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BMW’s New Zealand Alpine xDrive Experience

Driving sideways. In the snow. How can something so hoonish just seem so right? Welcome to the BMW Alpine xDrive Experience in New Zealand, and it’s open to everyone, whether you own a BMW or not.

YOU HAVE 20 PEOPLE to shift from a lushly green New Zealand valley to the top of a snowy mountain. Obviously a bus could be pressed into service, but you are BMW so you bus the people only as far as the nearest paddock, where four helicopters arrive to take them for a rockstar ride up and onto the top of the snowy Kiwi peaks, outside of Queenstown on the South Island. Welcome to the Snow Farm where numerous car companies and tyre manufacturers come when the Northern Hemisphere winter is over to continue testing. Then for a very short period of time its open for events like this one…

Yep, BMW’s Alpine xDrive Experience (follow that link to BMW’s page about the course) started well. Actually, it started the night before where our group enjoyed a gourmet dinner, and naturally there were perhaps a few conversations on matters motoring over a meal rating well north of acceptable – BMW’s courses tend to cover the whole experience, not just the driving.

But back to the helicopter, which for some was the highlight of the day. Good as it was, I prefer to do my own piloting, so was particularly keen on getting behind the wheel of whatever BMWs I could. And that turned out to be pretty much one of everything all wheel drive – X1, X3, X4, X5, X6. For those not in the know, the X range is BMW’s softroader selection, and odd numbered cars are wagons, with even numbered cars being sportier coupe versions of the next number down, so the X4 is a coupe development of the X3, as is the X6 of the X5. There was also a 3 Series Touring, a standard wagon with the X-Drive all wheel drive system, a car not available in Australia because we love rear wheel drive and consider AWD on roadcars unnatural unless it’s in a turbo Subaru.

BMW Alpine X-Drive Experience

Before driving, there is a briefing. We piled into a nice warm room to serve as our base, sat down and listened to a brief brief, mainly extolling the virtues of X-Drive with a sly dig here and there at competitors. As far as driving techniques went it was pretty much just “hold the steering wheel at quarter to three”. Talk over, we paired up, chose a car, and got going on the first exercise which was a slow drive around a twisty snow circuit, including a hard stop to get the ABS working. By the way, modern ABS systems do much better on low-traction surfaces than the old ones, so let’s drop the myth of “ABS no good except on bitumen”.

120822_BMW xDrive Day 9_1282
Note: Image is of previous-generation BMW X5 M50d from when editor Bober took part in the X-Drive Alpine Experience.

Next up was the real stuff, drifting, which means maintaining a powerslide, all four wheels spinning, in a circle. It also means huge grins, because going sideways in a car, particularly some else’s high-powered German object-of-desire, is particularly grin-worthy. No matter that most of the drivers were far from drifting kings, everybody had a decent crack and all managed a few seconds of delicious controlled sliding under power. Nothing to hit, nothing to worry about other than doing things with a car you’d normally be locked up for. If you’re wondering, the technique for a good drift – establish the car in the turn for a few seconds in second gear, then boot the accelerator hard to break traction on all four wheels. The car rotates into the turn, and then you steer slightly in the direction of the turn, maintaining hoon-level amounts of power. Continue until the instructor calls you in.

BMW Alpine X-Drive Experience

Or until you are taken to the next exercise, a slalom. Orange traffic cones on snow, easy to see, less easy to avoid. But hey, sliding in and out was pretty much the point of the exercise and guess what…yes, fun was had by all! There was also a hotlap in a BMW M3 with the chief instructor, drag races against other students and a timed slalom.

If you want to do the course contact BMW Driving Experiences as there will be more chances in 2015. Should you go? If you enjoy driving cars you’ll love this course, and the car controls skills you learn will be useful in 4X4s when driving in slippery conditions like mud, sand or yes, even snow. So, yes, go!

BMW’s X-Drive Xplained

In brief, X-Drive is BMW’s all-wheel-drive system. BMW isn’t out to make a serious offroad vehicle – you just need to look at the clearances and angles on any of their cars, let alone more subtle designs such as air intakes and underbody protection – so X-Drive is really more about extra traction on slippery surfaces and improving handling. Indeed, back in 1999 the original X5 was a landmark vehicle as it significantly raised the bar for on-road handling and dynamics, forcing every other manufacturer to step up.

Now while every manufacturer likes to pretend their technology is special or unique, fact is, most of it is common across the board. So it is no surprise that BMW’s cars have all manner of sensors sending information back to computers to keep you shiny side up, working through a variety of programmes such as ABS, EBD, EBA and CBC. So let’s look at what makes BMW different from the pack, and that starts with a 40%/60% split of the torque to front and rear.

BMW Alpine X-Drive Experience

This is instantly good news, as most “all wheel drive” systems merely power the front wheels and let the rears trail, driving them only when the computers detect a loss of traction. Those systems are never, ever as effective as the likes of xDrive because if all wheels are driving there’s less chance of slip in the first place, and for enthusiast drivers, there’s the sharper handling of a rear-drive biased car because the front wheels have more traction available for steering. This driving dynamic is very important to BMW, and to people like me. If you’re going to have to be a taxi for the kids on weekends, I reckon you may as well enjoy the drive. This rear-drive bias even means you can drift these cars too, hence the snow sessions of fun.

This 40/60 split also means the centre clutch is always working. Other systems which only occasionally drive the rear wheels have centre clutches that overheat after a bit of use, leaving you in 2WD and most probably, stuck. This irritating design flaw shouldn’t be a problem for any X-Drive vehicle.

What does this all mean?  BMW’s got all the electronic aids everyone else has and more than most, but does better on the driving dynamics front because they’ve done all-wheel-drive properly. They also take a lot of care to calibrate their systems and cars, unlike some of the cheaper brands. The result is impressive slippery-road traction and rewarding experience behind the wheel, which is what X-Drive is all about.

Here’s a BMW NZ video

And some in-car from our event


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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper