March 28, 2016 @ 03:21 PM

Snow drifting in a BMW

Unless the Earth suddenly shifts additional tilt on its axis, Malaysia will not be experiencing snow for a very long time. Still, it is always useful to learn a new skill...


Unless one has lived there for an extended length of time, no citizen of the equator can ever prepare oneself from the intense blast of cold every time wind picks up speed. Think about it, our coldest winds, the kind that can only make us shiver a giggly bit, can only be experienced on a highland resort. Right now, the mercury hovers at zero degrees but it lies. Because any form of moving wind – from breeze to stronger – sweeps the temperature deeper into the negatives. Judging from the way the flag with the blue-white roundel is whipping in the wind, let’s just say that I dread to be in the shoes of the Korean instructor, who is currently imparting wisdom and knowledge to the journo in the BMW in front.

Perhaps the key to staying warm, apart from putting on a windbreaker on top of a sweater on top of two t-shirts and one of those heat things from Uniqlo, is to wear gloves. And maybe an extra pair of socks. Because, despite being in a car with the thermostat stopped at a tepid 22-degrees Celsius, my fingers are still getting nibbled by the Korean cold. I get distracted by the activity in front.

Snow gets kicked up from the rear tyres of the Bimmer in front with the mission of stopping at the goal line placed about 100 metres down the road. It struggles to overcome its first metre, then inches towards the end like a fawn on frozen water. Stops almost like the hapless animal too.

This is a part of a series of exercises organised by BMW Korea in its spanking new BMW Driving Centre located not more than a 15-minute drive from Incheon International. The centre is complete with off-road and race-course tracks to educate their customers on how to handle their BMWs. And it includes driving on ice and snow, which I now find myself in as part of the BMW Winter Drive Korea.

The snow I’m on didn’t flutter gently to the earth from the sky. This one was generated by forcing water through a massive blower into the air and dropped down as snow. Not that Incheon didn’t snow, the season for it has passed but I’ve been assured that the process was similar to how it was done for the recent Winter Olympics. My turn is up.

Power, and most of the 400Nm of torque the four-cylinder TwinPower turbo diesel produces at the rear wheels. The rev needed starts rushing for the redline, seemingly mirroring the doses of adrenaline being pumped into my blood stream. The exhaust sound is in crescendo and well on its way to a climax. And then, nothing. The expected rush forward did not happen but instead the car painfully crawls towards the goal. Remember fawn on ice? I wonder why I expect this 220d to perform any different.

Before me now are two paths to take. The easy way is to bear right and go around the tiny slope. I bear left, mostly out of curiosity, and start my climb only to stop midway just as instructed earlier. Foot off the brake and on the go-pedal again. The rear of the 2 Series Coupe begins a minute and gentle sway to the left before squatting that side’s tyre. I am in trouble.

The 220d is engineered well enough to tap 100kph in 7.0 seconds, yet it remains in place while relocating snow from the rear tyres onto someplace where it will even be of less use. You know that phrase, digging your own grave? This could be a close icy equivalent. Since I am not going anywhere fast, I instinctively hit the brakes, put the car in reverse and gently apply power to the wheels, hoping to displace the wheels onto something that would not discount any more purchase. Just as before – nothing.

In my defence, this is the first time I am driving on snow and I have adopted a style that closely resembles driving on mud, which is a terrain that I am most familiar with. It does not work because driving on snow actually similar to driving on a road covered with wet leaves although encounters such as this are too far and few in between. For me, at least. So, you might find a bit of traction here and there but it is mostly a struggle to keep the nose pointing in the direction you want.

And in the 2 Series’ defence, it isn’t geared to drive on soft, fluffy frozen water. The coupe is still wearing tyres that suit warmer climates. Drop the mercury to 7 degrees and below and the summer tyres might as well be bricks. And that isn’t far from the truth because the compounds on the tyres shod our Malaysian cars will start to harden once temperatures go into the single digits. Snow tyres; on the other hand, starts to work at seven degrees Celsius, and will remain pliable to aid in gripping the slippery white substance. To make the situation even dire, I was told earlier to pull the plug out of the traction and stability control systems. So, really, the 220d is set for failure right from the start.

While it may seem like it is a lesson in futility, it is a lesson that must be learned nonetheless. If I ever relocate to a country where snow falls every year, then I will know that I need two things in a winter car – winter tyres and traction control. Speaking of which, traction control returned for the next round and off the bat, the 220d has a much easier time finding a bite in the tyres. But only just.

