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Discovering the unexpected joy of winter driving

On an excursion in Quebec with Ford, our writer discovers winter driving can be a pleasure — in the right vehicle

  • Jan 20, 2018
  • 1,251 words
  • 6 minutes
Zipping around in the Ford Focus RS Expand Image

Ford’s Winter Adventure and Performance Program was billed as the ultimate driving experience, done in style.

The two-day experience began with a flight to Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, where we were welcomed by our hosts from Ford and assigned a driving partner and one of four Ford SUVs to drive on the first leg of our journey. My driving partner and I were assigned to the Ford Explorer and shown the many innovative options on the new model, the most intriguing to me being the enhanced active parking assist and adaptive cruise control.

Parking assist will steer you in and out of a parallel park; all the driver is expected to do is control the acceleration and brake. I had agreed to be the passenger for the first leg, so I sat by a little uneasily as my driving partner enabled the parking assist, started accelerating and instantly grabbed the steering wheel as the vehicle began easing out into the road, thus disabling the parking assist. This feature is obviously meant for more trusting drivers than us.

We got on to the highway following the GPS instructions from the in-car SYNC 3, which was programmed to guide us to our lunchtime rendezvous. Unfortunately, the GPS seemed to be off by 300-500 metre, which resulted in our missing the first instructed highway merge. The system was able to navigate us back on track and once we became aware of the slight miscalibration we were able to anticipate the turns and merges in advance — though we still ended up about a kilometre short of our destination and had to consult Google maps on my iPhone for a further assist.

The ten driving teams regrouped at our lunch destination, La P’tite Cabane d’la Côte, a lovely, authentic sugar shack about one hour north of Montreal, near Mirabel, where we enjoyed homemade French pea soup, home-cooked ham and of course, fresh maple syrup. 

The lunch stop allowed each team the opportunity to swap vehicles and drivers. My driving partner and I moved from the Ford Explorer, which is a large, very nice-looking SUV, into the Ford Flex, which was everyone’s last choice of vehicle. If you haven’t seen the Ford Flex, it looks like a box on wheels. The Flex was fully loaded with the same advanced options as the Explorer but boasted more power, with a V-6 engine instead of the larger vehicle’s 4-cylinder engine.

While the Flex may appear unattractive, it is actually a comfortable, roomy vehicle on the inside and was a pleasure to drive. Here, I had the chance to try out the adaptive cruise control. I often use cruise control on my personal vehicles to keep to a reasonable speed, but it can be frustrating to constantly have to disengage and re-engage cruise control when traffic is moving at variable speeds. The adaptive cruise control senses the vehicle in front of you and adapts your speed as traffic slows, keeping you a safe distance behind. I didn’t want to attempt any rigorous testing of this feature, but for basic driving, it worked as advertised.

After another hour of driving, we arrived at the Estérel Resort in Estérel, where we turned in our vehicles, got checked in and registered for optional winter activities. Ford did an excellent job of making us guest drivers feel like celebrities with a welcome table in the lobby and a welcome basket in our rooms. I opted for snowmobiling as my first winter activity. Again, we were paired up on the snowmobiles and led out on a trail ride through the beautiful winter forest on the Estérel property. I lucked out as it turned out my driving partner only wished to be a passenger and I was able to drive both out and back. Our guide seemed to be nervous about his charges on the outgoing journey and did not allow the group to exceed 30 kilometres per hour. Once we’d proven ourselves, however, we were allowed to open up the large Bombardier machines a little and got up to 60 km/h on at least two open stretches. The snowmobile experience recalled memories of many excursions in my youth and reminded me how much fun the sport can be.

By the time we returned to the resort, Ford had prepared a special treat for us: an ice sculpting lesson with expert sculptor Nicolas Godon from Laurent Godon ice sculpting. First we marvelled as, using a chainsaw, a few small tools and a blowtorch, Nicolas transformed a large block of ice into a crystal-clear reindeer head complete with a rack of antlers — all in under 10 minutes.

Then, we were each presented with our own ice block and a chisel to fashion our own simple sculpture. None of our pieces matched Nicolas’ artistic achievement, but it was an interesting experience.

Nicolas Godon carving a reindeer from a block of ice Expand Image
Sculptor Nicolas Godon carves a reindeer from a block of ice. (Photo: Francis Vachon)

Our day ended with cocktails in the lounge and a wonderful dinner and wine in the Wine Cellar restaurant at the Estérel Resort.

Our second day began with us again pairing up and taking a new vehicle for the drive to the Mecaglisse motorsport complex and racetrack. I drew the Ford Escape, which was by far my favourite SUV of the lot. Its smaller size and nifty handling made it a pleasure to drive. The weather was sadly not in our favour, with temperatures a degree or two above zero and heavy rain falling, but the Escape’s all-wheel drive made handling the slick roads a breeze. 

As expected, upon arriving at Mecaglisse, we were informed that the ice track had been rained out, so instead, I signed up for a looping ride in the Ford F-150 Raptor SuperCrew. Myself and five other members of the group were shuttled out to a closed back road near the complex where we were treated to a bouncy, wet ride around the ice covered roads, driven by Nascar professionals. The wet and icy conditions prevented the drivers from going all out to show us the full capabilities of the vehicle, but the experience was enough to demonstrate the exceptional handling and power of the Raptor.

Ford F-150 Raptor Expand Image
Putting the Ford F-150 Raptor SuperCrew through its paces on an icy trail at Mecaglisse motorsports complex north of Montreal. (Photo: Francis Vachon)

After three loops around the route, we were shuttled back to the lodge for winter driving lessons in the SUVs. The weather severely limited our driving opportunities, but we were able to test the handling on a short, icy slalom course, where we were guided through winter turns and stopping. Having driven through many Ottawa winters, the tips were nothing I hadn’t heard before, but the SUVs were up to the challenge and the Ford Escape once again proved to be my favourite.

Following a catered lunch, we once again got to sit back and enjoy a ride. Where the morning ride had been a demonstration of raw power in the Ford Raptor, the afternoon ride was all about sleekness and speed in the Ford Focus RS. The drivers provided exceptional demonstrations of their ability to slide around corners and maintain complete control of the vehicle, with turns that brought me back to Lightning McQueen’s dirt-driving lessons in Cars.

The day wrapped up with a dogsled ride through the woods and a relaxing drive back to the airport. If only winter driving could always be this fun!


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