Ice driving in Austria: CAR's mini winter sports extravaganza

Published: 28 February 2018

► CAR goes ice driving in Austria
► With 
Seat‘s Leon Cupra 4Drive
► Snow tyres vs road tyres

We’re in Austria. In the midst of January, it’s -7C outside and the consumption of tea and coffee is at an all-time high in attempt to keep warm. Struggling to walk on the snow and ice, progress is slow, but the incentive to persist is quite a big one – a line of Seat Leon Cupra STs await, facing a circuit of cones.

Speed skating might be the closest we’ll get to in terms of mimicking a Winter Olympic-type event, and despite all the fantasising, it’s safe to say we won’t look as graceful as a figure skater out here on the ice. At the very least, I’m just glad we’re not using the Leon for Bobsleighing or the Luge…

The exact model we’re testing here is the Leon Cupra ST 300 4Drive. Other than colour, the only difference that separates these are their footwear: those in blue have been treated to studded tyres, while the others are kept on standard road rubber.

In attempt to escape the cold as quickly as possible, we make a cautious dash for the nearest one possible – a blue one with studded shoes.

Once climbing on board into any vehicle in this climate, the first button you’ll probably make a beeline for is the heated seat. Lighting up the chequered flag of the Cupra button – or even the ESC OFF one – is probably quite far down the priority list, but that’s what we’re doing here.

Seat Leon Cupra tyre studs

But first, a history lesson…

The first four-wheel drive Seat can be traced back to the Leon Cupra 4: a 201bhp hot hatch based on the first-generation Leon. After this brief cameo appearance, you had to wait until 2017 before finding a hot Leon again that powered all four wheels.

This 4Drive isn’t just a nostalgic blast from the past though, things have moved on now too. There’s now the quick-shifting DSG ‘box helping this Seat dip below the 5.0 second barrier on the 0-62mph run for the first time ever.

And we’re here, driving it on ice.

To be gentle… or not to be gentle?

Bring a 297bhp car onto a surface like this and you’d expect to break the tranquillity with a mountain of wheelspin, snow-filled rooster tails, shouty engine noise and little movement from the car itself.

Here, the Leon 4Drive is a bit more dignified. By sending power to the rear wheels when the front wheels struggle for traction, the Haldex 5 system directs up to 50% to the rear axle when it’s needed. Of all places to have an all-wheel drive system fitted, here’s a pretty good one.

Stamp on the gas pedal and the system diffuses the drama away from the nose of the car. There’s a hint of wheelspin but you shortly launch off on your way.

The initial sense of security with that fuss-free launch sees you being greeted with a dose of understeer, though, as you attempt to perform a left-hand weave between the first two cones.

Seat Leon Cupra ST rooster tail

The level of confidence you briefly built up dissipates as you wash wide from the marked cone you were aiming for. It rapidly dawns on me that the second cone probably won’t make it out alive today at this rate, being subjected to a life of Leon STs swiping them out by the driver’s side foglight.

Ease off the throttle a touch and you start to build a rhythm between the cones; allowing more time for the car’s delayed reaction to your inputs. Naturally, on a smooth, slippery surface like this there’s little sense of grip from the steering wheel as we continue our way through the first low-speed slalom.

Get to the last cone, pitch it around for the long sweeping hairpin bend and try prolong a drift for as long as possible, before incorporating the final high-speed slalom back to the start.

Can’t be too difficult can it?

Put on your dancing shoes

Halfway through the session and it’s time to switch cars – this time, a red Leon with standard road tyres.

It’s immediately all too apparent how the studded tyres prior to this made a world of difference in these conditions. Provided you weren’t aggressive with the steering, you generally went where you intended, with a sharp turn-in.

Now, you turn the wheel and you’re simply met with a shuddering groan from the tyres; you can apply as much lock as you want, but you’re simply heading straight on; we’ve now transformed from speed skating into something more representative of a hovercraft.

Seat Leon Cupra red rear cornerinh

With a dose more discipline though, you learn to ease off your steering inputs and give the Leon a tad more prior warning before it starts to work with you again. Despite the lack of studded shoes, the 4Drive system can effectively transfer weight between the front and rear axles to help the tyres dig in further for traction when needed.

We’ve already seen the Ford Focus RS and Mercedes-AMG A45 adopt this transmission for their flagship performance hatches – performance Audi A3’s have been using them for a long time – and while they seem a tad safe for our tarmacked roads, it’s reassuring that you can still use them far better when the weather turns for the worse.

Britain simply wouldn’t function with this level of snow and ice, so this isn’t your typical hot hatch test. But it does demonstrate how effective the all-wheel drive system can be – and even more so with the right kind of tyres fitted

Check out our Seat reviews here

By Lawrence Cheung

Bauer Automotive's former senior staff writer; hot hatch hoarder, road trip hunter