Cold weather is not my thing. Ice is not my thing. Visiting the north is definitely not my thing. As a Texan, I like for it to be at least above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, if not in the triple digits. Ice driving and studded tires aren’t exactly my specialty.
When my boss asked if I wanted to go to a Subaru ice-driving school, taught by rally drivers and rally school instructors, I didn’t exactly take this into consideration. I was so distracted by the WRX STIs and BRZs, it wasn’t until after I’d agreed to go that I remembered that, oh right, it has to be cold for snow and ice to be on the ground.
Typical me. Off I went to that frigid north, at least after I’d bought some actual winter friendly boots in order to walk around in Wisconsin and not fall on my butt.
(Full disclosure: Jalopnik got an invitation to the Subaru Winter Experience in Eagle River, Wisconsin in February, and picked its least winter-acclimated staffer to attend. The cost for the school runs about $1,450, which Subaru covered in addition to the flight, hotel and a couple of meals. The school is run by DirtFish out of Seattle and FlatOut out of Sweden.)
Only after I had booked the flight did it really sink in how little experience I had in the cold. I hadn’t even gone on a family trip to the snow since I was 12. I’d never actually driven in the freezing, snowy conditions. Everything I’d heard about winter driving—all-wheel drive is great but isn’t a requirement, having the right tires is more important—were all just things I’d heard. I hadn’t tested them out.
It was only after my first day of driving in the snow that I knew where I truly stood on that one: on studded tires I’ll take rear-wheel drive over AWD any day.
Of course, that’s coming from a person whose first time driving in real snow came on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere. I even took a passenger seat to get to that lake, since I didn’t want to be the inexperienced Texan who lost control before the driving school even started.
A lot of my RWD-bias is probably down to the instructors: This school is rally oriented. It goes through short braking and slalom courses before going to progressively longer rally “stages,” and the school is about getting sideways and learning to control a car that way.
Subaru had three different cars at its driving school—the BRZ, the WRX and the WRX STI—in manual, automatic and continuously variable transmissions. I stuck mostly to the manual BRZs and WRX STIs for the riveting, rally-school-esque climb all the way up to and down from third gear, and it was easy to tell how big of a difference there was between driving the two cars on studded tires.
The BRZ only powers the rear wheels, and it has surprisingly great handling in the snow when a driver isn’t trying to push it. (Rather, it’s perhaps unsurprising if you live in cold areas and know that good winter tires are the most important factor.) It stays balanced so long as a driver’s ego does, but it’s also perfect for when you want to get sideways. Just tap the gas a little too hard and you’ll be counter steering to avoid the nearest snow bank.
The jump that feeling sends through your system—the realization that the car is sliding out of your control, kind of like what happens when you fishtail out of a corner on a race track—is the best part. It makes you feel this sense of urgency, holding onto the car, trying to avoid being the one to plant it. It wasn’t until after I drove the BRZ on a course that I realized how much more freedom RWD gives a person who casually wants to have a little fun in the snow.
With its power going to all four wheels, the WRX STI felt almost like a cross between an incredibly toned-down monster truck and an overpowered riding lawnmower. (I equated it to a garbage truck at the time, before realizing that I’d never driven one of those. I have, however, driven a Monster Jam truck.)
That’s not at all saying driving the STI was bad. It drove wonderfully, which is part of why it reminded me of monster trucks and riding lawnmowers. The car gripped snow like it was no different than asphalt. It was large, heavy and almost video-game like on a makeshift rally course carved into this frozen lake.
With the grip it had, the STI felt like it wanted to eat the snow in front of it, or maybe eat a hole in the lake. (Holes in the lake were the thing I wanted to avoid.) The STI was so grippy and comfortable that it didn’t compare to the fun of the BRZ, which would easily slide if thrown in certain directions.
The grip made the STI hard to purposely throw around, at least, in the hands of a person who’s driven rally cars before but doesn’t regularly. It all had me, almost counterintuitively, running toward RWD when it was 10 degrees and icy outside. I just wanted to get sideways, and the RWD let me do that.
I’m the last person who would ever move to a cold region, and I’m one of the last people who will ever visit one unless there’s something alluring like ice driving in the mix. But this Texan has finally got a little seat time in the icy north, and I can say that the AWD gods you pray to as soon as the snow starts falling aren’t as necessary as you think.
They make things a lot less fun than they could be, too.