Ice and snow bombards the side of the car, orange road cones fly across my view, and the scene changes from white to green and back to white again as I spin wildly out of control.
Luckily, only my pride is damaged - not the car. I am in the middle of a frozen lake in Norway, taking winter driving lessons from Audi Norway. As the scattered road cones demonstrated, I had not mastered the skill of avoiding an obstacle while braking.
Audi is just one of a growing number of manufacturers offering driver training as part of its marketing strategy. Nearly all of the luxury marques offer such courses to paying customers. Specialty marques such as Land Rover and Jeep do likewise for their off-road products. This kind of direct marketing helps upscale marques to form a strong emotional bond with the customer. For most manufacturers, the goal is not to make drivers change brands but to reinforce the brand message to existing customers.
Driver training is one of many tools used by automakers to reach customers. Some sponsor golf tournaments, tennis matches or cultural events, while others participate in motorsports and classic car meetings. Of all these initiatives, driver training is the most hands-on activity.
Audi Norway runs training courses for VIPs for two weeks a year near the Winter Olympics resort in Lillehammer. Chief trainer Jerry Ahlin, a former rally driver, spends his winters in Finland running Audi's main driver training course. He then moves back to Germany for the summer version. 'Seventy percent of the participants on our courses are already Audi drivers,' he says. And the rest? 'We have quite a lot of BMW drivers, too. I guess they want to make a product comparison.'
After testing my mettle on the ice in Norway, I enrolled in Mercedes-Benz's driving course on a former airstrip near the company's Sindelfingen plant in Germany. While the Audi course offered a degree of informality, the Mercedes course was tightly organized, with a heavy focus on safety.
'Our driver training was first devised in the early '70s following the terrorist bombing of the Munich Olympic Games,' explains the program's director, Edgar Welzel.
Germany's border protection force asked Mercedes to train their soldiers on special driving techniques. In the late 1980s, the company realized it could use the program for marketing.
Mecedes-Benz runs several courses. Prices range from $105 for a half-day course on braking techniques to $3,500 for a weeklong off-road adventure in Canada. A total of 180 courses per year are offered to 25,000 participants. Mercedes estimates that 30 percent of the participants own rival brands, and a further 30 percent are repeaters.
My course is for VIPs only. It is augmented by a tour of the company's massive Sindelfingen assembly plant and a visit to the Mercedes museum the day after. My group included Bill Contzen, CEO of Deutsche Bank in Luxembourg. Other participants came from Italy, Spain, Russia, Hungary and Guadaloupe.
During the training course, each driver wears a heart monitor that is continuously checked by an on-site doctor. Maneuvers such as obstacle avoidance, skid control and emergency braking are timed, and factors such as braking force and reaction time are measured.
And what did the participants think of it? Contzen, a Mercedes-Benz fan since childhood, was euphoric. 'I have learned more here in one day than I have in a lifetime of driving,' he said over dinner.
Customers such as Contzen are important to Stuttgart. In the banking industry, Mercedes is a traditional favorite for drivers of company cars. Of 80 company vehicles at Deutsche Bank Luxembourg, about 60 bear the three-pointed star.
Most manufacturers view this sort of direct marketing as an important complement to television and print advertising. A few niche players such as Saab give it priority over traditional mass marketing.
Direct marketing can take a variety of forms. Audi sponsors classical music festivals every year in Salzburg. The company also sponsors the Alpine Ski World Cup, golf tournaments and sailing regattas. And Audi provides limousine services to international political summits, a tangible way of reaching an influential group.
One thing that differentiates driver training from these direct marketing activities is that it's not just about corporate hospitality. Most participants are paying customers - a good indication of their interest and commitment. But the automakers do not view driver training as a money-making venture.
Mercedes' Welzel refuses to discuss budgets, acknowledging only that it is a marketing cost. With a team of 55 instructors and a fleet of 150 vehicles, this is not surprising. 'The fees cover only a small proportion of the necessary investment,' he says. 'But compared with the (budget) for advertising and promotion, it is a tiny amount.'
At BMW, driver training is a key technique for maintaining contact with customers. Says spokesman Jochen Muller, 'We recognize we have a responsibility to offer customers access to specialist training on how to drive vehicles safely.' But not all of BMW's driver training programs are about safety. Its lifestyle courses are directed at the company motto Freude am fahren, which means 'driving enjoyment.'
For $3,700, participants can drive an X5 sport-utility in the sweltering heat of the Moroccan desert. Those who prefer more luxurious adventures can pay $3,100 to drive Z3 sport cars through Tuscany. Or you can test your racing credentials on one of several race track courses. At the other end of the scale, BMW offers low-priced safe-driving courses for drivers under the age of 25. These half-day courses cost $67.
The BMW driver training program is run by M GmbH, the company's performance subsidiary. Like Mercedes' course, it is not profitable. Although BMW insists that social responsibility is at the core of its driver training, this activity also promotes the brand.
Each manufacturer takes the opportunity to showcase safety technology. Yaw control and antilock brakes are particular favorites because it is easy to have participants try the various maneuvers without these tools. 'Most people rarely have the opportunity to make a back-to-back comparison of these systems,' says Welzel.
During my training course, it is clear there is no substitute for hands-on experience. I see Contzen plow straight into an obstacle after locking up the brakes. Moments later, I make the same mistake. Once again, I find myself watching helplessly as little orange road cones scatter far and wide.
E-mail writer Elaine Catton at [email protected]