Feature: Dancing on ice in an Audi RS4 Avant


It’s 9:30am and the sun is just a faint orange glow above the snow-draped pine trees. Dawn is gently breaking, revealing the sheer expanse of the pure white landscape slowly unfolding in front of us. It’s early February and we are at the edge of a pristine frozen lake close to the small town of Muonio in Finland, some 160km north of the Arctic Circle. This spot will be our playground for the next three days, and our toys will be the Audi RS4 Avant and e-tron GT, serving up an unforgettable cocktail of power and ice. 

Over 10km of tracks are etched on an unspoilt ice lake.

And it’s all about ice – not just the frozen kind that lays the foundation for the most magical driving experience, but also the kind that’s rapidly disappearing, destined to vanish in the years to come: the internal combustion engine (ICE). Meet the Audi RS4 Avant, which belts out 450hp and 600Nm of torque from its 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6. 

Finely balancing steering and throttle inputs are the key to holding a long drift.

Now let’s be clear, Audi has no plans to launch the RS4 in India, especially given its Avant body style (there is no market for estates or station wagons in India). It just so happens that the unflappable RS4 has the right mix of power, size and build quality (to take the beating of countless excursions into the snow banks), which makes it the perfect tool for this intense ice driving programme. For Audi and other luxury car brands, selling cars isn’t enough these days; their customers need to be wooed by more. And it’s curated ‘experiences’ like this that are big ticks off the bucket list, becoming an intrinsic part of the brand’s promise.

Tractor’s main job was to pull out cars stranded on the snow bank.

For me, this isn’t the first Audi Ice Experience. I was in Austria last year for what was an incredible experience of driving on ice in an unspoiled winterland near Seefeld. But here, in the isolated expanse of Arctic Finland, the magnitude of the thrill is elevated to another level.

Tractor driver punches your ID each time you’re towed out.tor’s main job was to pull out cars stranded on the snow bank.

The beauty about driving on frozen lake is that it’s absolutely flat and there is nothing to hit. It’s a lake after all, which in summer months is just a body of water. So there are no trees, no rocks or anything to crash into. All that stops you are the high snowbanks that act as pillow-soft crash barriers and don’t hurt your car, only your ego when you skate off the track and get beached on a mound of snow. A bulldozer is on hand to pull you out every time you get stuck, and the exposed towing eyes on the front and back of every RS4 gave a hint that this would be a common occurrence, as I was soon to discover. 

Towing eye on every RS4 put to good use.

The bigger job of the bulldozer, however, is to carve out multiple tracks on the lake. From what is literally a clean sheet of paper, or in this case an unspoiled white sheet of ice, the Audi team has carefully etched over 10km of tracks to suit different levels of training and skill. 

We start off in a big circle with the aim of holding big drifts and I’m immediately reminded why ice is such a captivating surface to drift on; it’s slippery, very slippery. The low threshold of grip means you don’t have to drive ridiculously fast like a pro to drift, you can break into a slide at almost jogging speeds.

Limited daylight hours at this time of the year means you’re often driving in the dark.

The RS4s are fitted with studded tyres and Audi’s famed Quattro system, without which it would be impossible to make it around any course, however slow. The studs bite into the packed ice surface and give a base level of grip and decent control under braking, but it doesn’t take more than a prod of your right foot to break traction and coax a slide. 

Reindeer meat a treat in Arctic countries.

Going round in circles, you are taught by very experienced instructors how to balance the throttle and steering angle to keep the car in a controlled drift. This is really an exercise in car control, which if you master, will make you feel like a hero for the rest of the day. There’s nothing more rewarding than powering through a corner with the tail out and an armful of opposite lock, but that’s easier said than done. Get on the power too early and the car will understeer miserably. Push the throttle too hard or suddenly and the tail will snap out, flicking you into a spin.

Studded tyres a must to give you a base level of grip on ice.

You realise the secret to smoothly pirouetting round the multiple tracks that get quicker and trickier as the day progresses is weight transfer. In fact, getting off the throttle is as important as getting on it, and the trick is to abruptly lift off the throttle just before you enter a corner. This transfers the weight to the front wheels, which bite into ice whilst the rear neatly steps out. Simultaneously, you have to push hard on the throttle pedal to keep the rear wheels spinning, which pivots you around the corner. 

Temperature reads -22.5-deg Celsius and GPS says you’re on a lake.

The seasoned instructors push you to go beyond your limits, to drive in a way you’ve never done before and eventually you find a rhythm that makes the RS4 your dance partner as you flick sideways from corner to corner, just like they do in the movies. The trick is not to break your rhythm, because once you do, it’s hard to get it back and you end up driving sloppily. You also realise the line between grip and slip is an ultra thin one, so thwacking the snow banks is something you can’t avoid. Most of the time, you can simply power out of the snowbanks and be on your way, but on the faster tracks which we graduated to at the end of three days, there was little margin for error. Going off at over 100 klicks can pitch you deep into the snowbank and leave you nicely stuck. It is embarrassing to walkie-talkie for help, more so when the tractor driver punches your event ID card to record the number of times you’ve had to be towed out. What was amazing is how well the RS4 stood up to this kind of abuse. Okay, snow is soft, but ice is not, and the Audi took some pretty hard knocks without flinching. 

Drifting on ice makes you feel like a hero.

A few laps in the RS e-tron GT made for an interesting comparison with the RS4. The EV sportscar is naturally heavier, but its low centre of gravity and more equitable weight distribution, minimised the fore-aft weight transfer under hard acceleration and deceleration to make it actually easier to drive. Also, instant response lets you precisely meter the 830Nm of torque available. But for sheer thrills, the RS4 offered more. It looks more spectacular on the limit, makes you feel like a hero and by the end of the day feels like your intimate dance partner. 

Everything is covered in a magical and surreal white blanket of snow.

And after an exhilarating couple of days, you relive every moment with your colleagues over dinner, which has reindeer as the main course and the Aurora Borealis as dessert. Yes, we did see the Northern lights! What a perfect way to wrap a subliminal, surreal experience of a high-octane ballet on ice.

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