Payne: Perfecting the four-wheel drift in a Subaru STI on ice

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 20, 2020

A Subaru WRX STI at full chat across the ice on Wisconsin's Dollar Lake. Though still based on the Impreza's last-gen chassis (new bones should come in 2021), the STI is one of the most capable compact cars on the planet.

The thing about ice racing is the quiet.

No squalling tires. No road noise. No full-throttle engine wail as I drifted a Subaru WRX STI from turn to turn across a frozen course. It’s magical.

I was in Eagle Lake, Wisconsin, the self-proclaimed Snowmobile Capital of the World. Located 65 miles west of the state line of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it’s a snow globe where temperatures reach 20-below, drifts pile four feet on either side of the road, and hockey is played on frozen lakes. One of those bodies of water, Dollar Lake, was for years home to the World Championship Snowmobile Derby before the event moved to a permanent oval track.

These days, Dollar Lake plays host to Swedish rally star Patrik Sandell and his Subaru Winter Experience.

Each year, Sandell shows off the Subaru WRX STI off-road beast on the ultimate off-road surface. Some 200-plus adventure seekers and Subaru fanatics join his team here to explore the limits of grip in one of the most capable off-road machines ever made.

Subaru has carved out a unique space with the STI, the most extreme version of its performance WRX trim. If the Jeep Wrangler owns rock-crawling and the Ford Raptor is king of the desert, then the STI defines off-road speed. I’m a race-licensed track guy and have thrilled at the $38,000 STI’s ability to hang with $80,000 BMW M3s and Mercedes AMG athletes on the race track.

But the Subaru rules America’s off-road courses.

As the industry has moved to SUVs, compact sedans have been sidelined in the U.S. market, taking their steroid-enhanced, all-wheel drive Tasmanian Devil versions with them. The Mitsubishi Evo? Gone. Ford Focus RS? Toast. Fiesta ST? Hasta la vista.

But the Subie STI — based on the compact Impreza — remains. It’s the essence of Subaru’s rugged brand. Like Mazda’s Miata, the STI’s scrappy DNA is in every Subaru, whether sedan or ute.

Off-road driving schools like Seattle’s DirtFish — which provides instructors for Sandell’s winter camp — use Subarus as school cars.

Sandell, 37, has dreamed of racing Subarus since he was a speed-addled kid growing up in northern Sweden. Subaru dominated the World Rally Championship in the late ’90s to early 2000s, establishing the WRX legend.

While other Swedes bore holes in lake ice to fish, Sandell used the holes to measure surface thickness so he could race on the ice like his childhood rally heroes Colin McRae and Petter Solberg. Pushing the edge of the icy envelope made Sandell into one of the world’s premier rally drivers — and he’s realized his hopes by earning a spot as a U.S. Rallycross driver on Subaru’s team. Beats driving Zambonis.

The STI is a four-wheeled Apolo Ohno on ice. Credit deep-grooved, Swedish-made Lappi winter tires, encrusted with 400 3-millimeter studs (compared to a standard studded tire’s 150 1.5-millimeter treads). Like Michelin slicks on an asphalt racing surface, the $425-apiece Lappis enhance the STI’s inherent all-wheel drive grip to create astonishing ice traction.

I’m talking serious slick ice here. When I stepped out of the Subaru I had to take baby steps to keep from landing on my keister. But unleash STI’s 310 ponies out of a corner, and the rowdy ’Ru explodes like a stealth rocket.

As I hurtled toward the next apex, the Lappis were equally adept at slowing with those studs clawing at the ice as I stomped the big Brembo brakes. Try this on normal tires and the Subaru wouldn’t stop until Green Bay.

Turning is another story. Modern traction-control systems (more on them later), will choke the STI’s power, so the first rule of ice racing is to turn off the nannies lest the car crawl on its knees like, well — a human.

Ice and side g-loads make for tricky physics, and drifting the 3,450-pound greyhound across apexes requires skill and patience.

In the hands of a pro like Sandell, it is a sight to behold. Executing what the Swedes call the “Scandinavian flick,” the ice-cross master simultaneously brakes, backs off throttle and flicks the steering wheel to rotate the car at obscene, 45-degree angles to the corner. Then he flings the car the opposite way — the so-called “pendulum turn” — to complete an ess curve.

Ice courses are also teachers of smart electronics.

In addition to the STI, Sandell’s school deploys a squadron of Subaru BRZs — a species of rear-wheel drive, track-focused sports car that is usually stored in garages this time of year waiting for the spring thaw.

While the STI shows off the raw power of all-wheel drive, the BRZ on ice is a showcase for modern safety systems.

“Turn on traction control and keep it floored all the way around the course,” said instructor Michelle Miller. She laughed as I shot her a skeptical look.

But I did. And, astonishingly, it worked.

So good is BRZ’s electronic brain — managing power and slip angles — that it kept the Subaru from swapping ends through iced twisties even as my lead foot was screwed to the floor. Again, the tires show their mettle, allowing enough grip to claw the car forward.

It’s why manufacturers regularly come to the northern Great Lakes — not just to test how fast they can propel you, but also how they can save you.

Naturally, I turned the BRZ’s traction control off once the lesson was learned, so I could get back to ice-crossing. Though the BRZ can’t match the STI’s muscle, it did prove a wonderful ice racer in its own right. While sharing the STI’s low center of gravity thanks to Subaru’s flat-4 cylinder engine design, the BRZ is 550 pounds lighter.

That means less mass to manage across the ice, so the BRZ is quicker to change direction. The physics lessons, it occurred to me, would be useful for young drivers — might I suggest required snow training to gain a license?

In an age of homogenous SUVs, Subaru’s free spirit is a breath of fresh (cold) air. And in an age of mega auto-mergers, it’s a reminder of how a small brand can still speak loudly.

Even on the quiet ice of the northern Midwest.

2020 Subaru WRX STI

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger performance compact

Price: $37,895, including $900 destination charge ($39,727 as tested with four $425 Lappi tires)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter turbocharged boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 310 horsepower, 290 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 159 mph

Weight: 3,450 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 16 city/22 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Tight shifter; AWD traction from the gods

Lows: Sopwith Camel wing not for everyone

Overall: 4 stars

2020 Subaru BRZ

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger sports car

Price: $30,845, including $900 destination charge ($32,545 as tested with as tested with four $425 Lappi tires)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter boxer 4-cylinder

Power: 205 horsepower, 156 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 134 mph

Weight: 2,798 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 21 city/29 highway/24 combined

Report card

Highs: Playful handling; has backseat room compared to two-seat sports cars

Lows: Engine lacks punch

Overall: 3 stars

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