What if I told you Mercedes-Benz is paying, for you, to go learn how to drive and drift on snow? You’d immediately rush to sign up, right? Thought so.
Well, alright, the brand isn’t exactly picking up the bill, but the Mercedes-AMG snow experience – held in Queenstown, New Zealand, arguably the most beautiful location on Earth – is at least heavily subsidised.
Here, the German car company loses money on every single ticket into the event. The idea, though, is that the experience will turn participants into brand ambassadors and loyalists, singing the praises of AMG to anybody willing to have them around.
The beauty of it? The event itself is unbelievably good. But let’s start at the beginning…
If you’ve lived in Australia all your driving life, chances are you’ve probably never driven on snow. And, even if you have, it’s unlikely to have been in any capacity other than to get to a ski resort in a four-wheel-drive.
For many, ice and snow driving is a bit of a chore, the type of thing you do when the circumstances dictate that one must get from here to there, and the only way through is to begrudgingly traverse over snow-covered roads.
The AMG snow experience will change that perception. It’s about understanding and learning how snow driving works, but also having a hell of a lot of fun in the process – in someone else’s car.
So, as mentioned: it’s not free. The asking price for the AMG snow experience is $4500, and that includes everything but flights. The event takes place in one jam-packed day, but your time in Queenstown is two nights and three days with the event day in the middle.
The Snow Farm, as it is now known, is the largest vehicle-testing facility of its kind in the world. Many years ago, the facility’s owners decided running a ski field wasn’t all that profitable and further realised car companies need to test their new and upcoming models in cold climate conditions all year round. When summer comes around in Europe and North America, manufacturers flock to the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds.
And here, Mercedes-Benz Australia hires the facility at an extraordinary cost so its most loyal and enthusiastic customers can come and enjoy its cars in the types of conditions they are unlikely to ever experience in Australia.
You may think an ‘AMG’ snow experience would be limited to the brand’s cheapest performance cars, namely the A45 and CLA45, but you would be wrong. There are, in fact, 29 AMG vehicles here and they represent around $4.5 million in value for the brand. They are in showroom specification, too – other than winter tyres, but more on that soon.
The vehicles range from A45s to the supercar that is the Mercedes-AMG GT S, as well as popular models like the C63 sedan and coupe, and the G63 wagon – a timeless favourite of dictators around the world. The only cars missing are the larger S-Class AMG variants and the GL range of SUVs, but as you’ll find out, the lighter and nimbler the car, the more fun you’ll have.
The day starts early and the drive up to the snow farm is roughly an hour, and a bit, from Queenstown. The action starts pretty quickly, but the initial sight of 29 AMG vehicles lined up in the snow is… breathtaking.
Cars and attendees are divided into groups and the first exercise is to understand just how grip works on the snow. Rightly so. The tyres used for the AMG snow experience are Continental ContiWinterContacts and, if you’ve never used a winter tyre before, it’s a totally different concept to normal tyres.
The rubber is significantly softer, which means they wear out a lot quicker if driven on normal roads or above seven-degree temperatures, but they are also designed to get the snow to stick to them. That might seem counterintuitive, to design tyres that attract snow rather than disperse it, as normal tyres do with water or off-road tyres with mud.
The thing is, snowflakes like each other, a lot. When one snowflake finds another, it interlocks. So tyre companies have developed slits in their tyres that work to compound snow inside them. When this compounded snow in the tyre touches snow on the road, it creates grip.
The winter tyre’s tread blocks also deform or squirm and this deformation creates a sharp edge and a larger surface area, which means more grip and a bigger bite into the snow with each rotation. But, let us put aside tyre physics for a moment, because, well, that’s really not why you come here.
We start our activity in the AMG GT S, the meanest looking car here and by far the most exhilarating to drive.
With the now shared 4.0-litre twin turbo V8 powering all AMG 63 models bar the G63, you might expect the same aural experience regardless of model. But, the first thing you’ll notice is that the GT S still has its own unique engine and exhaust note, with the turbos whistling and the crackles putting a smile on the face of any car enthusiast with a pulse.
The second thing you’ll notice, while lost in the wonders of V8 exhaust notes, is that you’re going sideways while trying to go straight. The simple task of ‘accelerate as fast as you can until the marker, then brake as hard as you can’ is about as simple as an instruction can be. However, getting a car as torquey as a GT S to move on snow is rather entertaining.
