Tim O’Neil appears to be either out of control or simply insane.
He’s sliding a 2010 Mitsubishi Evolution sedan sideways down an ice-slicked woodland road. Turning the wheel, he flies the $44,000 car off a snowy crest and lands downhill, about 16 inches from a massive tree.
I’m in the passenger seat.
A flick of the wheel and a stab on the gas and we slide the other way, averting disaster. I knew what I was getting myself into. Even so, my adrenaline is pulsing.
O’Neil, 50, is a five-time champion American rally driver and the owner of Team O’Neil Rally School & Car Control Center. His facility is 600 acres of closed dirt roads in the deep woods of northern New Hampshire.
This must be providence. I’ve been trying to get back to O’Neil’s school since completing a multiday rally course five years ago. I already had a snowshoeing trip planned in the White Mountains when Mitsubishi called with an offer to test its all-wheel-drive cars in extreme conditions: O’Neil’s.
Mitsubishi’s goal was to show that its AWD technology is as sharp as better-known competitors like Audi and Subaru. They were willing to sacrifice three off-the-lot vehicles to the automotive press on the world’s slickest roads. (If they’re not slick enough, O’Neil’s folks will wet ‘em down.)
Rally racing is a popular motorsport worldwide that’s set on real roads with scant traction like gravel, ice or dirt. Practitioners are the equivalent of Cirque du Soleil acrobats, able to exert superior control under maximum stress.
This year’s brutal winter in much of the U.S. and Europe shows we could all use snow-surviving, slip-sliding skills.
One of Mitsubishi’s testers is a Lancer Evolution MR, a turbo-engine sedan, known for speed and toughness. We also try out the AWD, $30,000 Outlander GT SUV and the $28,000 Lancer Sportback Ralliart hatchback.
By transferring torque among slipping wheels to achieve maximum traction, AWDs are uniquely suited to wet and icy roads.
The Evo boasts a system grandiosely named “Super All-Wheel Control,” an intricate web of center and rear differentials, hydraulic clutches, yaw sensors and other techie stuff.
Its genius is evident while bounding through an icy slalom course. In normal mode, the Evo works hard to keep all four wheels from slipping. But on its most aggressive control setting, the Evo encourages controlled four-wheel drifts. It knows when to lend power to the rear wheels in the straightaways and extra traction to inner wheels when turning.
Using rally techniques, I coax it into smart slides around obstacles, and carve down steep mountain roads. Open spaces are ideal for snow-spewing power slides and handbrake turns.
Over two days I only lose control once, sliding nose first into a snow bank. No damage done.
“The Evo’s systems are almost too good,” said O’Neil at my side. “An average driver feels like an expert.” Under a wise pilot’s hand, Mitsubishi’s AWD is in many ways more adaptive and exploitable than, say, Audi’s.
The Sportback’s and Outlander’s AWD systems are less aggressive if no less effective. The Outlander ably manages slick asphalt and snowy roads, while the Sportback is a tuned-down version of the Evo; plenty of fun, but much more sane.
With record snow falls in places like Washington D.C., I’m reminded that training exercises are far from pointless.
“I’m trying to save the world through driver education,” said O’Neil. “Drivers get in situations and they don’t know how to react. We try to teach you what to do in that moment when you need it most.”
O’Neil’s school offers three type of courses, from a basic one-day $395 winter safety school ideal for all ages and drivers, to rally courses taken by current racing champs like Travis Pastrana, to security courses attended by Navy Seals.
“Contact, contact, contact!”
O’Neil is shouting in my ear from the passenger seat, pointing out the imaginary bad guys who have just cut us off.
I ram the Evo into reverse, stomp on the gas and spin the wheel hard. The Mitsubishi skids around 180 degrees. Dropping it back into gear, I speed away. “That’s a J turn,” O’Neil says happily.
It’s one escape technique taught at the security school, to which both corporations and government agencies send personnel. Students learn evasive driving, on-and-off road maneuvers, how to recognize ambushes, and even get shot at using dummy munitions.
“There is an ever-increasing need for corporations to utilize techniques we normally teach to the military,” O’Neil said. “We get security personnel who drive CEOs, to oilfield engineers who’ve got to navigate miles of dirt roads in dangerous areas.”
For the rest of us, learning to counteract a skid is more than enough.
“Moms and their teens who attend our winter safety school are horrified at the thought of skidding out of control on purpose,” O’Neil said. “At the end of the day, they swing back onto the road feeling empowered.”
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)