Hidden high on the Pisa Range between Queenstown and Wanaka lies the Snow Farm and Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds. A popular place for car manufacturers from across the world to test their vehicles in winter conditions during the Northern Hemisphere summer.
It’s also the location of the BMW Alpine xDrive. The experience gives participants the opportunity to learn snow and ice driving techniques, and put a range of vehicles from the X-series, including the X3, X4 and X5 to the test. The day finishes with a hot lap in the M3, and I couldn’t wait!
CarAdvice cameraman Mitchell Oke and I were due to meet in Queenstown the day before our adventure. After a mid-flight satellite navigation failure and a diversion to Christchurch, I finally arrived at Queenstown airport a few hours behind schedule.
We made our way to the gorgeous Millbrook Resort, set against the backdrop of the spectacular Remarkables mountain range, for a quick freshen up ahead of the welcome function and briefing. Having never put tyre to snow before, after getting a taste of what the following day had in store I wasn’t expecting to get much sleep.
Rising to greet the dark, chilly morning, the weather forecast was looking menacing. With temperatures capable of dropping well into the minuses, I dressed up like the Michelin man complete with grippy, warm, flexible snow walking boots. The shoes are important because you need to be able to feel the pedals and have control over the amount of pressure applied.
We were due to be picked up by a helicopter and taken on a scenic tour over the ranges to the grounds. However blizzard-like conditions early in the morning had reduced visibility and snow was still falling. Our excited group was happy to pile into a bus and slowly make our way up the mountain.
At the facility we were ushered into a training room along with a group of about 16 people for a safety briefing and explanation of the technology that would be highlighted in the cars, namely BMW’s four-wheel drive xDrive system.
Before we hit the snow, I asked Mike Eady, chief driving trainer for BMW New Zealand, what was the aim of BMW Alpine xDrive.
“The aim is to experience BMW’s intelligent four-wheel-drive system in a unique and safe environment and learn how the technology works. You get to experience understeer and oversteer, and sliding a car on snow and ice to get a feel for what it’s like,” he said. “So on the open road if it does happen you know how to react, what to do and what not to do, that’s the learning side of things. On the flip side, it’s a lot of fun. It’s nice to entertain guests in a spectacular environment and really just give them a BMW experience to remember.
“We like to have a bit of fun, and I’m all about driving being an emotion. You should be enjoying it and feeling the car. For BMW it’s not going from A to B, it’s a journey – you should enjoy your driving.”
Despite the weather doing its best to throw a spanner in the works, BMW remained determined to give us the best experience possible. After rigorous safety checks, snow ploughing and forecast confirmations, we were off – crawling our way cautiously to the first course. The potential for driver error in the conditions was a very real concern, and I really have to commend the trainers for the way they handled such a large group of punters in the difficult conditions. A couple of vehicles managed to slip off the track, but were quickly towed out.
The first part of the drive program was learning how to drift (something I’ve never done on snow). Communicating via radio with an instructor, I hit the throttle and started driving around the circle of cones.
Instinctually I wanted to steer in the opposite direction than I should to keep the slide going. Instructor Eady was yelling down the radio: “throttle, throttle, gas, gas, opposite lock, counter steer”. It took a few turns around the merry-go-round before I started finding my rhythm. With snow spraying out behind the X4, I was doing it! But it is difficult to keep the car sliding around in a circle, as soon as you lose that coordination, it’s time to start from the top.
As Eady explained, there is an art to drifting.
“A lot of people do the same thing you did. What they tend to think is that if the car starts sliding around a corner, to get control you’ve got to turn sharper. But you’ve got to feel the car, if the back is sliding out that’s oversteer, and you need to counter steer or opposite lock,” he said.
“Our cars have different settings for stability control and traction control and in the real world you’d never turn those off. Going around in circles with full stability and traction control it’s very hard to slide, you will just drive in circles because the car does all the work. So when we turn those off, you’ll find the cars are drivable but it takes an enormous amount of skill.
