Driving Hot Cars on Ice in Colorado

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Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

Our friends at Rocky Mountain Redline in Colorado invited us to jump into some awesome vehicles and drive them on a gymkhana course on a frozen lake. Our initial response was “Sure, that’d be cool.” ‘Cause we’re snarky like that. Then it became “Holy bucket list item, Batman! F YA!” After we were off the phone, of course. We’re professionals.

Not long after, the list of vehicles to be in attendance arrived in our inbox. Cars like the Acura NSX, Lexus IS 350 F Sport, Dodge Challenger GT, and others were immediate eye-catchers. So were crossovers like the Porsche Macan GTS, the Honda Pilot, and more. Brands like Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota (with a trim called “Adventure”) were also in attendance. This was gonna be good.

We arrived in Colorado and met with Redline at a hotel near the Denver International Airport. Over drinks and dinner, we became acquainted with new brand ambassadors and talked with old friends. Early the next morning, we randomly drew cars to drive up the canyon to a swap point about halfway to our destination. The first leg took us up Interstate 70, westbound and up the steeply-carved pass in a 2018 Dodge Challenger GT. The second leg was in a 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia, carving US Highway 40 towards Estes Park. Our drive didn’t take us that far, ending in Winter Park, Colorado. It was 10am, coffee was ready, and the cars were being staged as we had our drivers’ safety briefing and a rundown of the day’s events.

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Photo via Rocky Mountain Redline

We started with a short course meant to familiarize us with each vehicle and its capabilities in this environment. We drove every vehicle at least once with all of the standard equipment operational, including traction control and so forth. We also drove them without those things. With the help of experts, we became familiar with the vehicles and what they can do with and without safety controls. For most vehicles, this gave them two distinct flavors. Some even more as controls can be moderated at various levels. It was enlightening.

After the morning course, we were shuttled to nearby Winter Park Village for lunch at the ski resort. Upon our return, the driving course had been drastically altered and was now a gymkhana-style runabout with hard curves, slaloms, and even some elevation changes. The course managers had also obviously used some of the event’s vehicles to, ahem, “soften up” the snowpack for us.

We began taking a turn in each of the vehicles present. Here’s our impressions of them. Warning: lots of repeats of phrases like “fun as hell” and “spins like a top” will probably ensue from this point forward. Best grab a drink too, because this’ll get wordy.

2017 Acura NSX

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The author in the 2018 Acura NSX. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

We begin with the supercar in attendance. The Acura NSX is a car that produces 573 horsepower and does 0-60 mph in 3.1 seconds (on pavement). It also has a price tag that’s probably more than you paid for your house. The NSX has an aluminum frame, a twin-turbocharged V6, and three electric motors. No, those motors aren’t to roll the windows up and down. This is a hybrid. The NSX sits low, has a design obviously engineered to move air around itself, and ours had Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 tires on its Interwoven 19- and 20-inch wheels.

As the only hybrid on our list of vehicles to drive at the event, the NSX was nothing like what hybrids are normally thought to be. There was zero boredom, zero “fuel efficiency at all costs, including fun” mentality, and zero “gee, I wonder if the batteries take up trunk space” questions. Instead, it was all about “Holy crap, electric motors put out a lot of torque really fast.” A good thing. A really, really good thing.

With all of the “nannies” on (traction control, engine throttle control, etc), the 2017 Acura NSX does very well at holding itself to the ground, even when attempts to get it to slide and bluster are made. With those Sottozero 3s in place and all of the safety equipment activated, the NSX is amazingly good at keeping itself on the straight and narrow.

Flipping the switch to Track mode and turning off all of the traction control systems (done by holding down the TC button for a few seconds) made the NSX a very different car. It now wanted to perform no matter what, but left keeping all four wheels in line completely up to the driver. In this way, we were (eventually) able to get some serious snow throwing, slalom sliding, and corner drifting out of the Acura. It became almost like a ballet dancer on four wheels, doing well at getting grip when the throttle was goosed, but maneuvering sideways easily when the wheel was turned during acceleration.

In short, the Acura NSX supercar’s only weakness is its price. The amount of fun to be had on that day in Colorado with this car was huge, but it was continually tempered by the knowledge that this was a six-digit vehicle that could be damaged by even the slightest cone bump. The NSX was, however, by far the most popular car at the event; and for good reason.

2018 Acura TLX 3.5L AWD A-Spec

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2018 Acura TLX. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

The other Acura brought was an unassuming sedan in white paint and with rather sedate looks about it. All of this didn’t promise much fun. Unless you know what the “TLX” and “A-spec” decals mean. Then it was a “must drive” at this ice driving event.

