The back end of our rear-wheel drive Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG has stepped out. Wide. I try to counter by winding the steering wheel in the same direction as where the rear of the car is heading, but it’s too late. The Mercedes spins 180 degrees and I’m heading for the snow bank.
It could all sound very dramatic, and even life-threatening… If we weren’t travelling at just 10km/h and the bank of snow was just a few centimetres tall, lying on the fringes of a purpose-built ice strip.
CarAdvice is in the alpine region of New Zealand’s south island for a Mercedes-Benz driving experience like no other.
As skiers and boarders arc down the slopes in the background, we’re here to carve up the white stuff in the flagship model of the German brand’s C-Class.
The setting is Snow Farm, an appropriate name for a place where snow is made plentifully – both naturally and otherwise (with snow guns).
It’s based near Wanaka, a twisting, winding one-hour drive out of Queenstown, opposite the alpine range that hosts the Cardrona ski resort and itself home to the Snow Park ski area.
Snow Farm, as the Southern Hemisphere’s sole winter proving ground, is a place where car manufacturers can chase the sub-zero temperatures for cold-weather testing, honing the likes of climate control and stability control systems.
The latter electronic safety net that’s designed to help prevent a skid is most definitely not part of Mercedes-Benz AMG’s driving academy that this year, for the first time, has extended its program from the likes of wind-whipped Phillip Island and Grand Prix-gripped Albert Park to the chilly climes of New Zealand’s south island.
The Mercedes-Benz AMG Snow Challenge becomes the fifth annual event open to those customers who have purchased one of the company’s high-performance models and in turn received a complementary three-year membership to the AMG club.
CarAdvice has been invited along to sample the experience.
A customary driver briefing gets events underway, of course, though here there’s a refreshing lack of stern safety warnings that can all too often border on patronisation.
In fact, lead event instructor Peter Hackett, known to motorsport followers as the pilot of a chromed Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 production car racer, says all the instructors have been given their own instructions to let drivers lose control.
“It’s so you learn your mistakes,” says Hackett. “The hardest challenge here is knowing when you’ve lost control.”
There’s a semi-maniacal grin as he says this, leaving the ‘classroom’ a little uneasy as it heads out to be transported to the first of seven disciplines.
Our first is a regular slalom involving a straight line of cones.
As with all exercises, the stability control is switched completely off, and the automatic transmission is switched into Sport Plus mode – for sharper throttle response.
There’s some important help, however, in the form of the items that form the closest relationship between vehicle and surface. The C63’s regular rubber has been swapped for winter tyres that are constructed from a special, softer compound featuring equally special tread pattern called siping that is designed to actually collect snow and help improve traction.
With a Performance Pack-boosted 6.2-litre V8 under the bonnet channelling 356kW (rather than the normal 336kW) to the rear wheels, getting the C63’s tail out is anything but difficult.
Our first run through is tidy, respectably sideways and entertaining but my instructor isn’t impressed.
“Come on, let’s really get that tail out. I want you right on the [steering rack’s] lock stops.”
It’s clear we won’t be impressing anyone today, and there’s little point really when all instructors are experienced racers in various forms of motorsport, including Formula Ford and V8 Supercars.
The next run proves you can still understeer in a powerful rear-drive car on ‘snice’ – our term for the surface that was a mixture of traction-less ice and grippier snow that made judgement trickier.
The C63’s rear end is hanging right out but I’m not aggressive enough on the throttle as the front wheels regain bite and the car straightens too much and ploughs on for a few metres.
We don’t spin but crucial momentum is lost.
The next run is much better as we get braver with throttle use, learning how to use it to create the pendulum effect and using the steering wheel simply as the device to hold the desired angle.
“It’s all about keeping the wheels constantly spinning,” says instructor Steve White. “You want to keep the wheel speed up to keep the momentum.”
Part two of this discipline takes us onto the proving ground’s slipperiest section – the aforementioned ice strip that looks more suited to figure skating practice.
My instructor challenges me to drive across in a straight line.
It sounds easy, yet even with barely a touch of the accelerator pedal, the car’s rear end instantly starts to hit an angle of about 35 degrees. I counter with the steering and find a position on the throttle that somehow manages to get the car travelling towards the other side without any further change to the position of the steering wheel or accelerator.
Nothing like a bit of beginner’s luck. “Nice,” says my instructor. Or at least that’s what my ego thought he’d said, but turns out the ‘N’ was silent as I mishear his warning and nearly spin the car as I run over an unexpected ice patch on the snow track that takes us back around to the slalom.
We return to the ice strip on our next tour around, though, but this time it’s a slalom.
The C63s ahead of us are working their way around the cones gingerly, yet even at snail’s pace they’re soon, one after the other, facing the opposite direction. It’s quite comical to watch. Who said the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?
Just a centimetre of movement of the steering wheel or a millimetre press of the gas pedal is all it takes to get the C63 sliding, and it seems an eternity before the car is in a position to round the first cone and head for the second.
From inside and outside it looks like you’re watching a slow-motion replay – yet if you’re reactions aren’t quick enough you will be quick to slide out of control.
The next series of exercises allow for increased levels of speed – and ask for heightened levels of courage.
Our group is transported between all the ‘stages’ placed in different areas of Snow Farm by shuttles so the pristine white snow isn’t tainted by dirty slush from the connection roads.
There’s a figure of eight test that challenges us to perfect the transition from lock to lock, a large, offset slalom that encourages us to take wider arcs on full lock, and a cloverleaf exercise that demands precision in a tighter confine.
In each the key remains to steer by throttle not steering wheel, and in each it’s an opportunity to savour the throaty growl from AMG’s 6.2-litre V8 as you provoke it with each stab of the throttle.
The C63’s steering fortunately makes an equally useful tool for the day, providing a good blend of weighting and response.
Throttle response, even in the most aggressive setting of Sport +, could be more progressive, though, making it challenging at times to get exactly the right dosage of power.
We’ve kept it in auto at the instructors’ requests – they’re looking to avoid customers worrying about changing gears so they can just focus on steering and accelerating – though we later learn from Hackett that his choice is manual and third gear, keeping the V8 in its most responsive zone.
And before we head to the last discipline, there’s an opportunity to go for a ride with Peter on a narrow snow track that’s better suited to the biathlon and cross country athletes who make the trek across the globe to Snow Farm during the northern hemisphere’s summer to stay in form and fitness.
His exemplary car control, as the C63 slides from apex to apex around the twisting is not unexpected but it’s no less entertaining or impressive.
It’s our turn to entertain ourselves, though, as we head for the last – and best – of the day’s stages: a so-called Khana-cross.
It involves going sideways through two sets of coned gates, negotiating a wide, offset slalom, and then finishing with a full drift around a fenced-off back section before returning to the start (where it was impossible to resist spinning the car 180 degrees to prepare for another run). And another.
You can’t do this at Mount Hotham or Thredbo. More’s the pity.
This feature first appeared (see below) in the CarAdvice iPad magazine app. Head to the iTunes Store to download your latest issue.