There isn’t a cloud to be seen anywhere in the clear skies above, and even with the late-morning sun hovering overhead, the temperature sits at a rather frosty 1oC. The temperature is expected to climb a notch or two as the day progresses, but right now the ground is bare and coloured dull brown from the winter chill. There is no snow in sight, not even a sliver of white to be seen anywhere in the vicinity, which does dampen the occasion since I am here on the coastal city of Incheon to participate in a spot of winter driving.
Yes, I do know that in certain parts of the world snow isn’t part and parcel of winter, and that seems to be the case with Incheon, which only sees light snowfall every year, all of which isn’t taking place on this particularly sunny February day. But I was hoping for otherwise, for a wide open field of frozen perfection. It looked as though some plans might need to be changed, but as soon as BMW’s new South Korean Driving Centre comes into view I’m greeted by a neat patch of snow and an ensemble of BMWs cars lined up on it, serving as a fitting introduction to BMW’s latest Driving Centre. Located within an hour’s drive from Seoul, and just a stone’s throw from the airport, the new 240,000m2 facility is BMW’s first Driving Centre in Asia, and only the third such facility in the world. The other two are located in Germany and the United States as expected.
With all the news of China and India being booming automotive hubs, South Korea is probably the last country you would expect to have such an exclusive facility, but BMW’s presence is no less significant here. In a country where 90 per cent of all car sales are accounted for by local brands, BMW is the best selling non-Korean car brand in the country, and South Korea is BMW’s ninth largest single market in the world. And in a country where ninety-nine out of a hundred cars on the street is from the Korean hegemony, BMW’s lead here is nothing short of a remarkable achievement.
This particular Driving Centre is the first to incorporate a driving track and a dedicated brand experience. So alongside its 2.6km closed circuit, off-road driving facilities, and the aforementioned snow courses, the centre also boasts dedicated exhibits on BMW, MINI, and Motorrad models, a new Junior Campus with specially tailored educational programs on mobility and road safety for children, and a 12,000m2 eco-friendly sports park. So not only can you come here to learn how to drive properly, but entice yourself with a new Roundel-badged ride. It is a veritable celebration to the BMW brand, and the best way to do that, is with some driving.
Before I can get onto the white stuff though, I’m given a 328i and guided onto the black and dry tarmac for some exercises. These exercises include a slalom course, and a test of emergency manoeuvres and emergency braking, after which the gates were opened and we are let out onto the 2.6km closed circuit. On any other closed circuit, driving something as ‘everyday-everyman’ as a 328i won’t elicit much excitement, but then again BMW’s circuit wasn’t built for competitive usage in the first place, so it isn’t as wide or vast as some racing tracks are. With no need to facilitate space for overtaking, the track feels fast enough, even for a 328i, and features a mix of high speed bends and switchback corners that allows one to practice their techniques, rather than presenting a serious trial by fire for their reflexes and nerve, which is kind of the point for having on-track driver training. The track feels as though it is built for all levels of proficiency, as it isn’t wise to toss beginners into the deeper end of things.
For some real excitement, BMW then strapped me into the passenger seat of their 560PS M5 ‘taxi’ with their resident professional racing driver behind the wheel for a few hot, and very sideways laps around the circuit. In the hands of a professional, the M5 put on a brilliant display of outright tyre-shredding power and pinpoint delicacy as it manages to pirouette through sections barely wide enough to accommodate its own length.
From the track, I was ushered onto an X5 where I was to put it through its paces on the Driving Centre’s off-road proving grounds. Comprising of eight sections, featuring steep embankments that will try the X5’s hill-crawling ability and anti-roll stability, a twist track of deep potholes to demonstrate its axle articulation and ground clearance, and near impassable tree trunk lined pathways as a test of its torque and four-wheel drive system, the proving ground has all the right angles and obstacles to explore the X5’s capabilities. Well, insufferable off-road enthusiasts will hark on about how an X5 won’t be able to handle mud or traverse deep soil, but considering that X5s will be bought by affluent city folk who needs nothing more than something to pop down to the nearby shops, while seeing it leaning on its side on a 33o slope and cruising through an erratic boulder field. The proving ground offers a clear enough proof that the X5 has more than enough ability for its target audience. And even if a customer were the least bit curious of what a four-wheel drive BMW SUV can do, this is just the right place to find out.
