When Porsche, the builder of the rear-engined, flawed-from-the-get-go-but-somehow-fabulous 911, puts on a driving school, it's not a shallow shell of an experience, but a feast for all senses - a chance to stop and smell the roses on the way to sucking in some serious exhaust fumes.
Witness the Porsche Travel Club's inaugural U.S. event: Camp4 Colorado. This is a winter driving school that folds the spice of a car control clinic into the dough of a five-star mountain resort. The Porsche Travel Club has been in operation for more than ten years, and for 2007, has 85 events planned in 11 countries. Its mission is simple - take a trip in a special automobile to experience something truly special: from driving a Cayenne Turbo S on the sand dunes in Dubai to ice racing in Finland in a 911.
Camp4 Colorado might be the first event in the U.S., but it's no less spectacular than the others. On the ascent from the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, (a 56-room, five-star hotel located on 7000 private, snow-covered, mountainous acres that serves as base camp for the trip) to the track, you quickly realize that the normally ber-athletic 911 Carrera 4S is struggling for breath just as much as you are. It's slower, yes, but it doesn't miss a beat as its flat six's exhaust thrums past the enormous private homes located within Cordillera's borders. The road is partially snow-covered, especially in many of the hairpin turns, which helps you avoid the temptation to make a full-bore run up the mountain.
At 9000 feet, you reach the summit - and the race course - and any expectation of a plebeian snow-covered parking lot littered with orange pylons vanishes. Over the past three months, Porsche crews have been on site painstakingly constructing a snow-covered course that is almost as breathtaking as the vista that surrounds it.
Porsche chose Cordillera's Summit Golf Course for this winter driving paradise. To ensure that no damage was done to the ground below, crews began compacting each load of snow as soon as it fell from the sky - and then spraying it with water. The result is a solid base of ice more than six inches deep.
As if ordered straight from Mother Nature, a few inches of soft snow has fallen on top of the ice in the past few days. The result is a glistening white blanket of paradise: a 200-foot-diameter skid pad and 750-foot slalom punctuate the twelve-turn, three-quarter-mile-long, 45-foot-wide ice track. Major elevation changes are the key feature here, with steep slopes and seriously off-camber turns.
The small group of participants was as diverse as the snow-covered landscape was homogenous - there were women in their thirties, men in their sixties, and everything in between; a Dutchman, an Irishman, and a gentleman from Tennessee; hopeless track addicts and drivers so timid that the mere mention of the word "sideways" would raise their blood pressure twenty points.
With not a cloud in sight, the brilliantly lit mountainside seemed dim compared with the smiles of my fellow students as they first got behind the wheel and motored onto the track. With the assistance of the instructors - all of whom were hired by Porsche for not only their own successes in motorsports but also for their ability to communicate with students of any skill level - we started our first exercises in skid control.
Remove the "4" from the Carrera 4's cursive rear badge, and even the most experienced drivers aren't likely to notice that all four wheels are driven. Predominantly a rear-wheel-drive setup, the 911's computer-controlled system can send up to forty percent of the engine's power to the front wheels - but only when it's needed.
And needed it was. A rear-drive 911 would have had no chance on the icy, twelve-percent grades of the track, even if it were equipped with the same Pirelli winter tires. Nor would it ever have allowed me to save a slide where I was so sideways that I was watching where I was going through the back window.
Unlike most four-wheel-drive systems, which remove any talent requirement from the pilot, the 911's system rewards good, involved, drivers. It exists not just to enhance the car's performance, but to put a smile on your face even in impossibly slick conditions. With PSM switched off, a blip of the throttle was all it took to kick the tail out - steady, judicious throttle would help hold endless drifts.
The 911's rear weight bias helped rotate the car during the sessions where we practiced slaloms and Scandinavian Flicks, its communicative steering relayed clear warnings of understeer, and its engine - whether in the 325-hp Carrera 4 or the 355-hp Carrera 4S - made sure that there was always enough power to push through the snow.
Well, almost. A few 911s had to be pulled out of the snow banks that contain the track. Not nearly as many 911s, however, as Cayennes.
The Cayenne S uses a conventional AWD system, one that can apportion up to eighty percent of power to either axle, and in doing so, eliminates the tail-out power-slide tendencies of the Carrera 4s. What it gets in return is massive traction - and massive speed - on the course. And when a two-ton SUV hits a snow bank, it goes a whole lot deeper than a 3200-lb 911 before stopping.
Due to the clever design of those snow walls, not a single car was damaged, even if the same can't be said of the drivers' egos. Then again, exploring the cars' limits was exactly the point of the school. Porsche's Liability lawyers were refreshingly gagged - once we established a level of trust with the instructors, common sense was the name of the game. We were never asked to dull the drifts, tame the tank-slappers, hamper the hoonery, or reduce the roostertails.
I've got thousands of miles of snow-covered mountain road sideways shenanigans under my belt, and yet I still walked away with refined car control skills and an enhanced appreciation for being tidy through corners. At the same time, participants who had never dreamt that sliding a car could be fun were heard roaring with laughter from across the track, refining skills that they hadn't even heard of two days before.
Other winter driving schools, of course, will make you laugh. They should also make you a better and safer driver. The difference between them and Camp4 Colorado, though, is very much like the difference between the 911 and other sports cars: They may look comparable on paper, but there's a multi-dimensional depth to the 911 that makes driving it an experience unto itself.