Seat’s tech­nol­ogy sur­vives ev­ery chal­lenge it en­coun­ters

Ever won­dered how a fam­ily hatch­back would fare on ice? Re­becca Chap­lin tests out the lat­est Seat 4x4 tech­nol­ogy on Fin­land’s most deadly ice track

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - USED CARS -

“It’s all about look­ing at where you need to go next and steer­ing be­fore you reach that point,” ex­plained Aleksi Halen as we skid­ded across the ice.

“Keep your move­ments smooth and coun­ter­act where the car is turn­ing to keep it go­ing in the di­rec­tion you need.”

Halen is a racer in the Leg­ends se­ries, but to­day he’s show­ing me how to ma­noeu­vre round a track etched into a frozen lake in north­ern Fin­land. He’s got the nat­u­ral mix of calm­ness and con­fi­dence you’d ex­pect of a Fin­nish rac­ing driver who’s been travers­ing tracks such as this since the age of six.

“If we stop rac­ing, then we stop go­ing where we need to go,” he said as the back end of the car I’m steer­ing over­takes the rear and he forces the steer­ing wheel in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to re­align us on the track.

Driv­ing on ice is some­thing you’d ex­pect to be un­nerv­ing, but in our Seat Leon Cupra with full trac­tion con­trol on, you’d barely no­tice the dif­fer­ence. As long as you’re driv­ing care­fully, that is.

Push the car a lit­tle too far and, even equipped with snow tyres, you’ll find your­self slid­ing, un­til the elec­tronic sta­bil­ity con­trol kicks in and nar­rowly saves you crash­ing into a snow drift.

Turn that off, as we did, and it’s a very dif­fer­ent story. The car ef­fec­tively be­comes a gi­ant ice skate, with trac­tion in a straight line, but lit­tle grip as soon as you at­tempt to turn.

That’s ex­actly what we would be learn­ing about over the next few days; how ex­actly do you pro­pel your­self on such in­hos­pitable ter­rains?

Seat has brought us to north­ern Fin­land where the snow is thick and the tem­per­a­ture is be­low zero to demon­strate what its 4Drive four-wheel-drive sys­tem can do in ex­treme weather — with the aim that it’ll show us how this clever tech can ben­e­fit driv­ers in the far less ex­treme Ire­land.

We’d try what are more con­ven­tional meth­ods in th­ese parts, from huskies to snow­mo­biles, which have been care­fully honed to work in th­ese con­di­tions. How­ever, Seat’s SUVs and sporty hatch­backs are not what you would usu­ally as­so­ciate with snow, let alone ice.

Our day started in a far more civilised man­ner, test­ing out the car maker’s lat­est ad­di­tion to its range, the Ateca SUV, across the snowy roads of Ku­usamo. It had taken three hours in the air with an overnight stay in Helsinki to get us to this lo­ca­tion in the north of Fin­land, but the crisp white snow and bright sun­light made it a wor­thy lo­ca­tion to try out the Span­ish car­maker’s 4Drive tech­nol­ogy.

Th­ese fam­ily- sized cars, with the an­gu­lar styling recog­nis­able to mod­ern Seats, trans­ported us to our ice lake ad­ven­ture with poise and grace.

Halen sat in the back of the Ateca, di­rect­ing me to the Juha Kankkunen Driv­ing Academy where he works. We trav­elled up steep in­clines through forests and bounded across the snow with sur­pris­ing ease as we took in the bleak, but beau­ti­ful snowy vis­tas.

Kankkunen will be a name you’ll recog­nise if you fol­low ral­ly­ing. This Fly­ing Finn, for those not in the know, has won the World Rally Cham­pi­onship four times be­tween 1986 and 1993, with Peu­geot, Lan­cia twice, and Toy­ota.

So, what else would you do as one of the most fa­mous ral­ly­ing driv­ers in the world, but buy a frozen lake in your home coun­try to turn into your ideal race track? And what could pos­si­bly make a bet­ter lo­ca­tion for learn­ing how to tackle th­ese con­di­tions?

Halen takes me for one lap, which seems only suitable for trained rac­ing driv­ers, be­fore pulling over and telling me to get in the driv­ing seat. With one foot slid­ing un­der­neath me as I step out of the car, the idea that I’ll be driv­ing on this seems daunt­ing, i f not phys­i­cally pos­si­ble.

We try first with all of the elec­tronic el­e­ments of the car al­lowed to do what they want and keep me out of the snow. He’s con­fi­dent that I can cope, or at least that there’s enough snow to cush­ion me and the Leon from any mis­takes, and turns off the ESP.

It’s un­nat­u­ral at first to counter-steer away from the way you want to go, but once you get into a rhythm, it be­gins to make sense. It also helps that Halen is shout­ing at me to turn, brake, and ac­cel­er­ate, which I fol­low dili­gently.

To my sur­prise, Halen sounds vaguely im­pressed with what I’m do­ing as I turn the car into the cor­ner on the ap­proach be­fore straight­en­ing it as we hit the apex to slide through the re­main­der and power to the next turn.

“Power on to move the car to the in­side and lift off to keep to the in­side,” is his next piece of ad­vice as we slide around a hair­pin bend. Sure enough, by adding some power, the car car­ries on side­ways, and as I ease off, we slow to keep tight to the apex. I soon learnt what can hap­pen if you don’t fol­low in­struc­tions care­fully, as one false move placed me nose- first in the snow. We weren’t out of the rally though, Halen told me, as we forced snow out from un­der the front wheels and re­versed off the drift.

Maybe he was be­ing kind, as I’d men­tioned early on that , at the age of 12, I wanted to pur­sue a ca­reer as a rally driver which soon turned into re­port­ing on the sub­ject in­stead, but the cheers from my in­struc­tor en­cour­aged me that I hadn’t com­pletely em­bar­rassed my­self. And I only beached the car in the bar­rier three times.

To show me how i t is re­ally done, I get a trip round the cir­cuit with World Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship driver Jordi Gene and, the man him­self, Juha Kankkunen. Mod­est Gene takes me round first, ex­plain­ing that he’ll be nowhere near as smooth as the Finn.

Fear­lessly, he speeds around the track, ex­plain­ing that he’s go­ing for fun skids rather than the fastest time — but he could have fooled me.

Next, I get a chance to meet Kankkunen, the calmest man I’ve ever en­coun­tered. He acts as if he is cruis­ing around the track, with the small­est in­puts made to the steer­ing wheel, but at­tacks the cor­ners with speed. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the few laps I get with him are over ex­tremely quickly.

I left the car feel­ing that I needed to move to Fin­land and rekin­dle my dream of a ca­reer as a rac­ing driver. Al­though my time on the snow was short , i t cer­tainly showed me what a chal­lenge ice driv­ing is and gave me some in­sight into how to han­dle a car should Ir­ish roads turn arc­tic.

Driv­ing on ice can be un­nerv­ing, but in this Seat test drive, with full trac­tion con­trol on, our re­porter says you’d barely feel the dif­fer­ence.

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