The snow show-off
The Snow Farm near Wanaka delivers a winter vehicle testing ground during the northern hemisphere summer – and an opportunity to accelerate development, as the day’s results are emailed to arrive as northern R&D engineers start work, with new tuning parameters returned as Down Under staff eat breakfast. Occasionally, motoring writers get to sample the results, hurling snow-developed cars and tyres across the white stuff to test the limits of control. So far, we’ve been restricted to four-wheel-drives but not this time, for we’d drive high-performance rear-drive AMG Mercedes on snow and ice. The cars were shod with Continental ContiWinterContact TS 810 Sport tyres, standard for Northern European winters and designed for low temperatures. Malleable sidewalls increase the contact patch, slits distort when stressed to create edges that dig in, a softer compound remains flexible at under seven degrees, when everyday tyres harden. And a wide, deep tread uses the inherent nature of snow – its flakes are unique and therefore interlock, hence snowballs – to create snow-to-snow grip. Which you lose when you hit ice . . . We drove these hyper-powerful cars with the traction control off, learning to skid, regain control then lose it again at will; to prompt wheelspin at low speeds, then harness it to get us where we want to go. Hoonery in slow motion, for at speed in these conditions, if you do lose control things quickly get very bad indeed. ‘‘If you go off the edge, do it in front of the camera,’’ we’re told. “Then at least it can go viral.’’ Er, thanks.
These C63 AMG cars start the bidding at $166,900 and we had $3.5-million-worth to punt around part of this enormous winter facility, with its 400 hectares of privately owned proving ground including ice sheets and meticulously groomed skid pans plus 30 kilometres of compact snow tracks. Each car was showroom standard, apart from the tyres. That meant heated leather seats, high-end audio systems, and elegant bodies embellished with AMG flourishes that survived several impacts with frozen snow banks – fortunately at the slow speeds mandated by driving on sheet ice.
Mercedes wants owners to understand the basics of cold-weather driving. Being prepared – with the right tyres. Choosing an appropriate speed – even 70kmh may be too fast in snow. Adapt driving to the conditions, drive smoothly, understand where drive is applied – to front, rear or all four tyres – and be able to control a skid. If the handful of New Zealand and Australian dealers, journalists and customers also had a blast while learning, bonus.
Mercedes for taking a calculated risk; to learn the skills we need, we first must lose control – and though this wasn’t a public road, frozen snow banks and fences fringing steep drops awaited the reckless. The fact that over three days of icebound tomfoolery at the hands of largely inept drivers, only one car drifted wide enough to leave the track – and that was a support car on road tyres – is testament to how controllable these AMG cars are.
That we had just enough time to learn the basics, but not enough to practise.
Vroom!: TheAMGMercedes goes for a spin on the white stuff in Wanaka.