Queenstown, nestled near the southern tip of New Zealand, is usually a winter wonderland by the start of July. That makes it the perfect place for carmakers like BMW to let their hottest performance cars loose on ice.
But snow has been hard to come by in 2019. The ski resorts around Queenstown are battling to stay open, and there’s precious little coverage on the peaks surrounding Lake Wakatipu.
The white stuff is so hard to spot right now, BMW was forced to pull the plug on the ice-driving extravaganza this story was meant to be covering. It was intended to be a celebration of ‘M Town’, a drifty Bavarian vision of what a lawless automotive utopia might look like.
It was meant to be a rags-to-riches story about a boy who couldn’t drift when he arrived, but walked out a modern Stig Blomqvist.
But mother nature wouldn’t play ball. Five degrees isn’t warm, but it’s not ice driving weather.
Above: What the Alpine Experience looks like when the weather is friendly
It’s a shame, because M Town was shaping as something pretty special. It’s been 10 years since BMW started its Alpine Experience, where owners can pay to drift xDrive cars on ice, and M Town was meant to be an all-singing, all-dancing celebration.
Drag racing, drifting, slaloms and a healthy dose of trans-Tasman competition were all on the program, but they’ll all have to wait.
Rather than a solid, slippery canvas upon which BMW’s finest can work their magic, the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground is covered in a layer of soft, slushy man-made snow at the moment. “You’d be bogged up to the axles within metres,” the head instructor told us.
Instead of sliding around like a lunatic, I find myself skating precariously down a gravel road in the passenger seat of an X5 M50d, heater cranking.
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Above: Leaving the proving ground. See if you can spot the CarAdvice beanie in the background.
Access to the proving ground comes courtesy of the road used for the ‘Race to the Sky’ hillclimb, the same road that claimed rally legend Possum Bourne’s life on a training drive in 2003. It’s pitch black outside, the night punctuated only by our convoy’s headlights.
The start of the Crown Range road awaits at the bottom. It’s the highest main road in New Zealand, touching 1,121 metres above sea level and linking Wanaka with Queenstown. Snow and ice are usually a problem in July, but neither is an issue with the mercury nudging 10 degrees. The road is also sealed, mercifully, but it’s still covered with a slippery layer of grit.
From the X5, it’s into the M850i. The interior is immediately familiar – thanks BMW OS7.0 – but the seating position is lower and more purposeful, and the view over the long bonnet instantly screams ‘grand tourer’.
It’s seriously quick too, with 390kW and 750Nm on tap from its 4.4-litre V8 engine and a claimed 100km/h sprint time of 3.7 seconds.
Even trying to put all that grunt to the ground through winter tyres on a gritty, cold surface, running uphill into the dark of night, it feels like an absolute weapon.
Above: A filthy M850i on day two of our journey.
The road is treacherous in the extreme. Tightening radius corners and sheer drops off the side mean a slow-in, fast-out approach is necessary, while the occasional knackered, soot-blowing ute makes staying in your lane important.
The tarmac weaves along the top of a mountain range, with a nice blend of open, sweeping bends and tighter corners, along with plenty of dips and crests. Apparently, it’s also a rally special stage. If you like driving, Queenstown has plenty to offer.
It’s great fun, especially the switchback-heavy descent to our dinner stop in Arrow Junction, but we’d wager there’s even more smiles to be had when vision is better and traction more plentiful.
Although it’s mighty in a straight line, the M850i takes some getting used to. It’s long and wide, but the rear-wheel steering initially makes it feel slightly unnatural in lower-speed corners. It becomes more normal with time, but it’s initially quite tricky to know how much lock you need.
Ice driving was also the plan for day two, but mother nature wasn’t willing to play ball. The limited snow on the ground on day one is all gone, apparently, but there’s still plenty of Queenstown and its surrounds to be seen.
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Above: The M850i, looking mean in the morning sunlight.
We pile back into an M850i, this time a convertible, and drop the top. Seat heaters cranking, air scarf spewing molten air, it’s out on the road linking Queenstown with Glenorchy. It’s 44km long, has a 100km/h limit in most places and, thanks to views of the Lake Wakatipu shoreline, is rated as one of the most scenic drives on the South Island.
Like the Crown Range road, it’s sealed but covered in a layer of grit, which makes it perilously slippery in places. But with better visibility comes more confidence in the M850i, which cuts through the crisp morning with an angry V8 growl.
The burbly overrun feels a bit contrived, but there’s still nothing like the sound of a meaty V8. The M850i is the perfect place to drink in the incredible Lake Wakatipu and its mountainous surrounds. New Zealand is bloody gorgeous.
We stop for coffee and sausage rolls at a pub-cum-cafe in Glenorchy, before heading back along the same road in an X7 xDrive40i, a grade not offered in Australia.
It’s surprisingly perky, with 250kW and 450Nm on tap from its 3.0-litre displacement, and makes a proper BMW inline-six noise when you bury the throttle, but the car’s near 2.5-tonne kerb weight and air suspension mean a more sedate pace is appropriate.
Above: What happens when you push too hard on the Glenorchy road.
Well, the car’s weight and one arse-clenching moment of seven-seat oversteer courtesy of the gritty roads. It’s the closest we came to properly drifting all week, so there’s that.
It’s a shame the weather kiboshed BMW’s plans. M Town sounds like nirvana for petrol heads, and the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground is, by all reports, a brilliant playground.
The upside, though, is the chance to explore Queenstown and some of the roads surrounding it. Just under four hours flight from Melbourne, it’s dead easy to access. It’s also stunning, close to some great roads, and has enough extreme sports around to sate even the most ardent adrenaline junkie.
We did get to do some driving on track, by the way, but it wasn’t in a BMW. If you’re ever in Queenstown, make sure you try the luge. It’s not quite ice driving, but it’s a thrill nonetheless.