Nice driving with Lars

We went down south with BMW for a day of ice driving … that didn’t work out, but there was still opportunity to experience a cool car.
Friday August 11, 2017

By Richard Bosselman

THE sky is clear, the air crisp, the surface is pure, glistening white and this is the best driving day of your life – making, through minute, perfectly-judged inputs of throttle and wheel, a high-powered luxury car pirouette and dance in a way it never could on any other surface.

Stuff of dreams, right?

August is ice and snow driving time at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds high above the Cadrona Valley….

A sub-zero ground zero for secret testing of pre-production vehicles has, for this past fortnight and for the next month, also been open to distributors who host big buck play days for current and future customers.

Audi, AMG Mercedes, BMW are all old hands here – Aston Martin has also rocked up for a second success year and, over the next few weeks, newcomers Skoda and Mazda will take a turn.

Perhaps because AMG and Audi’s RS-heavy programme have established reputation for providing better fun with their own snow shows - and also maybe because its hotshot roadcars are likely to all in time follow the M5 arriving next year in coming out in an all-wheel-drive format – BMW’s focus has this year broadened from simply showing off the strengths of its sports activity line to include pure sports cars, too. So, lining up besides X3s, X4s, X5s and X6s are the M2, M3, M4 and M6.

Not alluring enough? For me, the greatest draw of BMW NZ's invite to come along and join other journalists plus BMW owners who, unlike us, were paying their own way, was opportunity to skid up large in even more exotic fare.

Even though their all-paw format theoretically allows rite of passage, simply being the most extravagant and expensive cars Munich makes, the i8 and M760Li xDrive stood out as surprise throw-ins.

Discovering just how suited the ground-hugging $280,000 two-seater and a super-luxury long-wheelbase Seven that shares the same twin-turbocharged V12 as latest Rolls-Royce Ghost and Wraith (but with even more power) and represents a $345,000 buy-in in standard form (though BMW NZ’s demonstrator, the sole example of this exercise in in taking all the few available options, places at an even headier $375k) in this icecapade was going to be my personal top priority.

Another day, regrettably.

The August 9 session driving all this hot product on the frozen top of the Pisa Range had to be put on ice, through the lack of it.

Increasingly warm days leading up to the big day seemed an ominous warning, but the real damage to our scheduled stint was a front that swept the country on the evening of the 8th.

As we slept and dreamed of big skids and endless slides, the weather system that was hoped to deliver an extra load of snow instead delivered rain, enough to transform a pristine driving environment to such a slushy state the facility management determined even before sun-up to pull the pin on all on-site activity.

That bad news was officially confirmed when we gathered for departure from Millbrook resort at 7.45am. But it got worse.

Soon it became clear that not only was Plan A scuppered but a pre-ordained, supposedly dead-cert Plan B, which envisaged taking the fleet off the mountain and relocating to Highlands Park circuit, had also been blown apart.

How exactly Aston Martin took our gig was subject of conjecture. Perhaps they’d been quicker to make that call securing exclusive use. Perhaps they had extra sway with venue owner Tony Quinn who races this brand and is, after all, the only Southern Hemisphere owner of its current opus, the fabled Vulcan.

Either way, it could also be said Brit brand had more at stake: Whereas BMW’s two-night event was apparently a $2500 pleasure, attendees of Aston’s three-day course involving every latest model – several flown in from Australia – was reputedly way more expensive: Around $11,000 a head. Assuredly, they got a very nice jacket, driving shoes, a plaque and probably didn't have to cover their own airfares (as our own crowd did), but still …  

BMW was battered but beaten. A Herculean effort by the NZ driver trainer Mike Eady and his crew to bring down to Millbrook, after having first swapped off the snow-suited studded tyres for road rubber, some of the cars we should have been driving in the white stuff meant we had something to drive. And the choppers were still available, too. So we assured we would still be doing something, somewhere.

By 10am, a new proposal … guests could fly down to the bottom of Lake Wakatipu, stopping off en route for a champagne visit to an alps-surrounded lake so remote it could apparently only be reached by rotary aircraft, meet the fleet at Kinlock for lunch then drive in convoy back to Millbrook, with car swaps along the way plus a surprise treat at the end (Shotover jetboating, to replicate the hot laps that the ice days end with).

Oh, also, customers got to drive the X5s and an X6 through some puddles on the lake foreshore, an experience that could hardly be called ‘off-roading’ but nonetheless still probably still seemed adventuresome for that crowd.

Alternately, those who preferred not to fly could drive each way. As much as I enjoy helicopters, that experience wasn’t going to produce a car story. So I put my hand up for wheel time.

While i8 hadn’t made the 90-minute trek to the hotel, the magnificent Seven had … so, as the rest of the gang prepped for the flight, I accompanied the brand’s guest instructor out from Germany in the fleet flagship, figuring it would at least opportune one-on-one with the car and, of course, a good way to get to know a hugely-credentialed visitor.

