Learn to Drive On Ice — Arctic Circle Ice

April 24 (Bloomberg) — Getting a killer, no-haggle deal on a desirable car is wonderful. Snagging the deal, plus getting a chance to bash somebody else’s car into snow banks as you careen around frozen lakes in the Arctic Circle is wonderful raised to a whole new level.

Smart car buyers have long taken advantage of European delivery, a program offered by premier manufacturers including BMW, Mercedes and Volvo. Buy the car in the U.S. with a sizable chunk off the MSRP, take delivery in Europe, then drive it around on your vacation. Later it’ll be sent stateside by sea (most often included in the price).

Swedish carmaker Saab has added an adrenaline option: For a nominal extra fee, buyers can take part in the Saab Ice Experience. This entails flying 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) north of the Arctic Circle and spending three days adventuring around the frosty play land; the highlight is driving 9-3 SportCombis on a frozen lake. On this portion, buyers will be driving not their new cars but ones owned by Saab, which is a good thing, as, er, carnage often ensues.

So in late March I find myself near Kiruna, in Swedish Lapland, behind the wheel of a 9-3. A front loader tractor has carved a course through the heavy snow drifts on top of Lake Sautosjarvi. The circular track is maybe a mile and a half long, with sharp corners and one long straightaway. The snow banks on each side are about 4 feet high: Hit one at speed, and it won’t likely hurt you — yet isn’t exactly pillow-soft, either.

Don’t Try This at Home

Driving goes something like this: On the straightaway I get the car up to about 88 kph (55 mph); the course jogs hard right and I slam on the brakes early. Tires have almost no traction, and the back end kicks out, hurtling the car toward the bank of snow. Quick hands on the wheel — twist, twist — twist back! — tragedy avoided. That next corner looks ugly though. It’s mad, silly fun.

Overall the experience is a four-day program, with guests assembling overnight in Stockholm before flying to Kiruna. U.S. customers can sign up as an add-on to the European Delivery program — the cost per couple in 2007 was $3,500 and included food and lodging (the company says actual value is around $8,000).

The driving portion is a mere half-day; other activities include a dogsled ride, a snowmobile trip on the Torne River and a fantastic helicopter flight into the mountains. The first night up north is spent in the Icehotel, near the village of Jukkasjarvi. (Ice hotels sound like a great, romantic idea — and are best left as an idea; the reality is underwhelming. Not to mention cold.)

Then there’s the savings on cars: Saab offers one of the best deals, around 9 percent off MSRP. For example, on a 9-3 Aero convertible with an MSRP of $43,845, a buyer would see a savings of $4,625. Saab also gives buyers a $2,000 travel stipend.

Go With the Pros

Our group included four couples continuing on to pick up their new autos at Saab’s home base in Trollhattan. One pair was continuing on to England, another Norway and yet another around Sweden.

In 2007, three programs were available from February to March. Sign up early for 2008 (dates are announced in the fall), as they often fill up. The program is extremely well run: Food is tasty (and includes alcohol) and the Saab hosts are incredibly gracious. Even better, they include a famous Swedish rally driver, Per Eklund, and two drivers on Saab’s vaunted performance driving team.

On our first night we’re bused to the lake and given “hot laps.” There’s nothing like riding shotgun with a pro to make you think it’s easy.

Obstacle Avoidance

The next morning, though, we guests aren’t so sure. The sun is a dull orb in a heavy slate-gray sky, and the ice is so slick that it’s hard to walk on. We’re given 9-3 SportCombis, with either 210-hp 2.0-liter engines or 250-hp 2.6 liter V-6 Aero engines. Both perfect, as too much horsepower is not your friend on the ice: You have to learn to feather on the gas rather than stomp down, or lose all traction.

First we practice on an obstacle-avoidance course, then a slalom course, weaving between cones at speed. Soon drivers are sliding uncontrollably into snow banks. Every time a car goes off, the enormous front-loader pulls it out of the snow.

I have the advantage of being trained in rally-driving techniques — including the art of driving on slippery surfaces — so manage to avoid a visit from the tractor. However, when we’re unleashed upon the full track, scores of cars are soon mired in the snow banks, their red taillights winking through the white. Bits of plastic — is that a bumper? — litter the ground.

The half-day ends with a timed race. It’s a good-natured competition among the guests, yet at least one car pulls in bleeding anti-freeze and missing its front bumper. That night at the awards ceremony/dinner, the driver will be awarded the plastic bumper as a prize. In all, three cars were really banged up. The Saab folks, however, seem OK about it. Par, apparently, for the course. At least, for this course.

(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)