We put the new Merc through its paces in snowy New Zealand; the latest from BMW.
BRUTAL AMG POWER AND SCANT GRIP MAKE FOR STRANGELY PERFECT BEDFELLOWS IN NEW ZEALAND’S ALPINE PROVING GROUNDS.
T“Young guys do it every time,” says today’s race driver-cum-instructor. “They get full of hormones and go too hard.” It seems faintly ridiculous that we can make any progress at all. There’s metre-deep snow on both the flat, open areas and bowl-shaped ring that make up this section of the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, an expansive facility where international manufacturers test cars to their frigid limits. We’re the only civilians anywhere near the place, which is filled with professional test drivers and engineering prototypes. Incredibly, snow has more grip than a dirt road – should you have proper snow tyres and can find a juicy layer of flakes – with professional rally drivers consistently clocking faster times on snowy surfaces than on loose soil and rocks. Still, on this day, there are a couple of issues with putting that theory into practice. One: the soft winter sun has melted much of the delicate, susceptible snowflakes, which quickly refreeze as ice in the sub-zero temperatures. It’s not that it’s hard to get grip on the mirror-smooth ice – it’s that over-eager and under-experienced drivers soon find a way to punch Amg-sized holes in the embankments. But they’re not the only ones finding innovative new paths through the frozen playground. One of the drivers comes back from his run, visibly shaken. While he’s learnt enough not to be spooked by a spin, he wasn’t quite prepared for the business end of a Porsche that was supposed to be on an adjacent track. It turns out that a professional driver, testing an upcoming Panamera, lost it into a corner with enough speed to launch himself backwards up the metre-high snow that separates the two tracks, coming to rest on top of the snowbank like that bus at the end of The Italian Job. With whoops and cheers that can only come from those with a competitive, race-bred mentality, the instructors dispatch a GLS 63 to aid the stuck car and stricken pilot. It’s easy to see why they are in such a good mood today – because regardless of the failings of a competing brand’s driver, there’s a certain elation that floods the body, from feet to fingertips, in
pulling off a successful powerslide on snow. “I swear, I’ve just grown so many chest hairs,” says Simon, bounding from an SL 63 after sliding it, roof down, through a graceful arc. “I’m running on adrenaline, testosterone and endorphins. I feel like I could knock out George Foreman with one punch.” Simon, and brother Nick, won a competition to be here. They’re suitably pumped. Nick’s philosophy to life has always been to say ‘yes’, which he says is the reason he used to cast pornography and why he’s also banned from Las Vegas. We’ll leave it at that. Beyond the brothers sit two sets of AMGS – maniacally powerful rear-drive V8s and maniacally revving turbo fours with all-wheeldrive. It’s no surprise they require seriously different driving styles. And while Simon prefers the former – and performing big, lazy drifts – Nick’s firmly attached to the latter. “The rear-drive cars take such finesse to get right,” he says. “You can really wrestle the allwheel drives and recover from massive slides.” His words ring true given we’ve just righted an extended slide that’d have a professional sweating sheets – a backwards corner entry at more than 100km/h, all four wheels spinning as the 2.0-litre turbo bounced off the rev limiter. But it goes deeper than that. Each car has a distinctly different character, even if they share the same engines in similar levels of tuning. The compact A 45 hatch, for instance, is easier to master than the CLA 45 shooting brake (a station wagon in the real world), but the incongruous thrill of a four-wheel drift in such a lengthy beast more than makes up for it. The V8-powered options, meanwhile, are even more diverse. The C 63 coupé offers a hard edge lacking in the sedan and wagon, letting it carry more speed into each slide. But it’ll also bite more quickly and with more force than those with four doors. The larger E 63 rests on the other side of that coin, with a long wheelbase and plenty of weight to throw around. Mistakes tend to create a pendulum effect, erasing all momentum and inducing worrying intestinal rumbles. The CLS 63, even though it’s based on the E-class, is a much more forgiving animal, quickly becoming an unexpected favourite. For a truly knife-edge experience, though, the mercurial SL 63 is in a class of its own. Laserprecise in the right hands and instantly unforgiving in the wrong ones, it takes a certain masochistic bent – and dogged perfectionism – to try and make it behave. Most tend to choose something more accommodating. We don’t. As for the low-slung AMG GT – well, it lends an almost Bond-like air to proceedings. Naturally, it’s in high demand. But, as we get braver (and perhaps more reckless), it’s quietly retired before we can do six figures’ worth of damage. As the day draws to a close, an incredible Zen washes over the group. It’s a different ratio for each driver, but is made of the same cocktail of emotions and hormones. There’s the sleepy comedown that follows mainlining adrenaline for hours on end. There’s genuine fatigue, too – wrestling supercars in the snow is both physically and mentally taxing. Then there’s the warm afterglow of satisfaction, a dopamine hit that follows a job well done. In any case, it’s a combination no less potent than some fairly dedicated intimacy, followed by a couple of Valium and a whisky chaser. And it’s arguably more addictive. mercedes-amg.com