If you were the proud owner of a luxury convertible and you lived in the snowy Midwest, late January might seem like the perfect time to drive your droptop to Miami, Palm Springs, or some other sun-baked locale.
We gathered three all-wheel-drive ragtops -- one of the first 2013 Bentley Continental GTCs, an equally fresh 2012 BMW 650i xDrive convertible, and a gracefully aging 2012 Audi A5 Quattro cabriolet -- so we could drive them four hours north (yes, north) of Ann Arbor to Montmorency County, Michigan, site of Rally America's popular season-opening Sno*Drift race.
Winter tires? Check.
Winter attire? Check.
Heated leather seats? Check.
Crock-Pot full o' chili? Check.
Winter attire? Check.
Heated leather seats? Check.
Crock-Pot full o' chili? Check.
On Friday morning, we pull our three convertibles out of the garage of our rented log home near Mio, Michigan, and lower their tops. If there's such a thing as a perfect winter day for driving a convertible with the top down, this is it. Barely a breeze wisps through the air, the temperature is 34 degrees, and the sun is already brightening the sky. Our many layers of winter gear and the convertibles' supercomfortable heated leather seats, permafrost-solid driving demeanors, and excellent top-down wind management mean that we can fully revel in the curvy, tree-lined country roads on the forty-five-minute drive northwest to Lewiston, where the Sno*Drift Rally will commence.
We pass the shores of East Twin Lake and drive into Lewiston, where sticker-covered rally cars are already noisily blatting through town. Rally America racers must drive on public roads, at posted speeds, to get from one competition stage to another, so they're all street-legal and plated. The Sno*Drift course, which includes 241 transit miles, is made up of twenty-four competition stages encompassing 132 miles and is conducted on gravel roads temporarily closed to regular traffic. The race cars we see are heading to or from the morning's practice stage, which is also where we're going. Fittingly, this stage is a public street called Winding Road.
We've arranged to get a ride in the co-driver's seat of rally veteran Henry Krolikowski's 2000 Subaru Impreza. Krolikowski's Impreza will compete in the top class, known as Open, reserved for highly modified cars that are usually all-wheel drive and turbocharged. (Several other classes pit stock-tuned, two-wheel-drive, and/or normally aspirated cars against one another.) According to the "speed factor," which predetermines cars' starting order in the rally, this is the seventeenth-quickest car in the field. The faster cars must be completely insane, because the 2900-pound, 300-hp Subaru surges away from the starting line with almost as much authority as the 567-hp Bentley would. Then Krolikowski tosses the Subaru sideways into a slippery curve at 65 mph, and I find myself looking over my right shoulder at the road ahead. Awesome. A very tight corner comes up quickly, allowing Krolikowski to show off his car's surprising braking ability, immediately followed by an impressive display of the Impreza's ultrashort gearing (the tachometer reads 3000 rpm at 55 mph in top -- fifth -- gear, and the car maxes out at about 105 mph). At this pace, unfortunately, it doesn't take long for the practice stage's three miles to disappear behind us, but my heart is still racing when I unbuckle my five-point harness and climb out of the tight Recaro racing seat.
While I was crammed into Krolikowski's noisy, gutted race car, rally organizers and drivers were chuckling at the sight of our convertibles sitting on the side of a snow-covered road with their tops down. The threesome of topless foreign exotics attracts even more attention in "downtown" Lewiston, where the Parc Expose car show, which doubles as the opening ceremony of the Sno*Drift race, is held on the main drag. A steady stream of rally cars turns onto the street and parks in formation. Their drivers hop out and amicably chat with anyone who approaches. Formula 1 fans would be amazed by the level of accessibility to both the drivers and the cars. Top seed (and eventual winner) David Higgins signs autographs and facetiously flexes his muscles for our photographer, while other drivers and co-drivers let children sit in their cars for photos that'll be framed for a lifetime.
Some kids get even better souvenirs. Deon Rice, who hasn't missed a Sno*Drift since the inaugural event in 1973, is at Parc Expose with his four young sons and his dad, Jerry. They don't watch from designated spectator areas, instead setting up their own stations along the course. Rally America asks fans to view the event from six designated spectator areas -- five of which have no admission fee -- but with 132 miles of competition roads, it's impossible for rally marshals to stop devoted fans from finding their own spots. "We hide behind trees and stand four feet away from cars going 80 mph," Deon reveals. "While we wait for the cars to come by, we target-shoot BB guns and twenty-twos." He recounts their experience in 2008, when racing superstar Travis Pastrana drilled a deer with just eleven miles remaining in the race, abruptly halting his chance for certain victory:
"When Pastrana hit the deer, we were on the stage waiting for him. We knew something was going on because he hadn't come through. After the wrecker went by with his car, we walked down the stage, found the deer, dragged it back to our campfire. I had a pocketknife, so I processed it right there."
