Level pegging with the clouds at more than 1600 meters in New Zealand’s frigid Cardrona Valley, you’ll find the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds, less than an hour’s drive from Queenstown on New Zealand's stunningly picturesque South Island.
And, just to be clear, we’re not talking about an X-Games venue or an extreme winter sports training facility. Rather, this is a secure compound where you’ll find all kinds of heavily-camouflaged prototypes from almost all of the world’s major car manufacturers eager to subject upcoming models to freezing temperatures and icy conditions in order to gauge durability among a raft of other metrics.
Tyre manufacturers are also major players in these parts given the importance of testing in chilly conditions used to assess grip and resilience of tyre compounds and various tread patterns that are usually filled with snowflakes.
Not surprisingly, the SHPG is the only winter proving ground in the Southern Hemisphere - and along with a similar facility in Arjeplog, Lapland, in northern Sweden, just 100 kilometres from the Arctic Circle - it helps provide crucial year-round OEM winter testing of upcoming vehicles and consumables.
The New Zealand location is also known as the 'Snow Farm' and covers 400 hectares of privately-owned snowfields, including over 30 kilometres of compacted snow and ice test tracks.
The biggest difference between the two facilities is that in Sweden the vehicles are driven on the frozen surface of lakes (known as ice flats) requiring only 15cm of ice to do so, which means you can also see the water under the ice once the snow is cleared. Interestingly, landing a plane on ice only requires 77cm of frozen water.
Snow Farm, on the other hand, relies on its snowfields along with up to 70 snow machines capable of making over a million cubic metres of snow each year.
It’s also the home of Mercedes-AMG’s Winter Driving Academy, where AMG owners get the chance to slide around (and double their skill set along the way) in some of AMG’s most powerful road cars. The range of challenging exercises, driving both rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive models, is guaranteed to test you – regardless of your tarmac experience.
The event itself is largely sold out – 12 months in advance, in most cases – with up to 75 places available on this most recent wave CarAdvice attended. It costs around $4000 give or take, excluding flights to New Zealand, but that includes two nights in a luxury hotel in Queenstown (Hotel St Moritz) with breathtaking views of the Remarkables, along with full buffet breakfast and dinner at five-star restaurants on both nights, kicking off with the Jervois Steak House.
And, don’t panic if you’ve forgotten to bring some cold weather attire, either. When you get to your room you’ll find a bag full of essential goodies including AMG-branded driving gloves, beanie, jacket and cap. It’s all good stuff, too, and essential wearing on the driving day.
The Mercedes-Benz staff take care of everything, to the point where you barely have to lift a finger other than taking a brisk 800-metre walk to dinner in Queenstown. This is bucket list stuff folks, and a brilliant travel experience on its own, notwithstanding the joys of sliding around on ice and snow in an arsenal of AMGs like E63 S, GT C Roadster, GLA 45 and even the latest G63 monster-powered wagon.
The only modification made to the range of high-performance AMG road cars is the addition of ‘Winter’ tyres – mandatory for this climate and standard practice for vehicles in snowbound regions like much of the United States and Europe.
For this event the vehicles were shod with Continental WinterSport Contact 5 tyres that simply allow you to drive on the snow as you would a summer tyre on tarmac. And, while it might seem like a science tutorial, it’s critical to your ice-driving success to understand how these tyres are constructed and how they actually provide sufficient grip to provide traction in the snow.
The biggest difference between a summer and winter tyre is the compound the tyre is made of (the construction of the rubber used in the tyre), as well as the type of grooves in the tread pattern. You can usually identify these particular tyres via the snowflake symbol on the sidewall.
The fact is, you would be unable to physically drive in these conditions (that’s -5 degrees and snowing) on a summer tyre for one very good reason. The rubber compound in these tyres starts to freeze at around three degrees, which, when driven on ice, delivers zero grip.
Conversely, the compound used in the winter tyre doesn’t freeze, and provides a level of conformity in the tyre along with softer side walls that increase the contact patch. The tread pattern is different too and essentially flexes and fills with snowflakes that, when contacted against the snow on the ground, provides grip.
The climb up to the Snow Farm is a spectacular event in itself, given the road also served as at the racecourse for the once famous Race to the Sky, last held in 2015. It was effectively the Southern Hemisphere's equivalent to the iconic Pikes Peak hill climb in Colorado in the United States, yet unlike Pikes Peak, Race to the Sky was still run as a full-length gravel course.
