An hour out of Winnipeg is a town called Gimli, with a population of some 6,000 residents. Interestingly, happens to be the largest diaspora Icelandic population. In summers, it serves as a cottage getaway, accommodating about 20,000-plus visitors who enjoy the town’s charm, lake-side views and seasonal activities.
Gimli is also known for its Crown Royal production plant, and the Gimli Glider – where nearly forty years ago an Air Canada flight made an emergency landing after losing fuel and power.
But for three days in late January, Gimli became the high-powered adrenaline capital of Canada (or perhaps the world). It became home to a Mercedes-Benz event to make any dude giddy with envy.
The luxury car company carved out for itself a “club house” in the town – not only an ice garage built from 350 blocks of ice, but also hosting a fleet of some fifty new 2020 model Mercedes-Benz automobiles for test driving.
A team of professional driving instructors from AMG Driving Academy took a select group (including me) onto 8km of ice tracks on frozen Lake Winnipeg. This, we were told, is the largest, and most utilized ice-lake track for such a purpose, other than one in northern Sweden.
The ice on the lake was said to be 105cm thick – super safe enough to support a car, which only needs 15cm, and even safe enough to hold an airplane, that needs 70cm. (This piece of trivia, alone, makes anyone sound super cool at a party.)
But you cannot simply drive a car on an ice track with regular tires, no.
It requires specialized tire studs, or spikes, to grip the track, or the vehicle slides into oblivion. We were told that typical spikes were 2.2mm each, but custom ones were made a bit larger for this purpose (not street legal) at 2.8mm. Some four hundred of them were placed on each tire, which, funnily, were commissioned by a lovely couple in Sweden for this purpose. (The town of Gimli apparently granted special permission for Mercedes-Benz to fit their fleet with these for the occasion.)
I had the privilege of test driving ten different Mercedes-Benz 2020 models.
The ice track vehicle fleet – all 2020 models – included:
–>Mercedes-AMG C 63 S Sedan
503hp with a top speed of 290km
–> Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC+ Sedan
603hp with a top speed of 300km
–> Mercedes-AMG E 63 S 4MATIC+ Wagon
603hp and top speed of 290kmh
I’ve not ever felt this kind of heart-thumping in my life. Absolute comfort in those leather-clad seats. Superb handling, like I was hugging the road. It felt like that car chase scene in the James Bond film, Die Another Day, skidding across the ice at high speeds, spinning, screeching, revving, swerving. Just how fast? Well, let’s just say some of us managed to zip to 100km/h and test those reflexes. Amazingly, I still felt safe in a car that never felt like it let me down.
As for the machinery itself, all of the knobs and dials felt intuitive, as though they finely-tuned the ergonomic controls. I’ve always loved the holographic dashboard, where the speed is displayed on the windshield. It means less time for my eyes to drop down to check out the various readouts, and more time concentrating on what’s going on on the road. And so much more.
In addition to the ice track, we went off-roading as well, trying out models GLB, GLC, GLE, and GLS. This was an experience of taking to the roads of Gimli, seeing how the vehicle felt to navigate on roads that were wet, slippery, icy, snowy, and slushy. Suffice it to say, the handling was exceptional, on every road, at every turn. Our final destination was a course made up of small hills (moguls, in a sense), that were probably fifteen feet high and angled to make it a sharp climb. Again, Mercedes Benz demonstrated they were tough enough to take on the challenge. Even the little bumps – you could barely feel – the vehicles didn’t give that ‘jolt’ so often felt by regular cars with lesser suspension.
The Ice Garage
What do you get when you take 450 giant blocks of ice, each 350 pounds, and with Mercedes-Benz precision, place them together to make an ersatz three-wall garage? The Ice Garage, of course.
Cool factor: five men from Iceculture, with assists from two others from Fire & Ice in Saskatchewan, took a week to put together the 16.5 metre by 12 metre ice structure. It is expected to be a centrepiece of the town’s ice festival later in the season.
Situated on frozen Lake Winnipeg, this impressively-built garage held up beautifully in the freezing cold weather, but never did I once feel as though I was surrounded by ice. It was host to dozens of visitors (and seats for everyone), two cocktail bars, a car, and three jumbo screens where we learned about the Mercedes-Benz mission from President and CEO Brian Fulton, VP of Marketing Virginie Aubert and national product manager David Sherrard.
A spectacular evening of entertainment occurred in the Ice Garage. Outfitted with sound equipment, and later, an acoustic trapping roof, it was an atomic stage performance the likes of which I’ve never seen. This was the Mercedes Benz Garage Gigs concert, where Juno-award winner Vancouver band Said the Whale took the stage, as well as Hamilton-based quintet, Arkells. These two acts are ones-to-watch, that ought to be on anyone’s radar for their signature sounds, and breakthrough potential on the music scene.
It’s no surprise that their knowledge of building the perfect machine for the road, translates into a well-oiled understanding of branding, customers and future-forward service. It is a testament to Mercedes-Benz as a decades-long exemplary icon.
And as an aside: Yes, you too can sign on to a “test drive” – it’s available for public registration. But be prepared to pony up some nice hard cash for the experience (well worth it, if you ask me.)
In case you missed it, Mercedes-Benz is the number one luxury global brand for the fourth consecutive year. In 2019 they sold in Canada about 40,000 passenger cars and luxury light trucks, 8,000 AMG vehicles, nearly 24,000 SUVs, and more than 5,000 vans.