"So, you took the deer home?" I ask.
"No, we ate it right then and there," Deon responds, clearly annoyed to hear such an ignorant question from a downstater. "Cooked it over the fire and went back to shootin' guns and watchin' race cars."
The Rice family also found Pastrana's carbon-fiber light bar -- basically four stadium lights mounted to his Subaru's hood to supplement the headlamps. "Later, we saw Pastrana's team in town," Deon says. "They really wanted that light bar, but we wanted to keep it as a souvenir. I finally ended up trading it for the front bumper of the car. Took it back to Sno*Drift the next year and Travis signed it for my sons. It's hanging on our living-room wall."
Minutes before Higgins sets off for the first stage (the sixty-five rally cars are released in one-minute intervals based on their speed factor), we point our convertibles east of Lewiston. The afternoon is now more pleasant because the sun shines through fewer clouds before warming our backs. It's conceivable that an actual owner of a luxury convertible might even lower the top in such conditions. Maybe.
Sno*Drift PR guy Alex Berger, driving a new Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, leads our train to "The Ranch," an isolated section of Stage 2, deep in the thick Michigan forest, where we can park our stylish ragtops within sight of the race course, position ourselves safely behind trees, and watch the rally cars whiz by up close. Before long, Higgins's Subaru flies by, power-sliding through most of the U-shaped section that we can see. A few cars later, though, the ice has been chewed up and flung off the road, leaving the slower race cars to claw through the slushy mud as best they can.
We get our first taste of an official spectator area on Stage 9. Just before 9 p.m., cars begin blasting down a hill and into a tight left-hander, light bars blazing. Drinking and driving are a terrible combination, obviously. Drinking and watching racing, however, go together like thermal underwear and warm gloves, as proven for decades by fans at Le Mans, Talladega, Indianapolis, and everywhere in between. Add Montmorency County to that list.
Among the thousands of visiting spectators are ten of my best friends, first-time Sno*Drifters who traveled from as far away as San Diego and Omaha for an annual pilgrimage to drink beer in the snow; eat chili, Slim Jims, and bland goulash; and play euchre. By the time the racing started today at about 2:30 p.m., they were too soused to drive from their own rented party pad to any of the spectator points. Lucky for them, I'm sober and I'm a nice guy -- despite the fact that they've already polished off the chili they promised to share with the Automobile Magazine team -- so I "upgrade" from the Audi to the magazine's eight-passenger Four Seasons Honda Odyssey, which is on hand as a support vehicle, and chauffeur some of them to the racing action.
We can only hope that the group of boisterous Lithuanian rally fans (visiting from Chicago, no less) we meet at the dark spectator spot have a sober friend to drive them around. Between pulls from a bottle of Andre champagne, the biggest, drunkest one of the bunch randomly tries to pick a fight with road test editor Christopher Nelson. Then he requests that the magazine sponsor his own (alleged) rally car. Then he abruptly passes out while standing, toppling with the sound and force of a huge falling oak tree.
The rest of the crowd is more tame, although they cheer loudest for the half dozen or so cars that spin out right in front of us (all recover and continue down the road -- saplings and snow banks are very forgiving). On the way back to my buddies' lodge in the Odyssey, the five of us start laying plans to return for Sno*Drift 2013.
The next morning, a few inches of fresh snow covers the roads. While our newest rally heroes begin day two of Sno*Drift, we return to Winding Road to emulate them in our own turbocharged, all-wheel-drive cars. Even through winter gloves, layers of quilted Carhartt outerwear, and clunky boots, we can tell that the BMW is the quickest of our three cars on the slippery stuff. Its predictable power transfer, crisp steering, and superb balance make it easily driftable and lots of fun. The Bimmer accelerates with astounding thrust on the icy two-lane, with great assistance from its Dunlop SP Winter Sport 3D tires, a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8, and a quick eight-speed automatic transmission. "This car leaps forward with just as much bravado as the Bentley," notes Nelson. "There's remarkably little lag. Zero to 60 mph? Who cares? You'll see triple digits in the head-up display faster than you can say 'wind burn.' "
The $57,750 Audi A5 shares its eight-speed ZF automatic transmission with the BMW and its four-cylinder engine configuration with the majority of Sno*Drift participants. Its turbocharged 2.0-liter is a great engine, but 211 hp just can't compare with the BMW's 400 hp and the Bentley 6.0-liter twelve-cylinder's 567 stampeding ponies. Fortunately, only the lack of power holds back the Audi from being just as fun and capable as the 6-series on this road. The steering is firm and direct (although its wheel is the only one that's not heated), Quattro all-wheel drive loves sending power rearward to help the A5 rotate and maintain slides, and the transmission delights in keeping the four-banger boiling. And even though the engine is moving half a ton more car than when it's bolted to a Volkswagen GTI, the 4000-pound A5 still weighs 600 pounds less than the BMW, so it's very nimble. "Reduce weight, increase sportiness -- it never fails," said deputy editor Joe DeMatio. "The Audi handles like a Mazda Miata compared with the other two cars," Nelson agrees. The A5 isn't so anxious, however, to slow down on this skating rink of a road. Fortunately, we're able to stop in time to watch a herd of elk plod across the road.