Like a good four course meal, the on-track experience and the off-road excursion were merely the starters for the main event, snow driving. Though for someone who hasn’t been anywhere near snow in his entire life, the universe has decreed that I should conduct my inaugural drive in an X5 M50d. Yes, that same 2.2-tonne leviathan with a 3-litre triple-turbocharged inline-6 diesel engine capable of spitting out 381PS and 740Nm of torque, and hurtle you to 100kph in 5.3sec. Well at least it has four-wheel drive, to be safe.
The “Snow Basic” driving programme took place on the Driving Centre’s 11,000m2 Multiple Course which, for the winter season, has been covered in a thick layer of snow that is artificially generated. It isn’t made by a giant grinder and a lifetime supply of cubed ice, but litres of water being sprayed into the air where it will fall back as icy snow, and only done when ambient temperatures fall below freezing. Similar to the braking and slalom tests that were done on tarmac earlier, the driving exercises on snow also include a slalom course and braking tests. Unlike driving on grippy and coarse asphalt, when piloting on snow, it is better to disable the traction control system, allowing for some wheel spin. Accelerating off the line and pulling an emergency braking manoeuvre was surprisingly easy with trace amounts of wheel spin upon acceleration and locking up of the tyres under braking.
When it came to tossing the X5 through the slalom course however, the rear-biased xDrive system was ever ready to let me pull off some big slides through the sequence of bends. Even with the supposed traction and security offered from four mechanically driven wheels, the X5 is ever ready to pull off some big tail happy slides when power is applied, and intervention from its electronic safety net is toned down a bit. And let me tell you, that feeling of a 1.7-metre tall SUV hanging its tail out with such ease and aplomb is a life-affirming event that still beggars belief. We liken SUVs of such girth to be stumbling mammoths, but the X5 is just one giant ballerina in the snow.
Not to get too carried away, on such slippery surfaces it is important to master the finer points of throttle control. Don’t go hard on the brakes when the tail does step out as it would destabilise the car and put you into a spin, just as easily as putting too much power down. Rather, ease up on the throttle, pull off quick steering inputs to steer yourself into the skid, and steadily draw its tail back into line.
That said, much of the X5’s control on the snow largely down to the use of winter tyres, and to show just how much of a difference four-wheel drive and winter tyres makes in the snow, I swapped the X5 for a much lighter and less powerful 220d on summer tyres. With nearly half the power and torque, driven wheels, and weight of the X5 M50d, the 220d was completely hopeless in finding traction to even get off the line. With no traction control intervention to stop the wheels from spinning unnecessary, the rear tyres just spun away hopelessly even if you are a little too hard on the throttle, the nose barely budging an inch from the starting line. Feather the throttle as though there are eggs underneath, and the tyres will stutter with brief moments of grip, and slow progress is made. Braking unsurprisingly was completely hopeless as the 220d sailed comfortably through the braking zone, wheels locked and skiing on the packed snow. BMW’s instructors explained that the summer tyres’ poor performance is largely due to the compound in the tyres that is only effective in warmer temperatures and lose their traction in cold conditions. As demonstrated in the 220d, the key to driving in snowy conditions isn’t just relying on electronic aids, but having a good foresight, quick reflexes, and a fitting set of winter tyres.
You might ask whether such an exercise is necessary, considering that winter is the one season Malaysians won’t get to experience, but like ice skating around in a mall, it is one of those experiences that bears no real-world relevance in Malaysia, is still bloody good fun to have in any petrolhead’s bucket list. While the lessons on the Multiple Course covered the basics of handling in the snow, BMW has an upper tier programme for more experienced drivers to move up to. Known as “Snow M Drift”, the programme involves a selection of rear-driven M models from the 3 right up to the 6, being taken out on a circular course where you can learn how to handle big angles of slip like so many road tester celebrities on the internet. Unfortunately the programme wasn’t available to me at that particular day, as were other, more advanced levels of driving programmes that the BMW Driving Centre had to offer. Nevertheless if you happen to be making a trip to South Korea, and interested in brushing up your skills, BMW Korea is only too happy to let you have a go at their comprehensive programmes, for a price, of course.
*More information on BMW’s South Korean Driving Centre, available driving courses, and reservations can be found at http://info.bmw-driving-center.co.kr/driving-center/introduce.asp.