With all of its safety systems in place, the TLX drives like most all-wheel drive sedans in the snow and ice. In other words, it’s a little boring and not good for much beyond keeping you safely moving forward with limited traction. Even sudden moves did little to cause this Acura to shimmy or slide. Which is the point of all of those systems.

With them all turned off, the Acura TLX and its 24-valve 3.5-liter V6 is capable of pushing 290 horses and 267 pound-feet of torque into the ground through all four wheels. In limited-grip situations such as ours, of course, that’s not likely to happen most of the time if the torque vectoring and safety systems aren’t in place. But it didn’t matter. We were getting more than enough for our needs.

Spinning corners in the TLX sedan is remarkably easy when handled correctly. Like most vehicles in the ice and snow, the drift comes faster than it would on dirt and it lasts a lot longer thanks to the limited amounts of return grip afforded to the drive wheels. Thus it’s possible to launch this 3,800 pound sedan into a sliding turn without much effort when there are no electronics to keep that from happening. The Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 tires were excellent grip-magnets, though, allowing a return to straight-line driving when the curve is done and the speed needs to be poured on again.

2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti Sport AWD

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2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

We drove this car as a press loan a few months ago and then up the canyon to the event that morning. So taking it out on the ice was not a lesson in familiarity as it was with some of the other vehicles present. We are thoroughly acquainted with the beautiful little Giulia. It’s wonderful little 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine outputs a strong 280 horses and even more torque while the Ti package adds some great bling to the cabin.

The Giulia’s “Top Safety Pick+” status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave is plenty of confidence, but we noted that Alfa’s all-wheel drive system is not as snow-capable when extremes are to be had. In normal driving, especially up the canyon that morning on twisty, icy, somewhat sphincter-puckering roads, it performed wonderfully under a judicious hand. On the frozen, snow-packed space we were trying performance driving with, though.. Not so much. With all of the safety systems on, the Giulia often slid, failed to find grip, and found itself over-working the ABS to keep under control.

Once those nannies were off, though, the Giulia became a really fun ride to throw through a slalom and slide through corners with. Grip was always an issue, even with the Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 tires in place, but once the nuances of the car’s balance (which are superb) were understood, getting the 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia to throw clouds of snow in the corners and blast up straights was easy.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Ti AWD

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2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

Right up front, it should be said that while the Stelvio is a beautiful, well-done crossover with a lot of goodness about it, it’s terrible as a winter race machine. The vehicle drove extremely well when the goal was to keep it upright, straight, and as in control as possible. When it came time to get it to slip and slide on purpose, however, it wouldn’t budge. The Stelvio has no really good way of turning off its safety systems and thus remains staid and on course at all times.

The good news for Alfa fans is that in this vehicle, the Italian company has figured out how to really make a good winter-capable machine that won’t fail when the going gets rough. The bad news is that if you want to gymkhana on the ice, the Stelvio ain’t gonna comply.

2018 Dodge Challenger GT AWD

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2018 Dodge Challenger GT. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

Painted in Dukes of Hazzard orange (whatever Dodge names the model or color matters little, it’s Bo and Luke’s friggin car), the 2018 Dodge Challenger GT sports all-wheel drive and a surprisingly muscular 3.6-liter V6 that outputs 305 hp. The Challenger is really the last of the truly American muscle coupes still in production and we thoroughly enjoyed it at its 2017 model year debut. We’ll have a full review of the 2018 Challenger GT coming soon as it’s going to become our daily driver for about a week.

That said, up at the high altitudes of Colorado with ice and snow as our track, the Challenger GT was immense amounts of fun. This car just looks to be in its element when performance driving has commenced and it is highly photogenic when snow tossing is the plan. We noted two things about the Challenger GT during our runs with the car.

First of all, with all of the safety systems in place, the Challenger GT still allows some slip and shimmy when forced hard into slippery turns. It’s a big, heavy machine, after all, and physics dictate that it has to move sideways when the wheels turn hard in one direction or another. Even with Blizzak DM-V2 studless tires in place. We learned that last year on the dirt as well and were more than happy to oblige this car’s tendency to skitter a bit when pushed into it.

On our gymkhana track, though, the 2018 Dodge Challenger GT was loads of fun. Turning off the safety gear and disabling traction control entirely allows the big Challenger to throw itself into turns. Using manual shifting mode on the transmission to force the car into low gears for maximum RPM was also a solid way to keep the high RPM required for the naturally-aspirated V6 to really punch out the power.

Our favorite was the long half-moon turn at the top of the practice track in the morning and the “finale slide” this car could so easily execute when exiting the track in the afternoon.