The Bentley Continental GTC has brake rotors as big as dinner plates but is also reluctant to scrub off speed. Blame the Pirelli Winter Sottozero tires fitted to both it and the Audi; fortunately, poor braking grip is the only complaint we have about the Pirellis. The Bentley weighs almost 1500 pounds more than the Audi, so it's also the least playful car in these conditions, its nearly three-ton mass making it difficult to get sideways and its 516 lb-ft of torque making it tricky to maintain a drift without causing the stability control (set to dynamic mode) to step in. It is possible to dance with the GTC, but it would rather run, as I learned on our trip north when DeMatio sonorously blasted past the A5 at triple digits as we crossed the wide, high, and long Zilwaukee Bridge on I-75 near Saginaw.
"The power delivery from the twin-turbo W-12 is amazing in its effortlessness," DeMatio affirmed. "There's only a six-speed automatic, but I don't care. There's so much torque available, accessible at any speed, with a simple press of your right foot. On two-lane roads the Bentley can't hide its weight, yet it's pretty darn agile all the same. What it does best, of course, is go fast, look rich, and make both its occupants and onlookers feel good."
The Bentley's lofty $234,127 price may be similar to the value of a 2500-square-foot waterfront home with a three-car garage in Montmorency County, but the high tariff seems somewhat more acceptable when you consider how much prestige the GTC offers and how luscious it feels. It's a shame that we spend most of our time in the Conti with gloves on our hands, because the bare-fingered tactile sensations are what truly set it apart from just about every other automobile on the planet. The door panels, center stack, armrests, and even the tonneau cover are trimmed in fine leather. Beautiful tamo ash accents the cabin. In the parking lot of the Super Special -- where the race cars sprint through a makeshift 0.8-mile course at the bottom of a large gravel pit -- my buddies are most impressed with the Bentley's 1100-watt Naim stereo, which sounds amazingly crisp and clear, particularly when bumping old-school Dr. Dre.
The fact that the Audi gets quite a bit of attention when parked next to its six-figure rivals says a great deal. The A5 is arguably the most beautiful car of the trio even though it's the least expensive by far. It's also the most practical: It has the quickest-acting power top (lowering in just fifteen seconds), and it will work when the car is traveling at speeds of up to 31 mph -- versus 25 mph for the BMW and 20 mph for the Bentley. It can go much farther on a gallon of gas, and it's also the only car in which you can ask an adult friend to sit in the back without apologizing profusely for the cramped quarters.
Personally, though, I'm happy to drive off in the BMW. It's not the prettiest car here, but it's perfect for visiting Winding Road one final time at dusk to reexplore its surprisingly impressive rallying abilities. Plus, the 650i has a giant infotainment screen and optional swiveling LED headlamps that illuminate the road almost as well as a rally car's light bar.
Years ago, it was common for drivers of convertibles to freeze their buns off in the wintertime. And that was with the top up -- drafty side curtains and thin rag tops were almost useless for resisting the elements and heaters were weak, so drivers might as well have been sitting inside wire-wheeled refrigerators during colder months. Multilayer soft roofs keep today's convertibles comfortable and quiet at highway speeds with the top up. (Retractable steel roofs do, too, but the diminished luggage space, increased weight, and longer top-lowering times are undesirable compromises. Long live the rag top!)
There's absolutely nothing like driving a big-bucks convertible, top down, on a crisp morning while snowflakes flitter over the windshield and spiral onto the road behind you -- there's also nothing like fighting frostbite with a beer in your hand while a stickered-up econobox slides by so close that you can smell the racing fuel. Their creators probably engineered these three convertibles with the Cote d'Azur in mind, but there's nothing wrong with taking them north for the winter.