Since 1983 Audi has offered a driver education program known as the "Audi Driving Experience" in Germany and other European venues. For the first time ever Audi has brought the program to Canada as a limited, multi-city event. Over a six week period Audi will be running the Driving Experience at Exhibition Place in Toronto, Circuit ICAR in Montreal, and B.C. Driving Centre at Pitt Meadows Airport in Vancouver. The program is designed to introduce the fundamentals of driver safety, driving dynamics, and Audi technology through in-class and on-track curriculums. I attended the opening event in Toronto to see what we had been missing out on.
Passing under the Princes' Gate you are reminded of the motorsports heritage of Exhibition Place. The race track is made up of surrounding city streets so we won't be experiencing the cars on a closed circuit. The temporary Audi facility is set up facing the front straight, a perfect back drop for a driving event. Being a transient event in a parking lot I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was blown away by the facility that was constructed. A modern three-section glass facility was built to accommodate the staff, drivers, and demands of the day. Registration, meals, and a lounge area were hosted in the main building while the two side buildings were configured as classrooms.
Participants leisurely arrived and gathered around tables for breakfast. Award-winning chef and restaurateur, Jamie Kennedy, ran the gourmet catering on site. Breakfast delivered selections from bacon and eggs to yogurt and granola, ensuring the drivers were as fueled as the cars for the events that lay ahead. As plates emptied and a new appetite grew, the lead instructor for the day took the podium and welcomed us to the inaugural Audi Driving Experience in Canada
. He proceeded to introduce the event and its history in Europe, highlight the Audi brand and motorsports achievements, welcome the instructors for the event, and cover some basic driving fundamentals. Everyone was now geared up and ready to get into the curriculum. We split into two groups and headed off to the classrooms.
The first session I attended was with the 2012 A6 and focused on technology and safety. Although everyone in the classroom was a seasoned driver they started with the basics, discussing hand position on the wheel, seating and body position, and mirror setup. These basics are often neglected but can significantly impact the ability to respond in an emergency situation. The technology focus was related to safety with the introduction of adaptive cruise control, heads up display, and night vision. Unfortunately the latter wouldn't be tested given the gorgeous sunny day, but we were ready for the in-car experience.
Waiting for us outside were two lines of A6s. Once again we split the group, city road driving/adaptive cruise control and sprinted driving/slalom and emergency braking. We then paired up with another driver in each car and were set to go. Exiting the parking lot we lined up on the side of the road behind the instructor and set the adaptive cruise control. With a flick of the cruise control lever one by one the cars pulled away following the instructors pace. It was very unnerving having the car control everything except steering. I have to admit my foot was hovering over the brake pedal as we approached the first stop sign. With everyone's confidence growing we set off in a lap around the Indy circuit, which on a regular day includes a few traffic lights and stop signs. The system handled each obstacle with ease, only requiring the driver to steer and acknowledge when it is safe to proceed from a dead stop. In a short time we were all sold, no longer is cruise control only useful on a wide open highway.
Pulling back in to the driving facility it was time to get into the sprinted driving. Our starting point however was slow as we were put into a tight corridor slalom to focus on proper hand position and steering control. From there it was onto the high speed slalom and emergency braking courses, both designed to test the limits of the car and driver. Everyone was tossing the car through the slalom, many of us pushing beyond the limit of the set course and collecting a pylon or two. Pushing the limit was encouraged in these exercises, and the challenge in the emergency braking scenario was seeing how far you could take it. Charging towards the braking line there was a row of pylons out in front. The goal was to safely maneuver the car around the pylons and come to a complete stop in the shortest distance. Holding out to brake at the last second and standing on the brake pedal took an extra bit of nerve, but the car inspired confidence as it was extremely composed. One final emergency stop and it was time to return the A6. As my first time behind the wheel of an A6 I was incredibly impressed from both a technical and performance perspective.
After a short break it was back to the classroom for an in-depth look at driving fundamentals. The focus of the S4 classroom session and driving scenarios was cornering and steering controls, with discussions regarding both under- and over-steering. Everyone was eager to get back behind the wheel knowing we were about to get the cars sideways. Just outside our classroom door the 2012 S4s were lined up at the cornering exercise, ready to go. We started off with oversteer, using a low friction mat and water to break the rear end loose. It was a fine line between controlling the skid and having the car snap right around. The understeer course needed no external influence, just lots of speed and then a crank of the wheel. It was all about being confident, that by unwinding the wheel would result in the car gaining back turning control. Unfortunately, many orange cones suffered as drivers held on to the wheel at full lock.
Our last driving exercise of the day was a high speed emergency avoidance, a quick shift-over, then back to your original lane. Not only were we pushing the limits with respect to the approach speed, but there were also instructors set up at each side of the course to signal the direction to swerve. This last minute decision and reaction can have a dramatic impact on the result and ability to maintain control, as we witnessed with a cloud of smoke and a car spinning completely around for one driver. For many of us this was the most challenging exercise of the day as well as the most enjoyable. No one was ready to end the day but were easily persuaded by the lure of the R8.
The two R8s, a coupe and Spyder, sat lined up under the start banner. For the final event of the day we would be a passenger while our professional driving instructors took each participant out on a hot-lap around an autocross course. Designed with a back straight, quick chicane, and a slow speed tight corner, this course highlighted the performance and agility of the R8. It would have been a thrill to be behind the wheel but the experience was elevated by the skill of the instructor. As he brought the car back to a stop under the banner you knew the day was done, but it would be a while before the smile disappeared.
The event wrapped up with lunch back in the main building. All drivers left with a gift bag in hand containing a metal bottle, leather note pad, and pen - each with the Audi Driving Experience logo. It was a thoughtful and useful souvenir to remember a very successful event.
Before attending the session there was a lot of discussion amongst enthusiasts about how enjoyable and valuable this event would be. As long as you read the curriculum and understood that this was not a high performance race oriented event there is no reason that you wouldn't have been completely satisfied. For the everyday driver this is the type of event that lets you push the limits of high performance vehicles under typical scenarios in a controlled environment. Whether you are a new driver or a seasoned vet there is no doubt in my mind that you would gain valuable driving techniques and experiences.
We can only hope that this limited engagement wasn't the last time we will see such a driving event in Canada. With the demand and success of the events across the three locations it is time Canada joins the ranks and introduces a permanent location for Audi Experience events.