A wintry road trip in the Subaru BRZ
Lapland might not be the most obvious choice for a road trip, but it offers a different driving challenge, as we discover in the Subaru BRZ
If you’re the organised type you’ve probably already planned your summer driving trip. Let me guess: Channel Tunnel, Route Napoléon via the old pits at Reims, into the Alps for a pass or two, up to Stuttgart for the Porsche and Mercedes museums, then a high-speed run to the Nürburgring for a handful of tourist laps. Wine, pizza, beer, steak on a stone. Sounds brilliant. Sign me up.
But in reality, those winding mountain passes will be clogged with cyclists, and a day at the Ring will entail far more queuing than actual circuit activity. So how about swapping the Cup 2s for winter tyres and heading to the frozen north after the clocks go back next autumn?
For us Brits, snow is rarely conducive to enjoyable driving, especially if you value your car. With minimal traction, cars can turn into wayward missiles homing in on the nearest solid object. Even a gentle sideways shuffle into a kerb can prove expensive. And neither is it a picture-postcard scene for long – a snow-covered England is a novelty for about a day, before the grit turns everything grey and slushy.
Northern Europe promises a different atmosphere, one of idyllic landscapes and measured, proficient driving. And frighteningly low temperatures. Heeding the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes, is critical. As well as your usual coat, hat, scarf and gloves, you’ll need some thermals, snow or ski trousers and a pair of suitable boots. As soon as we exit Rovaniemi airport in northern Finland, we’re in what even those with a real aversion to clichés would describe as a Winter Wonderland. We are, after all, in Lapland. The scenery is startling, even if all I can see is sky, trees and snow. The sun is muted, barely reaching above the towering conifers, but as everything is covered in pure, reflective snow, it’s far from gloomy.
A perfectly blue sky casts a cool hue over everything at ground level, but there’s a band of golden light that runs like a halo along the horizon, adding some warmth to the -20deg C temperature. It’s so peaceful that I could imagine spending hours just staring into the silent forest. I’m not going to, though, as there’s a fully fuelled Subaru BRZ waiting for some fun… If you believe what you read online you’ll think that front-engined, rear-wheel-drive cars such as BMWs and the BRZ simply don’t work on snow; Rally Sweden wins for Escort RS1800s have mostly been forgotten by keyboard warriors. However, the BRZ we’re driving today is equipped with something special. It isn’t the LED front and rear lights, wider front bumper, taller rear wing or smaller steering wheel of this recently updated version that’s going to make the difference, but a set of studded tyres. The standard Torsen limited-slip differential will be useful, too.
After photographer Aston Parrott has loaded up the boot with his kit, we set off to find a snowy, rally-stage-like forest road. But first we’re on cleared tarmac main routes and the tyres roar as soon as our speed hits 15mph. Even worse, the car shimmies from side to side as if it’s floating millimetres above the road, which technically it almost is. If I thought the BRZ’s standard eco tyres made it feel indistinct, I clearly didn’t know how bad it could get. Time to find some white stuff to drive on, and quickly.
At the first roundabout we aim for a ridge we spotted from the main road. Initially our surroundings are rather suburban, and we peer down side streets hoping to see a tree-lined stretch of snow-covered road. As we start to climb, the junctions become less frequent until they stop altogether, and soon we’re on the crest we’ve been searching for. The road is wide, with few corners, but blissfully it’s covered in snow.
First, a little exploratory acceleration and braking to see how effective these studs are with some snow to dig into. There’s lots of wheelspin with aggressive use of the throttle, but then, astonishingly, the car stops like it’s on dry tarmac as soon as I touch the middle pedal. Knowing I’m not going to toboggan down a hill and into a tree, that I can stop so well, fills me with confidence.
Still the Subaru wants to rotate: a small tweak of the steering and it immediately begins to slide. There’s no point fighting it – the BRZ feels comfortable adopting a little bit of angle and, with my understanding of how well it can brake, I am more than happy to let it. Even on these shallow corners it’s not hard to set the car up early for the turn, kicking the rear out slightly with a dab of the brakes, then balancing the small slide until we’re aiming up the next straight and winding off the lock.
The road’s quieter now, with not another soul in sight. Virgin snow gives everything a welcoming softness, like it’s a freshly made bed with plump pillows and new white sheets. It looks comfortable because it is, mostly. The powdery white banks that line the road allow you to sink into them if you try to stand on them. They’ll also absorb a car if necessary. With no one else around, and with cushioning snow banks either side, our speed and the angles the BRZ adopts increase. The jeopardy might be low, but that doesn’t stop it being unbelievably entertaining, the Subaru dancing up the hill, swaying this way and that, snow roosters shooting up behind it.
