Mercedes-AMG Winter Driving Academy: Getting a grip on slick surface motoring
AMG Winter Driving Academy Fast Facts
Location: Gimli, Manitoba, Canada
Dates: Annually from January through February
Courses: 1.5 days (2 drivers per car) $2,995 Canadian
2.5 days (2 drivers per car) $4,495 Canadian
2.5 days (1 drivers per car) $5,595 Canadian
Vehicles (2018): Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC Coupe
Mercedes-AMG C 63 S Sedan
Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC+ Sedan
Clawing your rugged SUV to a mountain lake campsite. Dropping the top and blasting northward along California’s sinewy coastline. Tossing the keys to the valet as his envious eyes meet yours. Automotive fantasies. The automotive industry thrives on them. Let’s add one more fantasy to the pile. Sliding your Mercedes-AMG sideways across a frozen lake. You’ve probably not had the pleasure. But I have. And I can tell you it’s fantastic. Wanna give it a go?
Here’s how. Step 1: Fly to Winnipeg, Manitoba in the middle of winter. Late January to late February to be semi-exact. From there Mercedes-Benz personnel will shuttle you north to a microscopic, lake-adjacent tourist town called Gimli, where you can rent jet skis in the summer and ice fish in the winter. Within eyeshot of those ice fishing huts you can also spy Mercedes’ high-performance AMG models spraying heroic clouds of ice debris from their stud-covered tires.
The class starts promptly on the evening you arrive. Under the stars attendees are unleashed, steering Mercedes-AMGs on tracks etched into frozen Lake Winnipeg, illuminated solely by headlights. And oh, what a time it is. Unlike many driving schools, the AMG Driving Academy prefers a light touch where instruction is concerned. The highly-skilled staff are ready and eager to explain the nuances of sliding sideways on ice or, if you prefer, let you independently explore the limits of your skills and the cars.
Stock vehicles star
Speaking of, aside from protective Carbon Kevlar front bumpers, studded tires, and a stability control modification that allows drivers to modulate the brakes while drifting, the Academy’s cars are completely stock. At roughly $50,000 the 375-horsepower Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC Coupe marks the entry point into the AMG range. The CLA 45 is also an accessible entry point for ice driving newbies. Light and easy to steer, the CLA 45’s all-wheel drive system allowed gleefully long, forgiving drifts. On countless occasions, when sexy slides morphed into seemingly irretrievable spins, a mash of the throttle would magically pull me through. Thanks, CLA!
At the top of the school’s vehicular food chain sits the Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC+ Sedan. The only thing bigger and heavier than that name is the car itself. Managing the E 63’s mass and 603-horsepower 4.0L biturbo V8 proved challenging, requiring far more finesse than the CLA 45. Nonetheless, gentle guidance from the Academy’s instructors helped sort my technique. In short order I was connecting left and right drifts of varying speeds, perpetually trailed by a majestic plume of ice particulates.
If the E 63 sometimes felt like a handful the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S Sedan was a metric armful. You see, its entire 503-horsepower output is directed to the ice solely through the rear tires. Unlike its all-wheel drive siblings, the C 63 responded to modest throttle application with monster drift angles and occasional spins. While initially vexing, the Mercedes-AMG C 63 became a master class in judicious throttle control. I learned to press the accelerator like a baby bird was sleeping beneath it. The result was fast, thrilling, and visually spectacular ice drifts. If you need proof, peruse the pictures above.
Amplifying the fun is a friendly competition among attendees. From opposite sides of an ovoid track two racers at a time battle for supremacy, piloting the eminently spinnable C 63 S Sedan. Through multiple elimination rounds a winner emerges. For the record, in my class that winner was me. I promise the win won’t go to my head.
Through the years I’ve attended countless driving schools but the AMG Winter Sporting Academy stands out. The 1.5-day course left me with a deep appreciation for the school’s well-designed tracks, thrilling and capable vehicles, lengthy driving session, and excellent instructors. Especially the instructors. Their knowledgeable and respectful Canadian demeanor left no room for the pretense and posing found at some performance driving schools. Marvelous cars. A frozen racetrack playground. Adaptable, insightful instruction. You know, sliding Mercedes-AMG cars on Lake Winnipeg might not rank among your automotive fantasies but it really should. For me, another trip to visit Mercedes in frigid Gimli sounds positively fantastic.