My second stint on snow involves me being inside an X4, which made me abandon the warm confines of the 220d. No matter, the wind had died long ago and the only hazard is now coming from my Puma shoes, which is made for driving but not for walking on frozen water. One step and suddenly the rubber soles turned into a million little tiny wheels propelling me forward. I slip, then slide on one foot for a good metre, and did not fall. Good, or else I would be completing the rest of the day looking like I have just unloaded my bladder on my jeans.

The walkie-talkie crackled and a heavily Korean-accented English shattered the silence inside the X4, “Now you keep traction and turn off DSC.”

DSC, or Dynamic Stability Control, helps the vehicle not pivot on an axis by constant monitoring multiple variables in the car, including steering angle, vehicle speed and lateral acceleration. When the car detects something is quite amiss, the brake is applied to the appropriate wheel in the right amount of pressure so that the driver has an easier time to recover control of the vehicle. Or, to put it simply, the X4 is now extremely tail-happy. Excellent.

Before me is a short slalom course delineated with the same orange cones, this time, lined up and spaced out at equal distances. The task sounds easy enough – string a series of rights and lefts. I take off; grip comes easy now that horses and torque are equally distributed among all four wheels. Differences between rear- and four-wheel drive are unquestionable. Back in Malaysia, the un-wintry weather always casts some doubt as to whether the four-wheel drive is working at all even when the skies have opened up and dumped a lake’s worth of water on the road. That same doubt isn’t unique to just BMWs, mind you. On snow, the first disparity between two- and four-wheel drive that hits is the degree of lifelessness of the steering wheel – there’s more feedback from the 4WD. And because of the first point, the second contrast you’ll notice is the degree of control you have over the car.

The X4 takes off but not before needing a second or two to seek traction. The first left is executed just as normal as you would imagine it to be. The follow-up right throws the tail slightly outwards but I counter it just in time to make the subsequent left. However, by this time, I need to dial back the steering into the opposite direction just so I can string in the second set of left-rights but the constant shift in weight have thrown the balance into the Han River. It didn’t even take a second before I have the best seats in a pirouetting SAC, spinning counter clockwise.

The second attempt yielded similar results, if not a little better than the first; partly due to possessing the knowledge of what to expect and partly from swifter turns of the steering. I start the third run at a more control pace. By that I mean not feathering the accelerator every time I complete a corner. The tail did kick out for sure, spraying snow in every direction, but it did so with the tame manners of a harnessed horse. Thus, the Snow Basic portion of the program is completed.

Earlier in the day, I jumped into a 120d and performed exercises that served to be nothing more than a good introduction on the characteristics of a winter tyre. It started with a short slalom course with portions that made use of all four discs and the ABS. Then, a few laps around the closed circuit race track aimed to hone the deftness of the hands while highlighting the inherent sharpness of all BMWs in striking the apexes.

A taxi-ride straight after lunch in an M3 going mostly sideways around the handling course kick-started the second portion of the day.

Then, armed with an X5, I ran the off-road course littered with various obstacles and terrains. All of which, of course, played up the capabilities of the X5. Railroad, logs, rocks, puddles and loose sand were just some of the terrain that the wheels of the X5 had to traverse. There were also slopes so steep that all you can see in front of you is the clear blue sky. To navigate safely, I had to use the cameras that are engineered all around the X5. There was also a portion of the course that had me put all four wheels of the X5 on the side of a slope starting with the left wheels. The telemetry placed the screen told me that the X5 was tilted at a 35-degree angle on its side. I felt as if the X5 was going to crash sideways before displaying its belly to the sky. It didn’t, of course. The stiffness of the chassis aided in the control of the SAV throughout every challenge.

The Korean BMW Driving Centre is massive. It sits on a 240,000 square metres of prime land in Yeongjongdo Incheon International City. This centre is the address of not just all of these tracks, but also showcases of M- and i-vehicles, BMW Motorrad, a tiny museum, an event hall, a restaurant, a service centre and even a junior campus to start them out young. The complex is impressive and I wonder if BMW would ever break ground for a new Drive Centre in Malaysia. They should because there is no better place than to exploit fully the characteristics of a BMW in a safe and controlled environment.

The experience has been quite amazing and now I have basic knowledge of how to drive on snow. I cannot imagine that I will be putting it to frequent use but anything is possible. Perhaps snow will fall in Malaysia sometime in the near future; you’ll never know.

CHRIS NG

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