Fun served cold: Ice track driving with Volvo

Extreme cold is not a feeling that hits home until you experience it in all its naked brutality.

One place that delivers it in spades is Kiruna. It’s a small Swedish town with less than 25,000 inhabitants.

The place — famous for having the world’s largest underground iron ore mine and a vantage point to see the Northern Lights — lies in the Arctic Circle and winter in February can drop average daily temperatures to as low as -16 degree Celsius at night.

It’s a totally alien environment for Malaysians used to the muggy climes of home.

We arrived there two weeks ago on a chartered flight from Gothenburg.

The mission? To get a few hours of drive time on ice — courtesy of Volvo Cars.

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The Swedish carmaker had laid out a fleet of nine fully electric XC40 and C40 for us and a media group from India to sample. Both models are already on sale in Malaysia by the way.

Togged up in thick winter clothing, the bunch of us were directed to drive the compact SUVs around a slalom course on a track carved out of Sautusjarvi, a vast inland lake that freezes up in winter.

The track marked out a path where the ice was thick enough to support the weight of vehicles, and we were instructed not to stray from the beaten path lest we hit thin ice — and trouble.

Both the XC40 and C40 were Recharge Twin models, with an electric motor at each end for an AWD configuration. Coupled with studded winter tyres, it made for vehicles with better traction on snow and ice-covered roads.

A 78kWh lithium-ion battery on the floor powers up the motors that provide a combined 408hp and 660Nm of torque. Power is equally split between the front and rear axles.

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For all intents and purposes, the C40 and XC40 are the same vehicle below the beltline, being based on the same platform and powertrain.

While the XC40 has a more upright stance, the C40 has a lower coupe roofline that looks sleek but unfortunately limits rearward vision.

Plus the C40 has less boot space and its panoramic sunroof doesn’t have a sliding cover to keep the sun out. Both models use premium materials in the cabin and the C40 stands out for being the first leather-free Volvo.

The SUVs available to the press were the ones before Volvo announced in January it had upgraded the electric motors and battery for better efficiency and more range.

The C40 marks the company’s next chapter in its electrification journey and comes after the all-electric XC40 that was introduced earlier. Volvo aims to sell only pure electric cars by 2030.

Unlike many vehicles, the XC40 and C40’s Electronic Stability Control (ESC) cannot be turned off — part of Volvo’s safety mantra. It can only be switched to ESC Sport mode.

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In this mode, intervention from the system is held back and the car is allowed to skid more and greater control than normal is transferred to the driver.

ESC Sport mode also provides more traction even if the car has become bogged down or is driving on a loose surface, such as in deep snow or sand.

Ice driving is all about car control and recovering (quickly) from the twin challenges of understeer and oversteer.

And in the Volvo ice experience, we got re-acquainted with the concept, which also served as a crash course for those grappling with a sliding car for the first time.

Understeer is a situation when the car loses traction at the front end. To recover, the driver needs to transfer weight to the front tyres to help them turn. This is achieved by lifting off the accelerator or braking to transfer weight to help the wheels turn in the right direction.

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Oversteer is when the car loses traction at the rear end and could even be desirable such as in a drift or power slide.

To stop it, the driver needs to look far ahead at where he wants the rotating car to go and the hands will follow automatically. At the same time, he also needs to turn the steering wheel so the wheels are pointing where he wants to go.

Easing up on the throttle and brakes and a rapid yet precise steering of the wheel would catch the skid and neutralise it.

As our group comprised drivers with widely differing driving skills, Volvo played it safe by putting on two levels of a slalom course — one with a tighter turn and the other, wider. So no rally flicks or high-speed driving on the slippery surface.

The interesting bit about a slalom is it calls upon a driver to master the pendulum turn in order to weave in and out without hitting the poles.

It’s an acquired skill that comes in useful in going fast around tight turns as well.

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The process begins as the driver lifts off the power and turns into the corner, tapping on the brake to transfer weight to the front.

When the rear loses traction, inducing a pendulum effect, he steps on the power and repeats the process in the next corner.

If done right — with dogged practice — it’s all good fun and makes for better driving skills.

It was certainly entertaining as we weaved around the poles at speeds below 50kph, churning up a cloud of snow and ice.

The front safety belts in both Volvos tightened almost painfully against the body when they sensed excessive sideway motion and eased up on the pre-tensioning when the danger was over.

The C40 and XC40’s active safety system, comprising an array of radars, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors, work in tandem with driver input to keep the playing field safe.

At the start of the ice track drive, Volvo reminded everyone that a slippery road required a longer braking distance, underscoring it with a C40 going at 50kph taking 50m to come to a stop.

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Three days earlier, the Gothenburg leg saw an idyllic convoy drive in the dual motor C40 through a mix of highways and byways with a stopover for fika (coffee break), a Swedish national pastime.

With a 450km range and a drive averaging 80kph, there was never any doubt we would ever run out of juice in the suburban run from the Volvo base and back.

With elevated seats that were spacious and comfortable, the C40 afforded a firm ride and confident handling. Acceleration was brisk when catching up with the lead car.

Noise from the studded winter tyres was audible at low speed but faded away on picking up pace.

All in all, the Swedish experience was memorable for the chance to try out Volvo’s all-electric cars in its icy backyard, and gained some perspective from its top executives.

The latter part, as they say, will be a story for another day.

READ MORE: Volvo EX90 takes safety to next level

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Autos Volvo