2018 Honda Pilot Elite

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2018 Honda Pilot. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

Nobody expected the Pilot to be anything more than a grocery-hauling, kid-toting machine when looking at it in the lineup for this event. Why would this family hauler be anything other than safe and sedate? So imagine our surprise when it became roaring fun when allowed to slip and slide at will.

The 2018 Honda Pilot has a nicely-tuned V6 under its hood and a beautifully-designed all-wheel drive system that is closely akin to that found in the Acura TLX we’ve already mentioned. The studless Blizzaks on its wheels and no-nonsense dark paint belied its good times capability.

With all of the nannies on, the 2018 Pilot stayed carefully in place without much slip or uncontrolled movement. Turning the wheel to a lock in either direction resulted in the throttle being cut and the vehicle sliding quickly to a complete stop (if it wasn’t turning into the direction the wheels were pointed). Turning off the nannies left this unusual trait in place, but shut down all of the rest and allowed lots of heavy-handed rear spin and corner slides provided the wheels were jerked into the wrong direction late in the curve and throttle was kept down for traction break. Once these skills were mastered, the Pilot became a load of fun to maneuver around this harsh environment. I won’t deny that the heated seats were a nice bonus after standing in the 30-degree cold too.

2018 Honda CR-V Touring AWD

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The author in the 2018 Honda CR-V. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

The CR-V was our drive home the day after this event, getting us off the mountain and to the city. In that aspect, this Honda proved itself a bestseller for good reason. It’s a solid, no-nonsense, confident drive under normal or even slightly iffy conditions on the road. Out on the snow and ice, though, those aspects were not conducive to any hoop or holler.

The 2018 Honda CR-V with all of its stability and traction systems activated will only slip if you do something wildly stupid to make the vehicle’s physics work against its safety equipment. Even then it will only slip for a moment before all of those systems maneuver to right the CR-V again. With the systems as off as they can be set, which is only mostly off, the CR-V’s other aspects come into play as slip-and-slide deniers.

The Honda CR-V is powered by a little four-cylinder engine running through a continuously variable transmission. Forcing that transmission to run high RPM is difficult to achieve as the CVT’s primary concern is with fuel efficiency. It could become fun with a little goosing and coaxing and with the shifter shoved into “first” gear so RPM can be held high to maximize the little engine’s output.

What the 2018 Honda CR-V proved to us, though, was not that it is a fun machine to rally through snow with. It proved that it’s an extremely safe machine to do just about anything in. Like the Stelvio mentioned before, this was a vehicle that was out of its element in a frozen lake gymkhana event.

2017 Lexus IS 350 AWD F-Sport

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2017 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

The Lexus IS is a definite favorite in the luxury class and the F Sport model with its well-tuned 3.5-liter V6 couples well with the all-wheel drive system Lexus uses and the Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4 tires mounted on the IS’ wheels. With all of the Lexus IS’ safety equipment turned on, the car was stable and careful through most non-extreme situations. Yet when pressed into a corner for a slide, they’d still allow some movement before grabbing and pushing back on track.

Without the safety systems, though, the 2017 IS 350 AWD F-Sport was a real thrill. It surprised with its fast responses to sideways slides through corners and its happiness with throttle demands and fast-paced steering inputs. Without turbocharging, however, getting this car to perform on the same level as the Acura TLX or Mercedes C43 was just not possible. Keeping revs high means holding the throttle down through corners, which doesn’t allow easy exits, so the choice to let off in order to straighten out before running again means less engine response later.

That said, the IS 350 was a lot of fun to maneuver and tons of fun to make power slides with, much to the chagrin of the safety-minded.

2018 Mercedes-Benz AMG C43 4Matic

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2018 Mercedes-Benz AMG C43 Coupe. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

The 2018 Mercedes-Benz AMG C43 4Matic was recently a press loan vehicle for me, so a full review of the car will publish soon. Seeing it at this event, though, was a welcome sight as I already knew it’s a lot of fun on the pavement.

The AMG C43 is powered by a wonderful 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine that turbo’s out 362 horses and 385 lb-ft of torque. Almost on demand, in fact, thanks to the way those turbochargers are spun. Even the least-qualified driver will get 0-60 mph times of under five seconds in this car and on the snow and ice, it was almost that quick with the Pirelli Winter Sottozero 3 tires grabbing for traction.

Under normal conditions, the C43 Coupe is a very stable, confident vehicle that luxuriates in its excellence. The great exterior looks are no match for the interior’s beautiful mix of comfort and performance bolstering. AMG knows how to treat a performance machine and this car exemplifies their expertise.

