The S4 Avants were like idealised versions of the A4 that Audi Malaysia sells here. Take everything that was good about the A4 (read our review of it here), then add quad tailpipes, and some edgier, sportier design features.

Add to that the fact that it’s a wagon and you have yourself something mouth watering. And we haven’t even gotten the good parts yet. Beneath the hood sits a 3-litre V6 turbocharged engine with enough power to get it from 0-100km/h in 4.4 seconds.

This is paired to an 8-speed automatic that sends power to all four wheels via… well, that’s what we were there to try out.

Our ice driving experience began with understanding under- and over-steer. These early exercises gave us insight into the dynamics of a car with zero traction at the wheels. It’s absolutely terrifying at first, but then something happened – it became absolutely fun!

Without a competent all-wheel drive system in place, no car would stand a chance. Not even with the right tyres.

Few surfaces are as slippery as melting ice, but that’s exactly what quattro was designed for.

It splits torque asymmetrically and dynamically, unlike conventional AWD systems. In most circumstances, quattro sends 60% of the torque to the rear and the rest to the front. This makes sense, as weight is transferred to the rear wheels under acceleration in all cars and you want more power there. Start braking and the system reacts accordingly.

But when traction becomes scarce, the system shows its true prowess. In these situations, the front wheels get up to 70% of the torque. The rear, on the other hand, gets up to 85%. All this is carried out by the mechanical centre differential. Even with ESC completely switched off, we were able to control our cars like they were extensions of our own bodies.

In fact, by day two, we were already having way too much fun, slipping and sliding in and out of every corner. This was terrible for laptimes, but without a doubt the most fun you can possibly have behind the wheel. There’s a science to it, but the only way to really get into the groove is to just feel it out, as Audi’s engineers have already done the thinking for you.

As fun as it was to get the lines wrong, we eventually had to get serious about driving fast. And when it comes to driving fast on ice, you’re really just driving slow enough to not go sideways. To our surprise, we were able to get up to pretty ridiculous speeds. 75km/h on the long straights, 50-60km/h on long bends.

Going that fast on cold slush is no easy task. But with a little discipline, the quattro system made miracles happen. When it came to timed laps, most of us were able to cover the extremely lengthy course in about 6 and a half minutes. Our instructor, former rally champ Sepp Haider was able to do it in just 6 minutes and 8 seconds with the same car. But we were happy enough with our scores, given we only had about 10 hours of experience on ice under our belts.

We had a couple of major revelations in that time though. The first, is that quattro is pretty much mechanical magic. Even without the ESC on, there was just an amazing amount of control. The second takeaway was about the Ice Driving Experience itself.

Audi’s Ice Driving Experience is without a doubt one of the best getaways a true petrolhead can spend money on. The winter wonderland setting of Muonio is something out of a fairytale, and the people involved are heavily engaged in the programme.

They say people derive more happiness spending money on experiences than on products. We say, spend the money on Ice Driving, and treat it as a test drive experience for your next car purchase.


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