The interview with Lars Mysliwietz is in the accompanying video. It’s worth a watch; he’s a fascinating guy with a colourful background in rally and circuit motorsport.

The Seven, of course, also captures attention. Yet, it’s understandable why BMW NZ thinks just a handful of these cars will be sold here and why the parent in Germany is making noises about this edition being potentially the last of a line that dates back to 1977.

There’s good reason why the Seven in all forms is now BMW’s lowest volume mainstream model, with annual product now at around 25,000 units – of which just a few thou will carry this 6.6-litre V12s – which is less than half the output during the models’ heyday.

The main threat is changing customer taste: Ultimately, the factor that might kill this kind of car completely and is already fuelling conjecture that the 760 might be the last of this BMW breed is the swing to sports utilities.

The reason why Bentley has a Bentayga and why BMW and its Rolls Royce division are feverishly working on super Sports Activity Vehicle that is likely be a co-share between those brands (Munich has already confirmed theirs will be an X7) is because global plutocrat preference is increasingly swinging away from sedans and toward vehicles of equal opulence but even higher standing.

That body style shift potentially might alleviate the biggest ownership turnoff of crippling depreciation – it’s a sobering fact that no cars fall in value faster than these super-luxury sedans – but it’ll be interesting to see how long the V12 stays in circulation.

From the strength of evidence on our day, the smoothest operator in BMW-dom suffers something from an eating disorder; a cited average of 19.7 litres per 100km on return to Millbrook made the car I drove the thirstiest petrol BMW I’ve experienced since … well, possibly the previous V17 Seven, which departed more than a decade ago.

Even so, those vices don’t diminish the best-of-breed experience it provides in respect to how it operates. You don’t get the Rolls Royce look, of course, or quite the same level of interior comfort, but it nonetheless seems to deliver a properly pampered experience and the finish, comfort, ride and performance are something special indeed.

It’s hard to not to agree that a car in which you can chat at normal conversational tone and enjoy impressive comfort while it is being driven down a winding lakeside route at reasonable clip makes it special and memorable occasion.

Also, even though it would seem to break with every Green-friendly convention that BMW NZ has sought to establish by provisioning the Government VIP fleet with diesel – and, latterly – a petrol-electric versions from this family line, the car’s massive engine definitely also adds an illustrious edge.

What impresses – even if it obviously does nothing for the economy – is this engine’s huge capability. The refinement is massive, but so too is the raw oomph if you care to unleash it. An awesome 448Nm at 6500rpm and torque of 800Nm at 1550-5000rpm make it a true powerhaus.

Factory performance data suggests it can sprint to 100kmh from a standstill in 3.7 seconds, which makes it 0.2s faster to the highway limit than a Porsche GT3 manual. And, of course, BMW’s engine mates to an upgraded ZF eight-speed automatic that’s calibrated more for smoothness than sport – though it can shift really smartly - then drives through BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system with on-demand torque distribution.

That sort of shove isn’t at all bad for a big 2.1tonne car that seats four, with the two in the back enjoying massive legroom and a set of chairs that are the equals to a first class airline seat for comfort, almost offer the same angle of recline, provide  fold-down foot rests (electrically-operated, of course) and can offer the occupant a thorough massage as he/she either watches films on a pair of 10-inch video screens embedded into the backs of the front seats (using, as a remote, a 7.0-inch Samsung removable tablet in the armrest of the rear seats’ centre console that also controls the movement of all seats – even the driver’s – and the seat cooling, heating and the satellite navigation) or alternately surveys the “sky lounge” headliner which, at night, lights up with a myriad of tiny LED lights that make it appear like stars.

The luxuries don’t end there. Far from it. This car has a Bowers and Wilkins 19-speaker audio, a fridge between the rear seats for two bottles of wine, blinds on the rear window and two side windows, a footstool and work desk in the rear, 360-degree cameras, a heated steering wheel and premium leather upholstery and trim with wood and alloy inlays.

So it’s luxury with an edge. But which has priority? The ‘M’ part of the badge layout might suggest this is a driver’s car foremost, and a limo second, but I’m not so sure. The roadholding is pretty impressive, the four-wheel-drive aspect lends a huge amount of traction on dry seal and there is an Active Comfort Ride option that includes a camera-based predictive suspension system that screens the road ahead and ensures the suspension is prepared for any imperfections.

But … well, big is big so, despite feeling really light and far from floppy for something so large, despite picking up the carbon-fibre “core” technology used to surround the passenger cell, saving weight and improving structural strength and body rigidity, it still fills and commands its lane, while that 5.2-metre long body will assuredly also fill any parking spot.

A car like this is perfect for a swank setting, the fast lane of an endless motorway … and BMW wanted to take it the top of a mountain, equip it with studded snow tyres and let people like me skid it around, in fingers-crossed hope of not snagging its expensive bodywork on a snowbank rendered hard as concrete by wind and sun and temperature change.

Sounds totally crazy, huh?

Unfinished business, for sure ….