The best driving experiences from 6 luxury car brands
You don’t need to own a premium car to drive one. Michael Stahl takes a look at the car manufacturers offering enthusiasts a test drive on the tarmac and beyond.
Here’s a quick question about the car you drive: how many valves per cylinder does the engine have? If you answered “Who cares?” you might be onto something.
While car makers invest millions of dollars meeting technological, legislative and market demands, the fact is most customers care more about the badge on the bonnet than the engineering beneath it.
The clever car brands are tapping into this trend. They don’t just sell you a car; they follow through with a catalogue of on-brand experiences. This could include anything from testing your limits on a local motor racing circuit to cruising the Austrian Alps in a classic convertible or dining trackside at the Monaco Grand Prix.
In Australia, the ‘big three’ names in premium passenger cars – Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz – are among those well-versed in brand experiences.
Motor-racing and closed-road circuits such as Phillip Island and Sandown (Vic), Mount Cotton (Qld), The Bend (SA), Barbagallo Raceway (WA) and Sydney Motorsport Park (NSW) provide a safe and spacious environment for brands to showcase their products’ performance locally.
These experiences are designed for everyone from L-platers through to aspiring racing drivers, and the manufacturers provide the cars. So, let’s drive.
The big three
The Experience Mercedes-Benz portfolio opens with a course called ‘First Gear’, offered to drivers from ages 17 to 24. In the hands of the Mercedes-Benz AMG driver training team, young drivers are taught correct position, control techniques, roadcraft and emergency avoidance, with the goal of building confidence and defined driving skills. “First Gear [is] open to owners and non-owners alike, to experience our vehicles and technology,” says Mercedes-Benz Australia’s Jerry Stamoulis.
Beyond more advanced options in the Experience Mercedes-Benz catalogue, those seeking higher octane thrills can turn to the brand’s AMG Academy. Courses range from a half-day AMG Spirit test drive, right up to AMG Advanced-Training, which includes comprehensive race-driving instruction and data analysis at The Bend, a world-class racetrack near Adelaide.
“It’s not uncommon for some customers to go right up through the programs and end up ordering an AMG GT4 or GT3 race car,” says Stamoulis.
The Audi driving experience also offers an excellent range of trackfocused events for beginners through to potential racers, and includes a women-only program.
Audi’s highly qualified team of instructors collectively boasts more than 100 starts in the Bathurst 1000, but intimidation is the last thing you should feel.
“Our instructors are excellent teachers and communicators who understand that the previous experience of our guests varies greatly,” explains Audi Australia’s Shaun Cleary.
BMW was the first car manufacturer to introduce customer driving courses, in Germany in 1977. Today, its Australian courses start with a basic half-day BMW Compact Driving Experience, rising through two levels of advanced training.
“Participants walk away with an enhanced understanding of BMW engineering excellence, vehicle dynamics, driving skills, braking, cornering, correct seating position, vision and BMW’s dynamic technologies,” explains BMW Australia’s Tony Sesto.
Australia and beyond
Fancy pedalling a high-performance Porsche sports car? The basic Porsche Track Experience isn’t limited to Porsche owners; nor even the Porsche Ice Experience, conducted in Finland.
“The Porsche Track Experience starts with the Precision course, where you learn the basics of mastering the car,” says Porsche Cars Australia’s Toni Andreevski (who, unsurprisingly, races a Porsche himself). “Participants can then progress all the way to the GT3 Cup course, where they drive a genuine 911 GT3 Cup racing car.
“There are several drivers who have come up through the Porsche Track Experience levels … and are now racing in the Pro-Am Carrera Cup series.”
For a more mellow experience, Porsche Targa Tours follow the Targa championship road rally events through destinations like Tasmania and the Adelaide Hills.
Interstate not far enough for you? Car makers are quite happy to add automotive adventures to your next international holiday.
More than 100 Australians every year venture to a frozen lake in Levi, Finland for the Porsche Ice Experience; a similar number head to Arjeplog in northern Sweden for the Mercedes AMG Winter Sporting academy. For many, slipping sideways on frozen lakes is merely a prelude to factory and museum showings, or meeting up with fellow owners from around the 02 world for organised touring events.
British supercar maker Aston Martin, while no slouch in its motor racing activities, offers a calendar of James Bond-esque lifestyle events under the banner, Art of Living. While experiences include high-octane thrills such as a spin at the UK’s famous Millbrook Proving Ground with five-star accommodation on the ground, the calendar also includes a driving tour of Rome, with pasta-making classes and a private tour of Palazzo Colonna.
Leisurely in coming to the party, Rolls-Royce this year launched its Unparalleled Experiences, a catalogue that includes VIP attendance at the Goodwood Revival, and an exclusive ‘Dine on the Line’ evening set in the assembly hall of the manufacturing plant.
For Rolls-Royce owners, who can probably afford to dine in any restaurant in the world, this kind of money-can’t-buy experience is certainly food for thought.