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Keeping its grip: The BMW xDrive 3 Series isn't on-sale in Australia, which is a loss for snow bunnies everywhere.

We drive a trio of BMW xDrive models in snow at 1500 meters above sea level

16 Aug 2013


LET’S be honest. The most dirt an average BMW SUV encounters are crumbs on the back seat and dog hair in the boot, but throw on a set of snow tyres and you may be surprised just what they can do.

We ventured in to New Zealand’s freezing southern alps to put BMW’s range of X vehicles through their paces at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground and came away pleasantly surprised.

An eight minute helicopter ride out of Queenstown, the vast winter testing facility covers 400 hectares of alpine terrain and offers a wide range of vehicle testing facilities, from alpine roads, gradient tests, large open snow flats and a 200 metre ice flat all with a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

During the northern hemisphere summer, the SHPG is the only winter testing facility operating anywhere in the world, and subsequently, it attracts vehicle and tyre manufacturers from all over the planet.

During our visit tyre manufacturers Hankook and Continental were busy developing new products for both road and racing applications day and night.

But the day was about BMW’s range of 4WD vehicles and, other than a set of snow tyres, all the vehicles were exactly as they would roll off the showroom floor.

Snow tyres are constructed somewhat differently to normal road tyres and are covered with a pattern of tiny slits called sipes.

Rather than repelling water and snow as a summer tyre would, a snow tyre actually grabs on to the snow providing substantial traction on a surface which can be hard to even walk on.

Combining special tyres with BMW’s xDrive system proved that driving on snow is not just a possibility, it can also be a lot of fun too.

On test was BMW’s medium SUV, the X3, powered by a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine, and its bigger brother X5 and X6 stablemates, powered by triple-turbo diesel six-pot engines producing 280kW and a snow-blowing 740Nm.

Another vehicle also present for testing was the as-yet unavailable in Australia 330d Touring xDrive, which incorporates the same four-wheel drive technology present in BMW SUVs. But more about that later.

The day’s events began with a gentle meander around a winding alpine road in a fleet of X5s and X3s, but a heavy snow covering from the night before had created some sizable drifts in more ways than one.

Instead of sliding to the side of the track in a flurry of wheel-spin, the X5 found grip where there seemingly was none and carried on without complaint with just a slight flicker from the traction control light.

Next came a demonstration of the xDrive’s ability to split torque delivery not just front to back but also side to side.

A simple 15 per cent incline looked simple enough however, the right wheels would be spoilt by a heated and dry strip of concrete while the left side wheel had a sheet of ice.

Not only could the X car make the ascent without hesitation, it was able to pull away after coming to a complete stop half way along the incline.

On the opposite side of the incline exactly the same scenario presented itself, this time as a descent.

With hill descent function turned on, the BMW slowly crept down the slope in a straight line and with no intervention necessary from either steering correction or braking. Not bad.

All of the tests so far had been relying on clever electronic stability assistance systems to fill in the gaps left by a not so clever driver so what happens when all assistance is turned off in freezing conditions?Not as disastrous as you might imagine because the xDrive system still manages torque distribution to all wheels even with DSC turned off.

A circular snow plain offered an opportunity for some seriously frivolous power-sliding and a technical slalom course was possible to negotiate, but the massive torque from the M50d required a gentle throttle foot and careful counter-steering.

Four-wheel drive wagons are strong sellers in New Zealand and, as a result, BMW New Zealand now offers the 3 Series Touring with the same xDrive technology found in the SUV rangeA few examples were also on hand at the proving ground to demonstrate a wagon can posses the same levels of grip as the higher-riding models.

Thanks to its lower center of gravity the 330d Touring xDrive was well suited to more high speed and technical challenges.

J-turns, high-speed slalom courses and even a little light drag-racing couldn’t phase the wagon’s grip and even when things did get a little out of line there was plenty of power from the six-cylinder diesel engine to straighten everything out.

It has often been reported that BMWs foray in to the SUV world hasn’t produced a particularly good off-road vehicle and this may be justified, but less attention has fallen on the ability of the X3, X5 and X6 on-road when conditions are at their very worst.

Snow and ice may be a very extreme and rare form of inclement weather in Australia, but a wet road can be just as treacherous, so the ability of a vehicle that copes well in extreme situations will appeal to safety conscious drivers.

When the sun is out and prevailing conditions are good the X3, X5 and X6 road manner is up there with the very best SUVs but if the elements turn nasty the BMWs handling wont.

Don’t be fooled by their off-roader looks because the BMW range of X vehicles are surprisingly good at staying on-road no matter what the elements throw at them.

Snow joke.

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