Out on our gymkhana course, though, the C43 was even more awesome. Fast throttle responses and high output thanks to that turbocharged six resulted in really quick traction loss for maximum drift and slide. That took some getting used to, but it made for a very fun experience once the dynamics were mastered. Tailspins were common with newcomers in this car, but most were able to get the idea down and control maneuvers through (rather than over) the cones.

2018 Porsche Macan GTS

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The author in the 2018 Porsche Macan GTS. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

This may have been the vehicle we’d most looked forward to seeing at this event. Porsche is easy to find at race tracks, special pavement-centric performance events, etc. At a place like this, though? Maybe not as much. Though we will say that the Michelin Latitude Alpin LA2 tires on it were a nice match to the color scheme of our Macan GTS.

Even Steve McQueen, who loved him some Porsche, probably never got the chance to do something this cool in one. We did, though my wildly untamed hair and decidedly non-chiseled features probably weren’t as nice to look at.

The Macan is what some unexciting automotive reviewers might call a “luxury performance crossover.” We call it “Fn Holy Shit On Wheels” for the whole family. The GTS model has a twin-turbo V6 that displaces three liters and outputs 360 horsepower as a result. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission sends power from that to all four wheels.

The Porsche Macan GTS has a driver’s cockpit that looks like a flight deck. Buttons, switches, and gauges are everywhere. We immediately recognized the “make the exhaust pipes louder” button and made sure it was pressed. We also noted the “Sport” and “Sport+” drive modes. We went with the latter after doing a test run in normal drive mode to get a feel for the safety equipment. Which is good, but nobody cares if your plan is to twirl this thing around on ice like a drunken hockey player. Which we immediately did. With mixed results, which was depressing.

Then a couple of experts stepped in. A race driver who owns a Macan Turbo offered to show me the ropes and how to get the most out of this machine. Mostly it comes down to turning later than you normally would (basically treating the snow as if it were dirt) and knowing how to completely shut off the traction control (“Sport+” and a long press of the TC button). Once that knowledge was imparted, the Macan GTS became our reason for living.

The only vehicle comparable to the Macan GTS in terms of how much ballet it can accomplish in the slippery conditions we were working with was the big Challenger. Where the Challenger forced the eye to watch as it threw mountains of snow aside, growling with abandon around sliding corners, the Macan gracefully spun its way through the course as if it were born there and didn’t know how to do anything else. There is some real grace to the Porsche Macan in these elements.

2018 Toyota RAV4 Adventure Grade

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2018 Toyota RAV4 Adventure. Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

Despite our insistence that Toyota should call this the “#Advencha” instead of “Adventure,” they kept the longer and less socially trending name. The Adventure model for the RAV4 basically adds some sporty styling elements to the well-equipped XLE trim point along with a bit more ground clearance (not quite half an inch) and a standard towing package. Some Blizzak DM-V2 studless snow tires were then added for our own Adventure’s benefit.

During normal driving with all of the nannies on, the RAV4 held its own as a stable, safe drive when any but the most extreme of idiotic maneuvers were thrown at it. Hard cranks on the wheel after gaining respectable speed resulted in lengthy slides, but the RAV4’s ABS and traction systems did a good job of keeping those slides from becoming “flip and slide” results.

Without most of those safety systems running, the RAV4 suffered the same problems found in its competitor, the Honda CR-V. The small, naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine was just not conducive to attempts at slipping and sliding with speed and fun. We do note that the RAV4 was better at holding high RPM when the shifter was put into first gear, thanks to having a six-speed automatic, which did make it more responsive than the CR-V on our winter course.

Wrapping It Up

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Photo courtesy of Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.

After our day on the ice, we retired to a lovely little hotel in Evergreen, Colorado and gathered to talk about the day. The event was very well done and Rocky Mountain Redline did an excellent job pulling off #RedlineIce2018. The differences between the vehicles we’d been playing with were amazing and each brought something different to the course.

The NSX could throw raw power straight down to the snow pack without much hesitation, but was more difficult to control in maneuvers until that power was mastered. The Porsche Macan pirouetted smoothly throughout the course while the Challenger GT used brute strength to conquer the elements. The Hondas were very opposite experiences as snow and ice machines, showing the wide range of expertise at play in their engineering groups, while the Lexus IS and the Acura TLX were very comparable as luxury ice driving fun machines. The smaller-engined, yet highly turbocharged Alfa Romeo machines were also juxtaposed against one another in their focus as performance ideals. Finally, the Mercedes-Benz C43 stood alone as the only two-door luxury performance coupe on hand.

We had a great time in Colorado and are looking forward to a repeat of this event next year. Most photos via Nathan Leach-Proffer of Speed Photos.