If we thought it was cold in Queenstown (and it was), the temperature on our arrival at the Snow Farm was reported as -10 degrees with the wind chill factor. In fact, it was almost blizzard conditions, so you can imagine our surprise and shock to see dozens of AMGs lined up in the snow, along with an endless supply of seemingly ‘freeze resistant’ driving instructors waiting patiently beside each vehicle. And it would be another 30 minutes of exposure before we would join them for the day’s activities.
Is there such a thing as danger money these days? Because these guys deserve it wholeheartedly given the sub-zero temperatures and blinding snow they had to endure that day.
Despite my considerable driving experience earned over the years at CarAdvice, both on road and the track, the thought of wielding an E63 S armed with 450kW and 850Nm around what amounts to a veritable ice rink, was more than a bit disconcerting.
But, the beauty of these AMG events is that each driver gets a professional ‘buddy’ riding shotgun to guide you through each exercise, and indeed, each individual run. And, if you follow instructions to the letter, I guarantee any nerves are immediately extinguished and subsequently converted to sheer joy when you finally master a four-wheel drift.
You would have thought the all-wheel drive E63 would have been easier to manage than the rear-drive GT C Roadster when in fact, the opposite proved to be the case with various tweaks to your driving style to get the car set up for each cone. But, again, if you listen to your instructor, success comes a lot quicker. It’s brilliant when you string a course together without putting a wheel wrong.
We moved on to the diminutive (but still loads of fun) GLA 45 – a model I’d previously never given a lot of love to – for some circle work which morphed into seamlessly executed Scandinavian flicks (but only after multiple attempts) around a few cones set up in a cloverleaf formation before moving on to the full-strength figure-eight work.
From my point of view, this was by far the best exercise given we got to really master car control skills and given the large number of runs we got to do on each of the two flat courses. Moreover, your level of car control jumped exponentially. Basically, you just kept repeating it until you eventually got it and felt like you had complete control of the car, despite the whiteout conditions at times. But honestly, the more snow, the easier it was to handle.
You break for lunch in what amounts to a large, luxury chalet-type-affair with a buffet fit for a king, though I’d urge you to take it easy with smaller portions given the afternoon program is just as full-on with more slalom, circle work and off-road adventures in the G-Wagen.
There was no hiding the gold-wrapped G63, even in heavy snow falls. And, for every person that may not have fallen head over heels with it, there were plenty that did. Apparently, there were more than a few offers for it from AMG owners before day’s end.
Funny enough, I attended a reveal of the second-generation G-Class at the Los Angeles Auto Show more than a year ago but this was the first time I’d get the chance to drive it. Hugely expensive and still hand built in Graz, Austria with an 18-month waiting list if you want one.
Up against the old version, the new-gen G-Wagen is infinitely more liveable, with more space and loads more contemporary kit like a 12-inch infotainment screen and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. And, as I would learn throughout the afternoon, the G63 was way more capable in these icy conditions than I would have given it credit for.
There’s a raft of off-road systems and settings to tackle the most inclement conditions including a rather treacherous off-camber hill climb that I thought might bring it unstuck, but no chance of that happening. But, it was the comfort that was most obvious on what was a relatively brief run in the vehicle.
The afternoon’s activities were over sooner than I had wished and it was time to head back to our Queenstown accommodation, but the weather had deteriorated and the short route down the mountain was deemed too risky so it would be more than an hour before we arrived home before another brilliant meal – this time at The Grille by Eichard’s.
The flight home leaves around 3:30pm on Saturday, so you’ve plenty of time to shop (the ski gear is cheaper in Queenstown) and grab lunch at Fergburger down the road if the queue isn’t too out-of-control.
There are plenty of manufacturers that run ice driving events but I’d argue that few, if any, do it as well as Mercedes-Benz. It’s next level both on the ground and behind the wheel. Details matter to these guys and it shows.
If you’re an AMG owner and keen for a luxury weekend away and improving your off-road car control with some of the best in-car instruction anywhere in the world, then best you tick this box ASAP.
Click on the Photos tab for more spectacular images of the Mercedes-AMG ice driving experience