The BMW Alpine xDrive Experience pairs us up with all the partners we’ll need to dance on ice/snow
Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, New Zealand – A helicopter may be the quickest way up the mountain, but when your four wheels are on ice/snow, the ‘funnest’ way around has to be slippy, sliding sideways, even if you’re going nowhere but around a ginormous drift circle.
The only drama in your life should be the sort that goes on when your car is dancing on ice, because as far as driving programmes go, driving on ice/snow is the bee’s knees.
Naysayers here often decry ice/snow driving programmes, but that’s because many of them don’t have a clue as to the fun they’re missing. In short, ice/snow driving is the most fun we’ve had in our 18 years in the automotive industry, and that’s going through all manner of driving activities.
Of course, you could achieve the same low-grip results on a skid-pan, but there’s no fun in that because you don’t get the same dramatic rooster-tail snow plume as when you’re carving a path through the snow.
Ever hit an oil patch or lost grip on a greasy bit of road in sunny Singapore? If you have your wits about you, it might result in a white-knuckle moment and possibly stained undies, and with quick reactions, your car will emerge unscathed. Under less favourable auspices, you might panic, wipe out against the armco and end up with bruises to both body and ego.
We’re with BMW at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds on New Zealand’s South Island for a bout of ice/driving… in June – probably the only place you can do it at this time of year. It’s a sprawling 490-hectare facility with properly segregated high-security tracks and plush hospitality areas, and is open from June to August to many brands for winter testing purposes... or simply for respective brand customers to have a bit of fun.
Most of the serious car brands offer ice/snow driving programmes with differing levels of complexity, and the BMW New Zealand one we’ve joined is a tasty teaser before you sink your teeth into more intense programmes. BMW Korea has a driving facility very close to the Incheon Airport that also offers the public an introductory ice/snow programme, so that’s a good alternative if you’re looking for something closer to Singapore.
Ice/snow driving is all about the nuances of car control, and training your muscle memory to respond instinctively the moment you feel the rear losing grip. It’s also a lot about finesse over ham-fisted enthusiasm, because if you barrel too quickly into a corner on ice/snow/water, the car will just plough-on and understeer.
The knack is achieving a knife’s edge balance as you skirt around the traction circle, before giving the gas pedal a big boot to unsettle the rump-end once you feel the front-end has gripped.
As the rear starts to slide, you can either correct it immediately with a whiff of opposite lock, or proceed to kick-loose with a continuous drift, which you learn to control and fine-tune using the throttle instead of agitating with the steering wheel.
Best of all, the speeds at which all this occurs (winter tyres, but no studs) are relatively low (compared to say, the high-two- and three-digit-speeds you’d see in the dry), so everything is nice, slow and progressive – plenty of time to practise your seat-of-pants feel and steering/throttle drills before moving on to the full track experience offered by some of the other brands. As one’s confidence and skill grows, it’s possible to progress to studded tyres, which offer more grip in ice/snow, and consequently, higher speeds and greater thrills.
The other thing about driving on ice/snow is it’s a great leveller, and for the purposes of our day’s exercises, demonstrated that big engine firepower doesn’t necessarily translate to the biggest smile, and vice versa.
If anything, the largest difference comes from the drivetrain, since rear-drive and the all-wheel-drive of the X models behave differently – the all-wheel-drivetrain caught us out initially when we applied the same amount of opposite lock as we would in a rear-driven car, because the tyres would suddenly grip and start pulling you awry!
As with most things, it’s about patience, practice and more practice. Get frustrated too quickly and everything will go pear-shaped, since swift progress on ice/snow only comes with a clear head. In fact, when you’re holding that perfect continental drift around the drift circle amidst the tranquility of the alien alpine landscape, it’s easy to shut out everything else and attain a Zen-like state, so it seems as though it is just you, the car and the great outdoors... until that is, your co-driver pipes up plaintively to say, “I’m going to be ill, stop and let me out.”