Ranger Lake Road is one of those roads that we all dream about: utterly deserted, free of intersections, and packed with more curves than a fitness franchise. Unfurling past frozen lakes and between impenetrable walls of snow-draped pines, its surface is normally graded dirt, but since we're traveling in the dead of winter, there's a layer of packed snow on top. It's fifty-two miles of the most rally-ready roadway I've ever laid eyes on. The Audi's roadholding in the snow is amazing--we're able to zip through blind, sweeping bends like we're tossing out grappling hooks at every apex, feathering the throttle and dialing in just a touch of opposite lock to keep the rear, which gets 60 percent of the torque, from coming around too far. It's fantastic.
We left Ann Arbor six hours ago to begin the 700-mile trek into the Great White North. Given the weather and the distance, we've chosen to exercise one of our all-wheel-drive Four Seasons test cars, giving the nod to the Audi RS4, a 420-hp, V-8-engined beast of a machine. Its huge trunk and comfortable front seats with blast-furnace-level heaters make it perfect for a long road trip, and the Dunlop SP WinterSport M3s at each corner shrug off snow and ice with casual indifference. We've already slogged through all of Michigan--where we crossed the 550-foot-tall, five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge to reach the Upper Peninsula--and driven through Sault Sainte Marie on our way to Canada.
We're headed to Kapuskasing, Ontario, and an appointment at the General Motors Cold Weather Development Centre (CWDC). Most of us are familiar with the idea of cold-weather testing--run prototypes and mules in frigid temperatures to ensure that you, I, and every other Snow Belter can make it to work on cold winter mornings--but few of us have any clue about how it's done. Are the cars wrenched on by penguins? Do the engineers subsist solely on whale blubber and vodka? What actually goes on? We decided to find out.
The Audi allows us to make great time, and after turning off Ranger Lake Road, we dispatch the remaining 300 miles on paved highways. We roll into Kapuskasing just past dinnertime.
Kapuskasing (KAP-us-KAY-sing) is one of the northernmost cities in Ontario reachable by highway, rail, and air. General Motors has been there since 1941, and the town's accessibility--an engineer can board a plane in Detroit at eight in the morning and arrive at the CWDC by ten-thirty--and near-arctic winter weather make it ideal for cold-weather development. It helps, too, that the place itself is interesting. The quaint downtown is arranged around a circular plaza, and the small shops and cafs buzz with locals picking up a fresh sandwich or filling a prescription. Ask any of them a question, and you'll likely get a response in French--it's the first language for some 70 percent of the population up here. The whole thing is so picturesque that you nearly forget about the hulking paper mill a few blocks away, its giant smokestacks pumping a thick white haze into the air. The weather, however, remains Kapuskasing's dominant trait, and you should understand how seriously cold it is here: January temperatures reliably average negative thirteen degrees Fahrenheit, and there are fifty or so days between negative four and negative twenty-two during the testing season, which runs from November to April.