And then the road ends, a gate blocking our path. We get out to take in the view, as the already low sun has really started to set now. The temperature is -23deg C, and yes, it’s cold, but with very little wind and layers of fleece, down and thermal cotton fabric covering us, we find we can stay out, braving the elements for far longer than we expect. Even so, we don’t spend too long outside because we’ve got the return journey to make, albeit a short one.
By the time we’re back near civilisation, the sun has almost set completely and the traffic is more intense. The locals are unfazed by the conditions and drive around at speeds that, to us tourists, seem far too fast. There’s none of the tentative snow driving we’re used to back home – everyone just behaves normally, which here means keeping your distance from other cars and giving way to others rather than making them stop.
After a dinner of reindeer and blueberry juice (delicious, and even more delicious) we head out to make the most of the long night. There’s as little as four hours’ light per day here in winter, so if you limit yourself to just daytime driving you won’t have long to play. The temperature has dropped by another few degrees and in the open areas closest to main roads and in the suburbs the wind is more prominent, adding to the chill factor. Time to find some more forest roads…
Minutes outside the town, along the main road, we turn left at a gap in the trees. Unlike the first snowy road we found, the corners here come thick and fast. They’re tighter and close together, and the road climbs more steeply, too. The BRZ feels totally at ease slithering its way up the hill, and with no visible headlights other than the Subaru’s new LEDs, I know there’s clear road ahead.
Aston is eager to capture the moment on camera, as the sky is clear and the moon is glowing red. He sets up some flashes to illuminate the Subaru on its way up the snowy path between the trees, and after testing they work, we’re good to go. Except we’re not: the control unit for the flashes has shut down because its battery is so cold. We have another battery, but that will also only give us one shot. One attempt. Sliding the BRZ hasn’t been an issue yet – it’s as playful and as controllable as you could wish for – but knowing we’ve only got one chance to get the shot adds pressure on both of us.
Instead, we bundle all the batteries into the cabin. I sit on the big flash ones, squeezing them between me and the oven-hot heated seats like a bird incubating its unhatched eggs. The smaller batteries for the camera are held near the heater outlets. This bumps the power reserves up by at least 50 per cent, but to try to get the flash to fire more than once, we put the control unit into its foam-lined carry case and wedge it on the side of the road. Who knows how long this might extend the battery’s life? We might even get two runs. That’s enough to calm me, until Aston says: ‘Maybe we can get a rear shot, too?’
In the end, the batteries last for as long as we need them to, and after capturing all the shots we need, I’m set free onto the road, unconstrained by the need to get any more photos. One corner followed by another allows you to hold on to the first slide so you can link its finish with the entry to the next turn. This is what the BRZ was made for. The car behaves completely intuitively on the snow, bowing to your every request. Brake bias, steering speed, throttle response, the way the diff locks – it’s all so perfectly judged. Yes, the interior couldn’t even persuade a long-forgotten MDF-loving Changing Rooms designer that it’s high quality, and the engine note of the 197bhp flat-four is rumbly in an unsophisticated way. But when you have some tyres you can trust, as you can these studs, it’s just the most delightful companion. Sorry, Aston.
Finland isn’t just around the corner from the UK, I know that. It isn’t even, really, a two-day drive away. Sorting appropriate tyres is a faff, too. You can buy studs in the UK, but I wouldn’t recommend you use them back home, so you’d need the space to carry a second set of wheels with you, switching over when conditions dictate. Or you could try to find a set of temporary wheels and studded tyres when you arrive. Starting your journey on ordinary winters and using them throughout would be easiest, but they wouldn’t have the same bit on snow as studs.
So is it worth driving all this way, and all the effort? For the opportunity to drive on quiet, snow-covered roads, just about. If that’s all you want to do, though, there are plenty of driving schools based on frozen lakes that you can simply fly to and then enjoy in a provided car. The choice is vast and varied, too. For example, Tuthill’s Below Zero Ice Driving based in Åre, Sweden, uses rally-prepped air-cooled 911s; Lapland Ice Driving has a broad selection of cars, from Subaru WRX STIs to Porsche 911 GT3s, and a range of recognisable racetracks from around the world cut into the snow; and there are also more affordable options where you drive older BMWs, Mercedes and Escorts, such as Dagali Opplevelser’s driving events in Norway.
You’ll get many of the same thrills at ice driving experience, it’ll be far easier to organise, it’ll take you a fraction of the time and you won’t have to worry about tyres, but you’ll sacrifice a lot of the adventure. Like when you head to France, Germany and Italy, there’s more than just the driving to appreciate in northern Europe. You can swap your Nordschleife laps for sessions on an ice lake, swap car museums for a go on snowmobiles, and the mountain scenery for bright white forests. You might even want to swap the beer and wine for the blueberry juice, too.