When BMW calls and says, “Would you like to go play in the snow, drifting M5s and M4s, and running X2s and X3s through a slalom at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds?”, it’s one of those events that you can’t turn down.
After arriving in Queenstown, I caught up with BMW’s Integrated Marketing Coordinator, Jake Ashby. This is the 9th straight year that BMW has held the Alpine xDrive event, and Jake says it’s not going anywhere – it’s far too popular to consider not running it.
“We are now getting people from Russia, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. So it’s gaining momentum around the world.”
I asked Jake what people mainly take away, after doing the event. “Most people are totally surprised on how the cars handle in these conditions – especially big cars like X5s – driving on sheer ice. They are astounded that after some driver training and tips, how well the cars perform. The second thing they get from this is confidence that they can drive in these conditions. We’ve seen it time and again during and after the Alpine xDrive.”
Jake says even the drift circle – which many people are afraid to do – sometimes only takes a couple of times before people get the hang of it, and they feedback that they didn’t believe they could do that.
“Lots of car guys also comment on switching the all wheel-drive cars to rear wheel-drive on studded tyres – this really surprise people on just what they can do.”
He admits it’s an incredible place to be in from an event perspective, and it really draws new people into the brand. “You come into the venue on a stunning day like today and it takes your breath away, then on top of that, they drive these amazing cars for a lifetime experience.”
Some people tonight commented on the cost of the event, at $2850, but when you see what you get for this – two night’s accommodation at somewhere like Millbrook Resort, a helicopter flight to the proving grounds, a day driving in all sorts of new BMWs, driver training, and an evening celebration dinner at the end of the day, it turns out to be pretty good value for money.
The event is open to anyone, not just BMW owners.
Today is The Day
A quick helicopter ride from Queenstown saw us at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG) in no time, and it was pretty majestic as we flew over the snow-capped mountains. You can see why the tourists love coming here.
Stunning scenery, and a brilliant way to start the day.
There were a few comments before the flight around the number of cars that would be waiting for us. One guy felt there might be three or four total, with each of us having turns at driving and the rest of us waiting around.
On approach to SHPG, we spied at least a dozen cars lined up, if not more. In the end it was two to a car all day long, swapping drivers and then swapping cars. There was very little waiting around.
As we started walking along the bridge to the lodge for the driver’s briefing, there was some noise – engine noise. Looking down, two of the driver-trainers had taken an M4 and an M5 down to the drift circle to give us a show. It was mighty impressive – both to watch and listen to – and they made it look so easy. The realistic people in the group knew it wasn’t easy at all.
Some people’s faces dropped when they were told by BMW staff, “yes, you will be doing that too.”
Once in the much-warmer lodge, first up was the obligatory safety briefing – after all, there is a lot that can go wrong here. One of the non-driving cautions given was around photography or videoing any of the ‘other’ car companies who might be at the SHPG today. We were not allowed to take any ‘spy’ photos of any other cars we saw being tested, camouflaged or not.
SHPG takes this very seriously, as it’s their reputation of secrecy for manufacturers of cars (or tyres) on the line.
We were split into two groups, my group headed off in a mix of BMWs to do a bit of a tiki tour of the SHPG, and to get a feel for driving on the snow for those who hadn’t been here before. All very easy, and totally scenic. This is a beautiful country we live in, especially when viewed from such a high point.
A quick temperature check where we stopped at the highest point – minus 2.5 degrees. We were thankful for the BMW IceBreaker Merino jackets we all had been given. Luckily there was no wind today – just stunning blue skies. Perfect for some hooning – uh, I mean driving lessons – on the ice.
Our next module for the day was some ice skating, BMW style. Really, all we had to do was gently crawl the car onto an ice field, and go around a cone. Sounds simple, but the reality is, bloody hard. It was a good way to learn to use the accelerator to kick the back the car out to get it around the cone. Lots of 360s here, and lots of fun too. Everyone got to try every car we had out on this module, and this continued throughout the day. You’d get one or two goes at a module then swap and let your passenger drive, then switch to another car.
The ice cone module sort of mastered, it was time to up the ante. A line of cones was calling; a slalom run on slick, slippery ice. Was it hard? Oh yeah. So easy to just spin out with a bit too much gas or turning the wheel too far. Still fun, and still a learning curve.
Hats off to the driving team running this whole event – each car had a radio inside, so for your first run of whatever you were doing, they’d call out instructions. After you mastered it (or something close to that) they’d leave you alone to try for yourself, but would always help via the radio if it was obvious you weren’t doing so well.
We cruised back towards the lodge and parked up. I know the next module wasn’t the main event for the day, but for many it was. Hot Laps in an M3 on a snow track, with professional driver Mike Eady at the wheel. Three of us got in, and shot off around the course. This wasn’t a short course either, taking around 1.5 minutes to get around it, flying – literally, at times – around the track. This a few minutes of a total adrenaline rush.
