Feature: The Volkswagen Driving Experience winter driving auto articles car culture auto brands
In the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R, on the way to VW’s test facility near Arjeplog. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Paul Williams

Photo Gallery:
2012 Volkswagen Golf R

Arjeplog, Sweden – From Canada it takes considerable planning and about 24 hours to get to Arjeplog, Sweden, situated 50 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. First you travel to Stockholm, and then take another flight to Arvidsjaur followed by a two-hour bus ride. Many visitors stay at the Silverhatten hotel with its panoramic view of the lakes, surrounding hills and the town with its signature church steeple.

There are 2,000 permanent residents in Arjeplog, which is larger than you might expect for a community this far north. At night, the northern lights are a common sight, and local fauna include bear, reindeer, moose, trout and salmon, although in my experience, evidence of these creatures was limited to gourmet versions prepared by local chefs for dinner.

What has all this to do with cars? Arjeplog is a cold weather testing and winter driver training location for just about every major automaker in the world, and many automotive engineers and technical staff live there year-round. Each company has “their” lake, upon whose frozen surface all manner of automotive shenanigans take place for a good third of the year. Additionally, there are many private driving schools.

Feature: The Volkswagen Driving Experience winter driving auto articles car culture auto brands
Northern Lights over Arjeplog; photo by Roman Bilz. Click image to enlarge

Residents regularly see camouflaged versions of upcoming vehicles stealthily driven along local roads, although unlike journalists, they likely don’t pay much attention to them. At a recent Volkswagen press event, we saw the new Kia K9 and the new BMW X5, although Fiat, Ferrari, Audi, Porsche, General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Land Rover and a range of other companies had signage in the area, and also bring pre-production examples of their latest vehicles.

Photographing these vehicles is a challenge, as they wear black and white camouflage that fools cameras (they can’t focus), and car companies do their best to keep them out of sight unless absolutely necessary. However, we were told by a practical-minded VW engineer that the best time and place to see them is early in the morning at one of the town’s gas stations: makes sense.

The reason for our visit was to get a taste of the “Schweden Ice Drive,” a Volkswagen Driving Experience program that comprises several events held throughout the world. What’s the draw? Getting to drive an all-wheel drive Volkswagen Golf R sideways at very high speed is a good start.

Feature: The Volkswagen Driving Experience winter driving auto articles car culture auto brands
Arjeplog Church, at night; photo by MAF. Click image to enlarge

The Golf R in European specification has a couple of additional features compared with the Canadian version (which we’re finally getting), due this April. The Euro R runs the 270 horsepower engine, has an electronically adjustable suspension, is fitted with hardshell racing seats (that accept a four-point harness) and can (almost) fully defeat its electronic stability control system, enabling the Haldex all-wheel drive system (Volkswagen’s “4Motion”) to really earn its keep.

And in comparison to the American Golf R, our Canadian car is equipped with a full leather interior, navigation system, sunroof and sundry other creature comforts, rendering it pretty much “option proof.” Total cost, plus tax and fees, is $39,650.

The Arjeplog facilities are much like other winter driving centres, only bigger. Basically, Volkswagen has carved long, twisting tracks in the surface of a frozen lake with a view to teaching Driving Experience participants how to drift through the corners, get maximum acceleration on the straights, and respond to the icy terrain in a way that gets maximum performance from the car.

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