Canada isn’t exactly a popular winter getaway spot for Americans, and Gimli, Manitoba, a small town situated about 60 miles north of Winnipeg, isn’t even a popular winter destination for Canadians. But we have a feeling that would all change if more people knew about the screaming good time they could have driving a 603-hp Mercedes-AMG E63 S on ice.
A 400-acre section of Lake Winnipeg, once it is well and truly frozen, serves as the North American home of Mercedes’ AMG Driving Academy’s Winter Sporting program, where a few thousand dollars can purchase two or three days of hooning around under the careful instruction of half a dozen seriously skilled drift instructors—perhaps the most fun that can be had at that latitude anywhere on Earth. You could travel farther for this experience, as we did three years ago—AMG also offers the program in Arjeplog, Sweden, another 16 degrees of latitude north and many, many more hours of air travel away. By comparison, Manitoba is in our back yard, and the savings on airfare and time wasted in airports could let you upgrade to the top three-day Pro program.
When we arrived in Gimli, the winter driving season was nearing its end and the cars in this year’s fleet of overpowered AMG machines—CLA45, C63 S, and E63 S, each fitted with a set of hand-studded Lappi snow tires—had already been through weeks of icy torment at the hands of Mercedes’ well-heeled clientele. The cars looked scarcely the worse for wear, although sturdy metal tow hooks were drilled into the bumpers in case one were to wind up wedged too far into a snowbank to allow a simple push to free it.
Before we were set loose on the ice, lead instructor Danny Kok held forth on the anatomy of a good drift in a brief classroom session. We were implored to use hand-over-hand steering rather than what Kok dubbed “the shuffle technique.” The classic advice of steering into a skid was dismissed as too easy to misinterpret; the idea was reframed as steering in the direction we want the car to go. Looking, too, in the direction of your intended travel (instead of in whichever direction the nose of the car happens to be pointed) was hailed as an important technique that will help drivers learn to intuitively control a slide.
Once on the ice, we were given ample time to experience the three assembled powertrains. Within a few hours, we moved on from careful experimentation and were working on refining our tricks. Every once in a while, between increasingly ambitious and well-executed drifts, an overly enthusiastic turn-in or a misjudged prod at the gas pedal caused the tires to peel loose of the ice beneath us as they lost traction, and the car began to spin. This all felt giddy and transgressive, and no one was quite ready to hand over the keys when our day was over.
These days spent on the lake were more than just a good time, though. We’d wager that every person who has completed this course returned home a safer, more skilled, and more confident driver than when he or she arrived in Gimli. That’s a use of discretionary income we can get behind.