An ominous large boulder on one part of the track got a little close for comfort, but other than that Mike showed total skill and confidence, nailing every corner, doing some hand brake slides into other corners. As each person exited the car after their Hot Lap, grins were wide, me included. Even the sounds the M3 made as he pushed it hard were fantastic.
After a quick coffee break, it was onto the next module. For my group, it was jumping in a couple of M2s and doing a figure 8 around some cones, using the throttle to steer the car. This took a while to master, but we all improved in a few turns behind the wheel. On the outside watching, we could sit back and listen to that M2 engine revving hard. That in itself was a treat.
We were instructed to turn off traction control for this module, as otherwise it’d be too hard to get the rear end out. It also made it much more fun.
Next along was the drift test. This wasn’t a full circle, but an almost half-circle. We got to try out both cars parked up here – an M4 and an M5. Yes, the twin-turbo, 600hp V8 would be used to improve our drifting skills. Tough times, but I’d struggle through it. That’s not to say it was easy.
My passenger and I started in the M4, and it was bloody hard to get the rear end kicking out at just the right time – and then keep it there. I’ll own up to improving only a little in my two runs.
Then we switched to the M5, and I’ve got to say that was easier. Possibly the longer wheelbase, as I’m not sure having 600 horse-power for this module was helping at all. The other thing about doing this module in the M5 was the noise…this is a time when the word ‘awesome’ is used legally.
In that module too, it was traction control off, and for the AWD M5, we switched it to rear wheel-drive only. Right now as I write this, I am grinning. An M5 in RWD in the snow is a lot of fun.
We headed back to the lodge for some lunch, and I could see lots more smiling. Some drivers who were nervous at the start of the day were now more relaxed, and showing confidence.
After lunch, we headed off to the drag races. Some cones were set up, and it was pretty simple; two cars lined up, and race. No prizes here, but the glory of winning was at stake. The cars were sort of matched up, with the X3 M40i for example against the 530D. I stopped to take photos for a few of the runs, and was reminded just how good that X3 M40i sounds. The crackle and pops from that exhaust are fantastic.
Next up was a slalom in the snow, which was now pretty chewed up. Still, this was fun and put our skills of using the accelerator to steer the rear of the car to the test. We had a lot of runs at this, swapping between cars; to drive was a 540i, an X3 M40i, an X2 and a 320d.
For me for the slalom, the X2 was the pick for the day; lighter, nimble, shorter, and that engine just wants to go.
Next module for the day was barrel racing. Two ‘garages’ were setup with cones on opposite sides of the track, and the first person their car to the opposite garage without going past the cones, won. Simple stuff, but a lot of fun. One thing that really came out during this module was just how different the cars drive. Some BMWs look very similar on the outside, and also so similar on the inside, but to drive them under conditions like that really showed how different they are to drive.
For added pressure, the drive team grabbed the X3 M40i and parked it in front of a timer; the race was on for the best time. Since I was closest, I took the first run the set the bar. I actually managed to not let the pressure get the better of me and forced myself to take it slow, rather than hard-out and then losing all power in a corner. So the time of 39 seconds was set, and in the end was beaten by 2 seconds.
Then one of the driver-trainers took the wheel and posted a 35 second time. Not too shabby, but he had been there for well over a week doing the Alpine xDrive Experience, so had had a lot more time on the snow. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
Now for me was the best part; we had done the M4 and M5 in the half-circle. We were taken to another area where there was a full circle for drifting. We had some juicy cars for this – M2, M4, M5. We were told to make sure traction control was off, start in second gear and move straight into third, left turn on the wheel, then floor it – even in the M5. While I struggled through some of the other modules, in this one I excelled, managing to keep a drift going for at least 75% of the circle, and didn’t spin out once. Yee haa. We switched cars again, and M5 proving just how capable it is doing this, that V8 singing out loud, as I feathered the throttle on and off to keep the drift going. I did not want to stop doing this. Ever.
The drift circle for me was the highlight, as all the other things we had done now came into play. Others too improved greatly on the drift circle, getting better lap by lap. We spent a good amount of time here, and it was worth it. After we all stopped and parked the cars, delicious petrol-engine smells lingered; we had worked those engines hard.
Before we knew it, the day was over. We had a prize-giving of sorts back in the lodge, and more hot coffee and treats while we waited for the coach to arrive.
There were lots more grinning faces than ever before now, and one particular lady who started the day obviously not wanting to be there, was now a convert and “totally loved it”.
The thing is, it’s not just all about hooning around in the snow. While there is 100% fun factor involved, for many people here they got to experience what happens when a car starts to go sideways, and what you can do to fix that.
For some drivers on this event, I’m not sure they’d ever had to use opposite lock in their lives. Now though, they have. And if something happens one day while they are driving, they’ll be more prepared for it. That’s a win in my book.
So many thanks to BMW – fantastic event, fantastic team, fantastic cars, fantastic weather.
Bring on the 2019 Alpine xDrive!