Learning to Drive in the Snow...in a Jag

Ezra Dyer
Photo credit: Jens Baier SeALighTArts

From Popular Mechanics

Every now and then a car company will invite a few journalists to some frigid northern test facility to drive some new model that’s in the throes of cold-weather testing. And while it can be illuminating to learn how they keep the tires from shattering at 20 below, those testing grounds are normally off-limits to the public, and the cars there are months or years away from production.

But Jaguar’s near-Arctic proving grounds, in Arjeplog, Sweden, is different. January through March, anyone can book winter driving lessons at the place where Jaguar tunes its traction control and anti-slip systems. Except, at the Jaguar Ice Academy, those systems get turned off. And that’s when the fun starts.

Sure, plenty of us in the frostier reaches of the U.S. receive involuntary ice-driving experience each winter. But that doesn’t mean we automatically know how to handle a car in low-traction situations. And even if you think you do, you can always learn from the pros. Such as: on snow and ice, the steering wheel isn’t your only means of steering. The throttle becomes a coequal, and you have to learn how to use it.

Photo credit: Jens Baier SeALighTArts

We begin in an F-Pace, Jaguar’s tall, all-wheel-drive SUV. Like all the vehicles here, it’s fitted with studded winter tires and a stylish piece of aluminum armor across the lower part of the front end—like an old-timey locomotive cow-catcher, but for snowbanks. Arjeplog’s icy road courses, carved onto the surface of a thoroughly frozen lake, are relatively low-consequence if you should involuntarily leave the track, but Jaguar still aims to protect its fleet when four-wheel drifts end in snow drifts. Incidentally, the Land Rover side of parent company JLR is well represented here, too. Discoveries make excellent recovery vehicles.

Photo credit: Jens Baier SeALighTArts

Lessons begin with an instructor riding shotgun, but quickly progress to remote coaching via radio. With the dramatic slip angles afforded by the slick surface, the pros can see what you’re doing just as well from outside the car. The key lesson, repeated throughout the program, is that your mind should always be on weight transfer and how it can work for and against you.

Driving on a dry road, you probably don’t much think about weight transfer as you brake and turn into a corner. When grip is scant, though, every move is exaggerated. The instructors encourage us to think of the car as a bathtub full of water. Which way is it sloshing? And how are you going to keep that water in the tub? Because that will correspond to keeping your car on the road.

Head into a corner, brake, feel the weight transfer to the front tires. Turn in, because the grip is up front now. But it’s come off the rear end, so that steps out—lift throttle oversteer, unfolding in slow motion. Add throttle, get that weight moving back onto the rear tires as you countersteer to keep the taillights out of your peripheral vision. Before too long, it starts to feel natural. The F-Pace, pragmatic family hauler, is absolutely down for some epically juvenile drifts. Maybe the best part of Jaguar’s traction-control system is that you can turn it off.

Photo credit: Jens Baier SeALighTArts

By the time we’re feeling pretty good about our chances of joining a Swedish rally team, they move us into the F-Types. Which are all rear-wheel-drive. If you’ve ever watched an episode of the Dukes of Hazzard and thought, “Well, that looks fun,” you’re absolutely right. There are few things more stupidly entertaining than a powerful rear-wheel-drive car on a low-traction surface. The F-Pace, with its all-wheel-drive and high ground clearance, might be the better tool for deep snow, but the F-Type’s dry-road advantages—low center of gravity, quick steering, instant throttle response—also make it a wieldy tool on the ice.

There were more spins in the F-Types, yes. But nobody seemed to mind. Turned loose with a Jaguar two-seater on studded snows in an Arctic-adjacent wonderland, the morning vehicle-dynamics lessons might not always stay front-of-mind. You’re having too much fun.

Photo credit: Jens Baier SeALighTArts

And when you’re done driving, there’s more to do, like snowmobiling, dog sledding, or a drive to the Arctic Circle. Couples can sign up with one non-driver, too. Depending on the whims of atmospheric electromagnetism, you might see the Northern Lights. Prices start at about $3,700 for a three-day program, and that includes food and lodging (Jag warns that, given the intensity of the driving, the bartenders might be a little stingy with the pours on the eve of a lesson).

You just have to get there. If you do, it’s a bucket-list winter driving experience: hugely capable cars turned loose in a spectacular setting with expert guidance. When you’re screaming sideways in an F-Type, engine winding toward redline, rear tires shooting rooster tails of chipped ice as a maniacal grin affixes itself to your face, it might slip your mind that you’re learning something useful.

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