You know that feeling when you’re going 45 mph, completely sideways, on a frozen lake in a $78,000, 5566-lb luxury crossover? Of course you don’t. No sane person would—but we do.
Cookies and pie plates
We went to Beaverton, Michigan to do ice runs with the Saginaw Valley region of the SCCA. We first heard about ice runs at a rallycross event this past summer. Ice runs are like sprawling autocross crosses on—you guessed it—ice. While we knew it would be very grassroots form of racing, like rallycross is, we had no idea it would be so grassroots that we got a freshly baked cookie at registration and were offered pie plates to write our class and car number on then tape to our car’s window (we opted for painter’s tape on the rear doors instead).
Out of its comfort zone
Of the any number of cars on the market we could’ve taken to our inaugural ice run event, why our 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL450? Because all sorts of vehicles show up to do ice runs. A Jeep Comanche, a Porsche Cayenne, a Mazda CX-9, a Toyota RAV4, and a Ford F-150 had all signed up for the event by the time we’d registered. Besides, our GL450 has lived a fairly boring life, hauling groceries from Costco and families on long-distance road trips. Our GL450 is intended to tow fun cars, not be a fun car. This seemed like the perfect event to give the GL a chance to be in the winner’s circle, not stare longingly from the parking lot.
A bit more bite
To give our Mercedes-Benz GL450 a real chance at victory, we called up Tire Rack and asked them to send us a set of studded winter tires. Tire Rack studs tires in-house. A tire stud is made up of two pieces: a tungsten carbide pin that contacts the driving surface and metal jacket, inserted into the tire tread, that holds the pin in place. Studs provide great ice traction because they actually chip into the driving surface. No studless tire can get as much traction on ice as a studded tire can.
A lot more size
We planned on using studded tires that would fit onto the GL450’s 18-inch aluminum wheels, but we ran into a problem—the Polar Vortex. Tire Rack sold almost all of its winter tire stock before we called, except for some tires in unusual sizes. The only rubber that could be studded and came in a size would possibly fit our GL450? A set of 21-inch Pirelli Winter Carving Edge tires. So we made another call, this time to Mercedes-Benz, and the automaker loaned us a set of four, 21-inch AMG aluminum wheels, which are optional on the GL550.
Land yacht on a lake
We drove in the studded class, which ran at the same time as the modified-all-wheel-drive class. We lined up behind a tuned Subaru WRX in the pits, disabled as many stability and traction control systems as we could, and waited to be called up to the starting line. When we were, we clicked the GL450’s downshift paddle on the steering wheel to put the transmission into manual mode and upshifted to fourth gear. We wanted the GL450 to shift as little as possible and gain as much momentum as possible after launch.
The GL450 had fantastic traction out of the starting box, thanks entirely to its studded Pirelli tires. The big Benz stayed in fourth gear as we sped up, which let its twin-turbo V-8 engine build power slowly and smoothly. The cars that ran before us had worn down the snow on the course, so we could easily distinguish between the glassy ice track and the snow berms on either side of it. The GL450 stayed controlled on the front straight, getting up to about 45 mph before coming the first set of turns. If we’d been on tarmac when we came to the quick left that led into a long, leaning right, we wouldn’t even think of lifting off of the accelerator. Not on ice.
Ice berm ahead!
We hit the brakes, immediately triggered ABS, and glided the GL450 through the left though with no drama. The right-hander, though, tripped us up. The studded tires did nothing when we went to transition between the turns, and the GL450, a giant mass of steel and aluminum, wouldn’t slow down. We straightened the steering wheel, buried the brake pedal to the floor, and waited until we had shaved enough speed to pitch the GL450 to the right. The Mercedes started to rotate, which we wanted, and continued to rotate, which we didn’t want. The crossover was about to slide into a parallel snow berm that looked to be about two feet high. We held the wheel tight, braced for impact, and thought, “Oh crap, what’s going to happen if we roll this $78,000 Mercedes?”
Worrying about nothing
And then—nothing. Since we’d never done ice runs before, we had no idea what going off course would be like. We had seen other cars get stuck in the heavy snow pack and worried what the GL450, what with its bouncy suspension and high center of gravity, would do if it hit a snow berm at a bad angle. Answer? Nothing. With its ground clearance and big, studded tires, the GL450 smashed through it and continued going sideways until we slid it back onto the course. After that incident, we never once worried about the GL450 getting stuck or tipping over. With that pushed from our mind, we focused entirely on getting the GL450 around the course as fast as possible.
Believe it or not, we took home the trophy for the studded class. The 5566-lb GL450 went around the two-mile course in two minutes and thirty-six seconds, faster than about three-quarters of its competitors. Of course, it helped that we drove the lone car in the studded class. Turns out most competitors just run snow tires on their cars. No matter. The GL450 had its time in the winner’s circle before returning to its life as a family-hauling, car-towing luxury crossover.
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