In fact, you know what… take everything I said about winter tyres and cuddly snowflakes, and forget it, because grip is an earned luxury here, not a right.
All cars at the AMG driving experience have electronic stability control completely switched off. Not in sport mode, not in sports +, just off.
That means the car will slide and spin and pretty much do all the things you pray it will never do on the road. The only time I turned it back on is when I got stuck in the snow in my GT S and started to slowly dig my way to the centre of the Earth with that monstrous 700Nm of torque.
The reason the ESC is off is because the only thing you can hurt here is the snow (and your ego, which, after you trip on the ice for the fifth time, will be a lot softer than you imagined). Some in the past have managed to cock it up so badly they’ve pushed the AMGs past the barriers and over it. Try not to be one of them.
It doesn’t matter how many track events you’ve done and how good a driver you may think you are, if you come here expecting to be Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate at the Australian Grand Prix, you will be disappointed in yourself, for being so utterly and hopelessly terrible at driving on snow and ice.
Once you learn how little grip you have and how little you know about driving on this changing surface, you are ready to begin the day. The best approach is to come with an open mind, knowing only that you know nothing. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Which brings me to here, about an hour into the day, with the rear wheels of my SLC43 spinning at what must be the equivalent of 150km/h and the AMG sounding like it is barrelling down the main straight at Phillip Island with rapid-fire gearshifts, one after the other. And yet, I am moving at about the legal speed of the drive-through lane at McDonalds.
This is not the point of the slalom exercise in the convertible AMG (yes, with the roof off – convertibles in the snow are hugely entertaining) and my instructor (who joked about being able to walk faster) has a look of amusement on his face. And a hint of sadness.
Amused because he is wondering at what point I will give up the accelerator pedal and… you know, try modulation or basically anything else bar laughing like a maniac and continuing to accelerate. And sad, because it’s not the first time I have done the same thing.
As those who do this course will quickly learn, the difference between driving on snow and ice is like trying to pick up a cat or an octopus. One goes soft and might bite you if you’re not patient, the other will simply fall out of your hands and strangle you on the way down.
The Snow Farm layout features a mixture of both snow and ice courses, but the snow courses will feature ice sections and they are there primarily to make you realise just how little control you have. Over and over again, the little ice patch will make you spin uncontrollably, until you finally give the ice the respect it needs and approach it with the type of caution President Trump’s latest Whitehouse spokesperson will need.
Driving a G63 on ice is probably the most entertaining exercise of the day, because if you can stop yourself laughing while doing it, you’re doing it wrong. For me, though, the most fun I had was drifting an all-wheel-drive A45 in circles with the windows open.
The most rewarding exercise of the day, however, is conducted at the ‘big circle’. It’s basically one giant doughnut covered in ice and snow, with the weapon of choice being a C63 sedan or coupe.
The idea? Controlled drifting, the whole time. In fact, the majority of these exercises will see you looking out of the side window rather than the windscreen. I thoroughly enjoyed my laps around the ‘big circle’ and just when I thought I was going to get my instructor uniform and a pat on the back, I went for a hot lap with Mercedes-Benz chief driver training instructor and racing car driver, Peter Hackett.
You can look at his hot lap in two ways (actually, you can see it for yourself on our Facebook page here). You can let it depress the hell out of you, or you can just laugh.
I laughed. It’s an excellent showcase in how little control you really have in comparison to someone who actually knows what they’re doing. And you can marvel at how someone can get a giant E63 sedan – with four grown men on board – to slide sideways, next to a cliff, at close to 100km/h and talk like it’s a regular day at the office.
For Hackett, though, it actually is a regular day at the office. Bastard.
Part of being here is to learn how to drive and drift on snow, while getting a very comprehensive breakdown of the physics involved. The experience and tuition also helps to improve your driving ability on the whole, and, for me, it was thoroughly engaging and genuinely worthwhile.
The majority of instructors are current or former racing drivers. They have been teaching regular people for many years on how to not crash while going fast, so the quality of coaching is top-notch.
The other part of the day is having fun, and that’s what I got out of it the most. It’s a truly fun day filled with laughs. The instructors are even willing to drift the Mercedes transport van on snow, if that tickles your fancy.
Overall, while this is an expensive endeavour, it’s an experience you will never forget. If you love your AMG and want to experience it on the snow, it’s a massive must-do.
Click on the Photos tab for more images of the Mercedes-AMG Festival of Snow.
MORE: Everything Mercedes-AMG