Note to self: The correct answer to the question “Are you free to go to St Moritz this weekend?” is always “Yes”, and never “Why?” — answering “Yes” without hesitation guarantees a seat on a plane, the keys to a luxurious car, and a room at a rather beautiful hotel, complete with an endless supply of breathtaking views of the Alps.
But silly, silly me, in a moment of rash distraction I inadvertently asked “Why?” instead, and the answer… well the answer was, “BMW wants to demonstrate its xDrive system on the 6 series and 7 series, so the guys there would like you to drive on a snowy airfield in the Alps, then watch a bunch of ponies running around on a lake before going to the lair of the Dracula Ghost Riders for dinner.”
Rrrrright. xDrive, Alps, ponies, Ghost Riders, lake, Dracula, dinner. Of course. But as my brain struggled to analyse these elements — with no success — to my relief I heard my mouth saying “St Moritz, hey, no problem.” “Great; by the way it’ll be -25°C at night, you might want to pack a thick pair of socks. Don’t bend the car.”
Which is how I came to be stepping out of a chauffeur-driven BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe into the biting cold, under the portico of BMW Welt (World) in Munich, where I was to collect my 750i xDrive and travel, via Austria, to St Moritz. The drive to St Moritz was as invigorating as the winter air, with sections of autobahn driven at 190kph, which was quite fast enough on roads wet with melted snow, followed by a journey along fast, sweeping mountain roads.
I had all the driver aids switched on because, with temperatures outside hovering around the -10°C mark, there was always the danger of hitting a patch of black ice. And if you’re thinking, “That’s great, but I live in the UAE, and the snow forecast for the next few weeks is ‘Unlikely’,” let me tell you from experience that hitting a thin dusting of sand on a high-speed corner can have much the same effect on a car as hitting black ice, so an intelligent 4WD system on a saloon is not without its benefits in the Gulf.
BMW’s approach to designing a 4WD system is to keep things (relatively) simple, and thus reduce both costs and weight. At the heart of the system is a clutch operating within a magnetorheologically controlled fluid, used to govern the total power output sent to all four wheels.
After analysing factors such as steering position and throttle inputs, BMW uses the existing traction control/dynamic brake systems to distribute power only to those corners of the car where it’s needed most. In good conditions the majority of drive is still sent to the rear wheels, but if the car’s sensors find traction is lacking, as much as is needed will be fed to the front.
The following morning, after meeting our host for that evening’s dinner, the genial Rolf Sachs, designer, photographer, St Moritz socialite and owner of the private members’ Dracula Ghost Riders Club (remember to ask for the ‘stake and garlic’), we were introduced to the ice-driving course, a looping slalom-style run approximately two kilometres in length.
Set on the outskirts of the St Moritz airfield, the surface was a light crust of snow with just a hint of grip, but brake or accelerate too firmly and the tyres would cut through to the sheet ice beneath, inevitably losing traction. Still, we were encouraged to drive the circuit as fast as we could, initially with all driver-control systems enabled.
This time piloting a 650i and with the xDrive taking care of the tricky stuff, I was able to complete the circuit quickly and under full control. With a single push of the traction-control button on the centre console, the DSC cuts the driver a little slack, consequently, on tighter bends taken at speed, satisfyingly high levels of oversteer could be induced, then exaggerated with childishly inappropriate levels of right foot.
Still the xDrive kept me from ploughing through any nearby snowdrifts, and while it was working overtime, the experience as a driver was that of feeling I’d mastered snow-driving techniques; that I was the one catching and controlling the inevitable slides. However…..
“Now switch off the DSC completely; hold down the button for three seconds, and please, try not to hit each other.” As our instructor called out his salutary warning on the radio, there was a significant slowing of the half-a-dozen cars spread out around the circuit.
Suddenly the 650i’s 1,855kg weight wanted to work against me at every turn, and at anything other than a snail’s pace, the back end would slither out, while at the front the tyres seemed to have just the vaguest of connections to the steering wheel. Under such conditions, only a brave but foolish driver would try to navigate the course at high speed.
Now look, in my defence, I should like to point out that the British have a proud history of being the first to do daft things at high speed in St Moritz. Just a stone’s throw away from the airfield, the World Bobsleigh championships were taking place, alongside the Cresta run, where a group of eccentric British — let’s call them athletes — had decided almost 130 years earlier that plummeting down near-vertical mountain paths while lying on tea trays was a perfectly sensible thing to do.
And since none of the German, Polish or Italian drivers on the ice alongside me appeared to be pushing the limits, I thought I’d do my bit for Britain. I learned two valuable lessons in the next 20 minutes or so. The first is that when you get it right, directing (I hesitate to say steering) a big executive saloon without the benefit of traction control at high speed through a slalom on ice, with the Alps as a backdrop and with private jets landing alongside you, is an immensely satisfying experience.
The second is that when you get it wrong, which I should like to point out I did only twice, spinning fervently to a halt in the wide run-off areas is, well, an immensely entertaining experience! I like to think of those events as important steps in the development of my car-control skills, while furthering my appreciation of BMW’s xDrive.
But what of the ponies? When the lake at St Moritz freezes over in mid-winter, the Polo Club organises the Ice Polo World Cup, in which four elite teams take to the ‘field’ to battle it out for a coveted trophy. BMW had sponsored a team in the competition, so after the ice driving we went to watch the BMW vs Cartier match. At times it was played at a frenetic pace, with ponies dashing and darting every which way, changing direction in a heartbeat.
They wore specially studded shoes to provide grip on the ice, and to watch the riders manoeuvre their mounts on a surface perhaps even more slippery than the one I’d just been negotiating, drove home the message that no matter how good the rider, he’s really only as good as his steed’s grip on the surface. Which begs the question: how exactly do you put opposite lock on a pony?