BMW xDrive: Snow job teaches right-foot tact

By Mark Scott

BMW's xDrive Experience was a fitting farewell to winter, and a whole lot of powdery sideways fun. Photo / Supplied
BMW's xDrive Experience was a fitting farewell to winter, and a whole lot of powdery sideways fun. Photo / Supplied

It wasn't supposed to be like this. My fellow hacks scattering before the BMW like chooks in a Peckinpah western, running for their very lives as the X5 roared up the near vertical ski-jump of ice and snow with no sign of slowing down. And it was all my fault.

At BMW's cutting-edge alpine driving school on the Southern Proving Ground high above Wanaka, we'd spent the day being taught safe winter driving techniques by world-class experts. Sensible stuff like slowing down, braking on the straight, taking our time.

And now I had been selected to demonstrate how when an off-road hill-climbing attempt fails the hill descent skid control works in reverse to gently usher you back to the bottom. We'd already established the 150m slope was so steep and slippery we couldn't stand on it.

So, while the rest of the team took the road to the top, I lined up for the climb. The instructors were so certain the hill was unbeatable they strung the team across the brow, so all could witness the ignominy of me coming to an undignified wheel-spinning standstill, before sliding backwards.

I had other ideas. Make that instinct. Sorry to say, but the bogan in me (some would say there's no other me) made a running charge at the hill - a vanquishing 80km/h slingshot. Like a pitbull locked on a postie's leg, once I got my teeth into the climb I wasn't going to stop. Blasting the horn, mashing the throttle, I knew I would make it. My colleagues, meanwhile, suffering from classic erroneous groupthink, as if the two tonnes of metal hurtling at them were in a parallel universe, stood their ground for a surprisingly long time before doing the chook thing.

And yes, I have to admit to a certain fleeting satisfaction watching them scatter. It was only when I was airborne over the brow that I noticed that in the same groupthink they'd parked all the cars across the run-off apron - entirely blocking the exit.

Yep, on my first - and possibly only - assignment for Driven, there I was, like some red-faced idiot, performing an Evel Knievel directly into half a million dollars worth of prestige BMWs. A nasty Queenstown combo of bungy and dodgems performed in slow motion. The sort of thing that goes viral on YouTube. Much explaining to do.

Explanation: you know those cop shows in which folk crash directly into police cars stopped at the side of the road even when they're lit up? That's caused by target fixation whereby if you look at something - you hit it.

Somehow, I managed the exact opposite. From long motorcycle racetrack experience I know to consciously focus on where you want to go, and ignore the obstacle. At the post-mortem, it was the only explanation for how I instantly knew to steer off-road, missing total disaster by centimetres.

The true bacon saver, of course, was the brilliant xDrive system, which guided the car across ice and snow in a perfectly controlled slide. The system features intelligent electrically-operated traction control input that anticipates loss of control - crucially - before it happens.

That yields a split-second advantage over other systems, which kick in only after loss of traction. When a split-second can make the difference between life and death- the difference between total enduring humiliation and an air of adroit nonchalant professionalism, the one I instantly adopted - it's worth its weight in gold.

Until then, the entire brilliant day had been about showcasing the talents of the BMW X-range on skid pan and slalom, getting to understand and trust its finesse.

And these cars are pretty amazing. On ice that would have you flat on your face if you tried to walk on it, these cars pirouetted like 4WD Margot Fonteyns. In my case, make that Tonya Harding.

Problem was, I was seduced by the brute punch of the bigger models. The three-litre diesel X5 throws 740Nms of torque at just 2000rpm, yet returns a miserly 7.5L/100km. Getting that power on to the ice with any kind of coherence requires a delicate touch from both the traction control system and the driver.

Circling the skid pan, trying to balance opposite lock with throttle, I remembered an interview I once did with the late Possum Bourne in which I asked how he managed such perfect control.

He didn't answer with words. Instead, he held up his two hands in front of him, forefingers and thumbs dancing lightly in the air, reading the messages from an imaginary steering rim with the concentration of an ace safe-cracker. His eyes were lost in serene middle-distance focus.

I was thinking about Possum because he died in a collision on this very mountain - before I had a chance to complete that story.

Nowadays, there's a statue of him overlooking the Cardrona valley. It's a reminder of his passion and energy and that no matter how good you are, it's Russian roulette on the road.

Yes, there's no question BMW driving courses - open to anybody - are fun ways to even the odds.

Up here in the mountains at Cardrona, with its system of tracks carved into the snow - like the elaborate roadways I used to create in my sandbox - is one of the safer places to learn the limits.

Try it. Next year they've got a new challenge: the flying jump at half a million dollars worth of cars. What could go wrong?

- NZ Herald

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