The pursuit of grippiness in Queenstown

by John McCrystal / 13 October, 2012
What simple pleasure can be had thrashing someone else’s car around in the snow and ice.
The pursuit of grippiness in Queenstown

It doesn’t start well. Well, let’s be accurate. It doesn’t start at all. This is the first time since I once perched behind the wheel of a Model T Ford that I’ve sat at the controls of a car and experienced pure bewilderment. The button marked “Stop/Start” seems unequivocal enough, but pressing it once does nothing more than set a few things glowing on the dash. No engine noise, nothing. Pressing it again has the opposite effect of pressing it once. All around us, powerful diesel engines are purring into life. My co-driver, Jo, has no suggestions. There’s nothing for it but to get on the two-way radio to Dieter, our dapper German instructor, and risk his glacial Teutonic scorn while also blowing my cover with the Australians.

No sooner have I explained the nature of the problem over the air than a half-dozen Australians are out of their vehicles and hurrying to help. “Put your foot on the brake pedal,” Dieter’s disembodied, glacially scornful voice suggests. “Und press the button.” Gott in Himmel! That works. Dieter decides to leave nothing to chance and comes over to explain the arcane functions of other essential bits of precision-engineered technology, too: steering wheel, rear-view mirror … Who knew the seat adjusted in so many different ways? Technical issues addressed, Dieter climbs back in his own vehicle, I manage to start mine and we move in single file out of the parking area and into the luminous alpine mist. We assembled the night before at Millbrook near Arrowtown. We were welcomed by officials from Bayerische Motoren Werke – little better known as Bavarian Motor Works, but eponymously as BMW – and given a briefing on the technology we were to sample on the morrow.

The Australians nodded impatiently as it was explained that xDrive provides a variable torque split between the front and rear axles of a vehicle through the use of an electric servo driving a cam-shaped actuating disc, which functions as a wet clutch. And not only that: the computer controlling the drive train talks to the computer handling the anti-lock braking system, which in turn swaps notes with the electronic dynamic stability control brain, and between them, this massed choir of computers ensures the driver has maximum traction and control in difficult conditions, such as on snow and ice. XDrive is a standard feature on BMW’s sport-utility vehicle range, and is optional on some of its saloon cars. BMW, we gather from the briefing, is pretty sanguine about this latest feature. It’s superior to your common or garden torque-split systems, they reckon, such as those employed by certain lesser German motoring manufacturers. Pretty much any idiot who can figure out how to start a BMW can drive one safely in even the most demanding conditions. We, the cream of the Australasian motoring writing fraternity, have been trucked in to see for ourselves.

BMW Alpine xDrive Experience

I felt like a fraud at dinner, as the Aussies shared around their iPhones loaded with shots of the more unusual items in their vehicular portfolios and discussed them in extravagant technical detail. “What rubber d’you reckon I got on there [proudly shows shot on iPhone]?” “Ooh [squints at screen]. Could be Hercules Raptis VR Ones?” “Nah, mate [crows]. Mooneyes Speed Masters!” “Yeah? Nice.” I still felt like a fraud in the morning when we got out of our minibus and assembled in a hangar at Facility Four of the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, an area atop the Pisa Range that has been developed so auto manufacturers can find out how grippy their cars are in winter conditions, even during the Northern Hemisphere summer. Here, we were introduced to Dieter and given a further briefing on xDrive and on the finer points of driving on ice. Understeer, oversteer – it all served, unhelpfully, to start the Wombles song going around my head, and to make me feel even more of a fraud. And that was before I made a Womble of myself while trying to start the car.

Over the next six hours, we are treated to the BMW Alpine xDrive Experience, an annual week and a bit where the well-heeled get to revel in what the Germans, in their clever, stickle-brick language, would probably refer to as Anderesautoimschneeverdreschenfreude – the simple joy of thrashing someone else’s car around in the snow. We do slaloms on an icy rink as the cloud peels back to reveal the Alps in all their glory. We get to drive over a sheer drop in the icy road and relax as all those computers engage in a furious chinwag on how best to deliver the car upright, on all fours and still pointing in the desired direction to the bottom. We have a go at all-wheel drifting on the slick drifting circle, and then we get to do time trials around a tight circuit where the snow has been scuffed back to reveal pitiless blue ice. You’d struggle to walk upright on the surfaces we’re driving on, yet no one crashes or even loses their composure to any significant degree.

BMW Alpine xDrive Experience

Jo, the hobby-farmer-cum-businesswoman with whom I’m sharing the driving, turns out to be Kimi Räikkönen in disguise and drives like, well, a childless Aussie motoring writer. I find that try as I might, I can’t quite manage to wind back all the evolutionary steps that have turned me into the prudent middle-aged driver of a family stationwagon that I am today. By the time we stop, sunburnt and happy, I find it’s been a surreal day, one of those rare opportunities to taste life outside your tax bracket. The Alpine xDrive Experience, let alone a car featuring xDrive, is way beyond my means. But it’s nice to have tried them, and I leave a believer. XDrive works. Once switched on, technology can save us from ourselves. Money can, indeed, buy grippiness.

John McCrystal travelled to Queenstown as the guest of BMW NZ.
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