Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan / Mercedes-Benz Canada
Published: January 28, 2020
GIMLI, Manitoba - As any driving instructor will tell you, there’s no better way to test a car’s limits, traction, and handling behaviour, than on an icy surface. The lack of grip, cold conditions, and extreme mechanical strain will put any vehicle on the testing block, and concurrently allow drivers to discover its true colours. Mercedes flew us all the way up to Manitoba to do just that: put their latest and greatest products to the test on snow and ice.
Gimli is a small town just north of Winnipeg known for manufacturing Crown Royal and hosting the largest concentration of Icelanders outside of Iceland. And with Lake Winnipeg frozen over every winter, Mercedes turns it into a slippery proving ground. With a blank slate of snow and ice available each year, the driving coordinators are able to change the track to their will, modelling each corner and hill to their fancy. But in an effort to expand their unique brand experiences, Mercedes went out of their way to make our two-day excursion a memorable event, building a massive ice garage with 354 blocks of ice, each weighing over 100 kg. Within this stunning stand-alone space, Mercedes expanded their growing concert series, Garage Gigs, and hosted two Canadian bands to play: Said the Whale, and Arkells.
The driving part of the expedition was divided into two areas, each showcasing the silver star’s broad lineup of 4MATIC and AMG products. The first section was a short off-road course that consisted of multiple hills with steep inclines and mild humps that required some delicate wheel articulation. It was hardly a challenge for the army of Mercedes SUVs that were provided to us. Everything from the GLB 250, GLC 300, GLE 450, to the GLS 450 was available to drive, and each of them handled the snow-covered terrain with ease. And while it was not exactly the most challenging off-road course we’ve been through, it gave us a refreshing introduction into the adept off-road capabilities of Mercedes’ 4MATIC all-wheel drive system.
Next up was the snow course, and this was where the adrenaline started to kick in. Essentially a large, slippery slalom adventure, we had the A 220 Hatchback, CLA 250, C 300 Sedan, and E 450 Sedan on tap, and though we were told to save our drift-happy mannerisms for the ice track later on, we couldn’t help but get a little carried away with our tail-happy E-Class, carving up the snow without any traction control assistance, with the massive safety net provided by the 4MATIC system keeping our front noses (and our pride) in check.
Then came the ice track, and was essentially a condensed version of the AMG Winter Sporting program that they host every year. Basked in the pale white reflection of the snow covering Lake Winnipeg, we were finally acquainted with the E 63 S AMG Wagon and Sedan, and a rear-wheel drive C 63 S Sedan. Determined to release our trigger-happy right foot, we slid, we drifted, and we conquered. The 603 horses under the hood of that 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 and its accompanying exhaust was more than enough to elicit smiles, giggles, and an adolescent grin.
And despite the daunting length of the E 63 Wagon, it was no less friendly than a local Manitobian. We started off with the traction control set to Sport Handling, essentially a mid-way point of system assistance, where it will let you perform some shenanigans, but ensures you don’t go too far. If it senses that things are getting out of control, it will cut off the power delivery for a controlled descent. While this mode let us have a merry time, it was slow and the revs were subdued by the limiting computers. We wanted adrenaline-pumping fun. So we turned everything off, set the E 63 into Sport+, and let her rip. We haven’t been this giddy for quite some time. There is something about wagons, 600 horsepower, and an empty ice track, that gets our heart pumping. And while this particular AMG’s $140,000 price tag and undoubtedly pricey repair costs hovered in the back of our minds, we felt confident enough to give it the full beans. The V8 rumbled like an A380 on take off, and while trickier to control, the E 63 was more than happy to oblige to swinging sideways and showing off its tail. Fun would be an understatement. Our photos will explain the rest.
Next up was the E 63 Sedan, and following that was possibly our most challenging sojourn with the rear-driven C 63 S. While we had no issues getting the E 63 sideways and maintaining a drift angle thanks to the 4MATIC+ guardian angle, the C 63 was a bigger handful and required some extra precision. The throttle was much more sensitive to input, and it was always eager to snap back into a neutral position, hindering us from linking drifts together. Traction was off, and all the driving modes were in their sportiest setting. My co-driver recommended swapping to a calmer and more subdued Sport Mode instead to see if that would help, and by the heavens did it make a difference. The power delivery was more gradual, allowing the car to ballet dance its way around a slalom course without being overly sensitive like a pubescent teenager.
The C 63, while more difficult, became a test of all the lessons I had learned that day: that the Sportiest modes aren’t always the best, that you don’t need too much throttle to sustain a drift, to use the brakes more often to load the front tires and reduce understeer, and to just have fun. Our day ended without a scrape or a vehicle stuck (though we can’t say the same for some of our other less experienced colleagues), and we not only walked away with a newfound appreciation for drifting, but also a long lasting memory of high-octane AMGs going sideways in frosty Manitoba.