Volkswagen sends us back to driving school
REMEMBER the day you got your driver's licence?
Ah, the joy, the freedom. Now I can finally show the world what a talent I am behind the wheel.
Remember now the first time you merged on to a highway after passing your test? Chances are it was the first time you ever did so, were petrified and probably a danger to yourself and other road users.
Steve Pizzati - of Australian Top Gear fame - says he is shocked by the poor standard of Australian driver testing compared to other developed countries, and is a firm advocate for a more comprehensive system of training before allowing us a coveted licence to drive.
Really, it's hard to argue with the likeable and talented wheel man. After all, none of us want to get injured or worse due to our own or other road users' inabilities or stupidity.
Never stop learning, that's Pizzati's key advice. In his role as leader of a gun team of driving instructors, Pizzati travels the world imparting his knowledge and experience to help make us better drivers, and ensure we have a lot of fun while doing so.
In Australia he leads the Volkswagen Driving Experience, aimed at "confident drivers wishing to improve their skills and learn more about advanced driving techniques".
There's also the chance to pilot VW's range of performance cars - the Polo GTI, Golf GTI, Scirocco R and Golf R - in a controlled environment. There's your dangling carrot, and if you can become a better and safer driver while sampling such machines it looks like a rather appealing day out.
It doesn't cost the earth either. At $300 for a four-hour session - plus your meals and refreshments thrown in, and a couple of USB videos of you driving - it certainly looks one of the better value driving experiences out there. Birthday or Christmas gift for a loved one? Even if it's just for yourself, it's cheaper (and more rewarding) than big Friday and Saturday nights out.
That 300 bucks is the charge wherever you are in Australia. Closest to me was Mt Cotton's Training Centre in Brisbane - arguably the most relevant facility according to Pizzati, if not sounding quite as good to your mates as doing it at Phillip Island or Eastern Creek.
I arrived for an 8am brekkie, quick sign-on where you show your driver's licence and then straight into a briefing.
Not a boring one, either. Pizzati is a rare mix of knowledge, authority and humour (hence why he was the most watchable Top Gear presenter), and if you doubted the high standard of this course, check out the line-up of instructors.
Not beardy old men with clipboards, but Bathurst racers. Lots of them. Steve Johnson for one has 20 Bathurst starts to his name and was on hand for expert instruction, while young gun Renee Gracie was one of many emerging stars imparting driving knowledge.
And for rally fans, having triple Australian Rally Champion and four-time Asia-Pacific Rally Champion Cody Croker in your corner is a rare privilege. Such drivers are worth listening to.
Pizzati and his team are realists, too. They know people paying for these drive experiences don't want to be bombarded with advice alone. They want to discover what these performance cars can do, what they feel like at speeds not permitted on the public road, and how we can control them if they start to do fun things, like slide in the wet.
An informal agreement is made between driver and instructors. Listen well, don't behave like an idiot and a bond of trust is formed where the student is allowed to push the cars further if it remains safe. A fair deal.
Ready for exercise
So what do you get to do? Split into groups of eight, you share a car with another participant and hit the exercises. First was in the VW Scirocco R on a wet skid pan where you can turn all driver aids off, make a sharp turn and experience understeer (where the car ploughs on despite you turning the wheel) and even oversteer (where the rear end steps out) if you really turn in hard. You then experience the same with traction control on to seen how cleverly these cars mop up slides.
A Polo GTI was used for high speed emergency stops (at 110kmh), a Golf GTI for great fun slaloming through the cones, and then the quite brilliant all-wheel-drive Golf R for a fast cornering exercise on the track.
Radios in the cars allow the instructors to communicate with you to offer you praise, recommendations or the occasional wrist slap if you squeak the tyres a bit much. It always feels very professional, safe and eye-opening when you experience these cars at limits not typically experienced on the road. Plus, there were plenty of grins all round.
Final exercise was taking what you've learned and doing a circuit loop in the Golf R and Scirocco R.
You play follow-my-leader with the driving instructor up ahead, he shows you the right lines, communicates through radio your braking points and gradually builds speed if you are clean and tidy on the course. A long straight means you can really open up these VWs (if you've behaved), and you enjoy impressive cornering speeds such are these cars' talents.
I am ever-impressed with Pizzati and his team, but what about those who rarely get to drive cars in such circumstances?
Andy Jordan from the Gold Coast, owner of a 2011 Golf GTI, said the $300 price was fair for the cars he drove, the organisation and catering.
"I was impressed with the amount of time spent in the cars; there was no sitting around," he said. "I was blown away with the people running it, they give it such credibility."
Therese Osborne from Brisbane picked up on the value of driver training here, and said she wanted her two teenage daughters to do the event next year to improve their driving skills.
"You're really pushing your limits, doing stuff in the car you'd normally never do. It was so much fun," she said.
Another participant said he enjoyed the day, but would have loved more laps and to push the cars a bit more, but accepted there's only so much you can do safely in half a day. Positively, he was left wanting more.
I certainly did too. Yes these days are great fun - who doesn't love maximising the talents of these cars? But the lessons learned also make us better, safer drivers. Always money well spent.
What? Volkswagen Driving Experience.
Details: High-level driver training in VW's range of performance cars.
Where? Across Australia at five venues: Mt Cotton (Brisbane), Sydney Motorsport Park, Phillip Island (Melbourne), Mallala Motorsport Park (Adelaide), Barbagallo Raceway (Perth).
Cars used: Polo GTI, Golf GTI, Scirocco R, Golf R.
Session length: Approx four hours.
How much? $300.
Requirements: Participants require a valid Australian driver's licence.
More info and bookings: volkswagendrivingexperience.com.au
VW Driving Experience key skills taught
Car control at greater speed (braking and steering).
Understanding the appropriate cornering technique.
Demonstrating and understanding performance capabilities of the cars.
Wet weather car control (safety features on and off).