Beemer bags a snow job
I have lost count of the number of snow/ice driving events I have participated in over the past decade.
I should be quite good at them because, regardless of manufacturer or location, these programmes are all quite similar.
They begin with some rudimentary instruction on how to sit properly, how to steer and why the company hosting you has a much better four-wheel drive system than other companies who also sell four-wheel drive vehicles and host snow/ice driving events.
There’s not usually all that much talking because you’ve travelled a long way to an exotic place to drive a car in extreme conditions.
So, early in the day you go out and slide around through coned-off courses on zero-traction surfaces, theoretically learning expert car control and starting to understand just how slowly you need to go in the worst winter conditions to stay on the road. If there is a road.
The exercises are designed to instruct and entertain in equal measure. There is often a competitive element: perhaps a drag-race on ice or a timed slalom on snow. Everybody tries really hard and pretends not to.
The whole affair is metaphorically and visually spectacular. So, usually, is lunch, because these events are primarily designed for paying customers rather than freeloading motoring media.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many attendees, who can hardly contain their excitement. Understandable.
These people also sometimes look to us (the old hands) for guidance on the finer points of snow driving. Also understandable.
Last week I participated in the BMW Alpine xDrive Experience, at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground (also known as the Snow Farm) atop the Pisa Range, close to Queenstown and Wanaka.
All the cool companies are doing it: Audi and Mercedes-Benz have both been at the Snow Farm this month with similar events.
There’s room for everybody. It’s a counter-seasonal winter testing facility used by 35 of the world’s biggest car and automotive supply companies from June-August, during the northern hemisphere summer.
There are 12 completely separate test facilities at the Snow Farm and over 30km of track.
Ours was the last Alpine xDrive day for the year; Audi was also doing its final Ice Experience event up the hill. Yet we didn’t see a single non BMW-affiliated car or person all day. If only life could always be like that.
These have become annual events for some carmakers, with the unusual timing and exotic location drawing customers from all over the world.
Credit where credit is due: Audi got here first in 2009, by picking up the factory’s northern hemisphere training template and bringing it south.
BMW did the same in 2010. This year was the first for the Mercedes-Benz Snow Performance programme.
The Mercedes event has a point of difference because it uses high-powered rear-drive AMG vehicles, which is refreshing as it’s not even trying to look sensible.
What price snow prowess? BMW asks $1990, which covers two nights at the Millbrook resort near Arrowtown, transfers to and from the Snow Farm and dinner on the final night.
You have to make your own way to Queenstown but still: $1990 is roughly what it costs to add four-zone climate control to an X5. That’s good value (the snow driving, not the air con).
On a good day – which it was – the view is amazing from the Proving Ground, straight across the valley to the Cardrona skifield.
With that, a full range of prestige four-wheel drive vehicles on offer and the fact that you’re at a test facility that can reasonably be billed as “top secret” and there are a lot of boxes to tick in your brag book.
The Facebook server experiences southern hemisphere slowdowns every time there’s a customer event at the Snow Farm.
Snow driving events: I should be quite good at them. I am not. Despite adopting a knowing, casual air on the BMW event, I tried my hardest and looked pathetic. It was partly because I cannot resist behaving badly on snow and ice. But only partly.
There is slightly less shame in the knowledge that I was soundly trounced in the timed slalom by other members of the media. Not motoring media, though.
One was a man from a marketing magazine who clearly knew nothing about cars or driving because he declared the X1 his favourite BMW xDrive model.
Another was a woman from a lifestyle publication who was clearly terrified at the concept of abusing somebody else’s expensive car and tackled the course in an X5 at walking speed.
Which is, of course, a much quicker way around than steering through the side windows.
You get the point, even if you can’t exercise control.
These courses are ostensibly about driver education but, really, they’re about giving you the tools to be irresponsible in a safe environment and be impressed by the abilities of the car in question while you’re doing it.
It’s clever marketing and, if it occasionally costs you a complete set of side panels for an X3, so be it. It wasn’t me, by the way.
My professional excuse for attending another snow-drive day was the chance to drive the new X5 M50d, which was launched at the Alpine Experience.
This car is a creation of BMW’s new M Performance division. The M Performance name makes it more specialised than a regular X5 but less frenetic than a genuine M-car.
It’s no mere dress-up. Because it’s a diesel with masses of torque, it’s probably better than a genuine M-crossover, actually.
Probably. Unfortunately, this part of the exercise was a dismal failure because a triple-turbocharged vehicle with 740Nm of torque is practically useless on snow and ice, regardless of how many wheels are driven.
It was slower than an X1 off the mark and its size and weight meant it could not be drifted in the manner required by a man of my experience and abilities (sic).
Judgment on the very interesting X5 M50d will have to wait, then.
But I can thoroughly recommend the Alpine xDrive Experience, at least as much as I can recommend similar events by other companies that may or may not have four-wheel drive systems that are superior or inferior to BMW’s.
In the thick of it, the technical details really don’t matter. It’s a great experience and a fantastic way to find out you are nowhere near as skilled as you think you are. Lunch was great as well.