The Mercedes-Benz Winter Driving Academy, or MBWDA, was in Calgary this past weekend at Race City Speedway, and I hauled myself down from Edmonton just for the occasion. Well, that and ACAC Badminton Nationals Qualifying at Mount Royal University. Two pretty good reasons, if you ask me, and both reasons left me panting, sweating, and grinning like fully-toothed Ovechkin.
How good was the Academy?
Two of the other participants flew in on their private Cessna just for the occasion. From Victoria! They made my drive from Edmonton seem paltry in comparison. So on that unseasonably warm February morning, the other participants and I arrived at Race City just before 9am, picked at the fruit and pastry platters, and got down to business.
Danny Kok, Chief Instructor and resident affable Dutchman, began the course by sitting us down to discuss different driving terms and techniques. If you find technical jargon as interesting as I do, you’d find some of the opening discussion familiar and the rest of it hugely engrossing. Maybe I just need to find more friends who are track rats so we can debate the finer points of trail braking in rear-engined cars, because I could’ve sat in that classroom all day. We discussed oversteer, understeer, driving position, trail braking, and the ESP systems that normally keep the safety levels high and the fun levels low — until you turn them off.
After about an hour in class, we made our way from the heated trailer/classroom and into the the awaiting teaching devices. Four talented driving instructors were out there too, including Danny, monitoring our progress and generally egging us on to push the cars as far as we dare.
The challenges ranged from braking and lane-changing to controlled skids and cornering. Each was designed to isolate a different aspect of winter driving and to focus the participants on a single maneuver. In each exercise we performed numerous runs, switching between the different cars and switching between the ESP On/Off settings.
This was how much of our driving activities unfolded throughout the day – complete a run with the electronics on to get a feel for its protective intuition, then try it again with them off and enjoy the freedom. Although Mercedes’ ESP system cannot be completely turned off, the differences were revealing. The 5 different exercises not only practiced a different driving technique, but also demonstrated each car’s unique capabilities and dimensions.
At the low speeds with which our exercises were completed, the varying centres of gravity couldn’t really be felt, but the mass and weight distribution of each vehicle made a significant impact on its ability to perform the given task.
Speaking of the cars, they’re the principle reason why many people choose to attend the Mercedes-Benz Academy rather than some other winter driving course. My experience taught me that the cars are far from the only reason, lest we forget the quality of instruction. Still, it was my first opportunity to drive most of these Mercedes products, and my impressions ranged greatly.
The first time I sat in the S-class I realized why it has been the benchmark in luxury for longer than I’ve been alive. The quality of the materials, the solidity of the switchgear, and the sheer customizability of the driving position and experience were peerless. The only aspect of the S-class that detracted from the overall feeling of sheer quality was the TFT screen that displayed the dashboards gauges. I just don’t see the point in having a high-resolution screen that doesn’t do anything more than normal gauges do. Having a screen instead of dials is carte blanche, but in the S550 they look just like normal gauges. It was trinketry for its own sake and I imagine it’ll be mighty annoying when a pixel or two eventually fizzle out.
Then there was the new E-class, a thoroughly pleasant surprise in the 12-car line-up. The E350 4matic on hand was more fun on the 36’ skid pad and easier to control on the throttle than any of the other 4matics – especially the ML63 AMG 4matic, a vehicle that further confirmed for me the pointlessness of nuclear-powered crossovers.
Sidebar: Before you correct me on my failure to appropriately capitalize the name of Merc’s AWD system, I feel that the names of some of their cars needs to be taken down a notch or two, and lower casing 4matic is just the place to start. Lower case “matic” isn’t as harsh on the photosensitive ganglion cells, and is a nose turned upwards at Stuttgart’s absurd naming conventions. Don’t even get me started on the “6.3″ engine badges…
Now back to the cars. Vehicles like the ML63 are not “having your cake and eating it too”; they’re not the best of both worlds. They’re more like all-season tires: the worst of both. If you can afford a ML63, you can afford an ML350 and a C63 AMG. The ML63 at MBWDA left me feeling cold where its smaller sibling, the C63, coyly tugged at its reigns and instilled me with confidence.
The particular C63 present was fitted with the wholly unnecessarily necessary Performance Package that upped hp to 481 from 451, fitted bigger brakes, and a limited-slip differential. The result was an even more emotionally charged package whose exhaust sounded like a hot summer’s rolling thunder. The C63 felt special where the ML63 just felt half-baked. On the 36’ skid pad, the C63’s JA Henckels-sharp throttle mapping made inducing wide-angle drifts simple, but holding them an altogether more challenging proposition. Seeing as it was my first time in a C63 and my first time on the skid pad, my numerous spin-outs weren’t surprising. What was surprising was how enamored I was anyways. No wait, that wasn’t a surprise either.
With other manufacturer-sponsored winter driving courses popping up, including the $4,995 Porsche course offered exclusively in Montreal, Mercedes is in the game early and they’re making sure that they have a high-quality and relatively affordable course at $795. To add to the appeal, Mercedes is offering its course across the country from Vancouver to Halifax. To be sure, the MBWDA would make a valuable and memorable experience for every enthusiast.
Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz Canada paid my entry fee for the course. I paid for my traveling expenses and accommodations.
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