“We’re probably not as good as we think we are when it comes to driving, the technology is working behind the scenes all the time to look after us. If something did happen in the real world and the car starts sliding it’s good to be able to recognise that feeling, know what’s happening and be able to react really quickly. To drift, it involves counter steering into the slide, applying a little bit of brake or even throttle depending on the slide. Here it’s all about experiencing it in a really safe environment.”
As I found out, slalom on snow has very little in common with slalom on tarmac or bitumen. With the white stuff starting to get heavier, we lined up ready to run the gauntlet.
The traffic cone massacre was well and truly underway before it was my turn, and with snow obscuring my view I managed to miss a few gates. On my second slalom run though, it became obvious the technique was different to drifting.
The key to keeping the car under control? Less is more. Small steering movements and short bursts of light pressure on the brakes and throttle.
A few other tips were shared by our expert driving trainer.
“Look down the slalom and look a cone ahead. The key is looking where you’re going, not where you’re at which is a trick for driving anytime on the road too. Keep your eyes up and prepare early, you lightly brake into the slalom to put a bit of weight on the front wheels, just a little light brake then accelerate out of the turn.
“If you get the first one wrong, the second one is hard and you wipe out on the third, kind of like waterskiing – it accentuates. Don’t jump on and off the throttle, keep it very smooth and constant, tiny adjustments in steering and throttle. The fastest way is keeping the car straight, sliding looks flashy but it’s actually quite slow – and risky,” Eady said.
Driving on ice is a whole new ball game. If you’ve ever attempted ice skating, you’ll understand why.
Even something as seemingly simple as braking is a challenge. Any change in direction or momentum starts a slippery slide and all you can do is wait for the tyres to find something to grip, or wait till the car comes to a stop. BMW’s doing pirouettes on ice – a beautiful sight.
So just how slow should you drive on ice? Barely moving according to our expert.
“This exercise is really just to show you how slippery ice can be, and how you need to quickly adapt to the conditions and the importance of driving to the conditions,” Eady said. “On ice you can really only travel 2-3km/hr there’s no way you can go faster. No matter what you do you really are out of control. Occasionally we get black ice on the road, there’s usually a warning … but people take no notice and slide off the road and say ‘I don’t know what happened’. You need to slow right down and recognise ice on the road is dangerous.”
Our educational experience included a detailed overview of xDrive, and it’s capabilities certainly proved impressive.
When asked what he loves most about it and what makes it different to other 4WD systems, Eady said the manner in which the xDrive system operates is what helps make it work so effectively.
“It’s an intelligent four-wheel-drive system so it can put power on any individual wheel at one time. That’s really useful if you get stuck in ice, snow, mud or gravel, as long as there’s grip in one corner of the car it’ll pull away,” he said.
“A lot of conventional four-wheel-drive systems only work on the front or rear axle. If the side of the car is sliding and you have grip on the right hand side but not the left, you’re stuck. But on our cars it’ll work and it’ll also work on the open road going through corners. If the car starts sliding, as long as you have grip somewhere, xDrive can help pull you back into shape. It’s a very, very clever system. In my opinion people don’t really give BMW enough credit for it, they think they’re very nice cars but I think they don’t realise how much technology is in that xDrive system, it’s very unique.”
Frozen toes, fingers and noses barely registered throughout the day, and as we were wrapping up the skies began to clear.
Too late though for us to cram the hot-lap experience into the day and though that was disappointing, it’s another reason to return next year.
Eady was sympathetic that the hot-lap had eluded me.
“We like to have a bit of fun, and I’m all about driving being an emotion,” he said. “You didn’t get the drive in the M3, which is really quite exciting. I get to drive and people have been loving the experience. It shows how our cars handle in the snow being rear-wheel drive, how agile and how balanced they are.”
Yeah, that makes me feel better (not).
But the icing on the cake was a spectacular helicopter ride back to Millbrook Resort, dipping close to the mountain tops and diving down through snow covered valleys. A beautiful end to an adrenaline-charged day.