Laugh-out-loud fun, achingly frustrating, truly humbling and fearsomely challenging, the Mercedes-AMG Snow experience has a little bit of everything
by Matthew O’malley | Photography by Thomas Wielecki
A white out. We are told in advance that it reduces visibility to a couple of feet but somehow my Australian mind doesn’t really compute that. Here in Australia, we might get seriously heavy rain and dense fog but even in those conditions you can usually see a little into the distance. You just squint your eyes, concentrate that bit harder and for right or wrong, keep moving forward. However, it turns out that a white out is exactly that – a white out. So white that we can’t even see the bonnet of our own car, let alone the hazard lights of the car that’s come to a halt in front of us. Someone might as well have poured 500 litres of paint over the windows as the view outside would be near identical.
It’s a rather surreal, yet thankfully safe, ordeal to experience my first real white out in the luxury confines of a Mercedes-AMG GT, and for the humour of it, a convertible GTC at that. Here we sit, waiting for the weather to pass for 15 minutes, talking about nothing much just like we would if we were in Melbourne traffic. Running out of things to look at and buttons to press and I forget what is going on for a while and even manage to get a few emails out of the way.
Welcome to the rather special customer event that is the Mercedes-AMG Snow Experience within the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds on New Zealand’s South Island. The Proving Grounds sits atop the mountain range that was the finishing line to the famous Race to the Sky.
Besides sitting at the end of New Zealand’s version of Pikes Peak, the Proving Grounds also happen to be the only winter test grounds located in the Southern Hemisphere, complete with camouflaged cars and foreign engineers in high-vis jackets. You feel part of something just being here.
evo Australia has been here numerous times before, but not in conditions like these. The last time that we were here was in 2017 and we had postcard-perfect snow and blue skies. I think I even stripped down to a T-shirt for a while. No chance of that today. If I had a spare shirt, I’d put it on. Besides the lack of visibility, today also happens to be minus 16 degrees. Based on the rare moments that I take off my gloves, I’m not going to argue with that figure.
After our briefing on what not to do by AMG’s chief driving instructor and master of ceremonies for the day, Peter Hackett, off we go into our white abyss to take on a series of exercises that will reset our driving levels back to zero. Regardless of the car, the trick to driving on snow and ice is to forget all you know and press a large reset button. The first thing that you realise is that to maintain forward motion you almost need to do the opposite of everything you would normally do while driving on tarmac. The second thing you learn is that the moment you think you know what you are doing is the precise moment that you will find yourself pointing the wrong way.
Regardless, we are all quietly confident that we will be heroes by the end of the day. As we line up for our first series of snow driving exercises in C63s and GTs, I note that while we are pairing up with driving partners, we are also strategically placing ourselves as close to the driver’s door – only to act surprised that we are in pole position to drive once told to jump in.
The first revelation is that the rear-drive C63s and GTs are surprisingly capable on snow and ice. Sure, you can light them up and make them a handful, but only when you choose to go nowhere fast. By always reminding yourself that every input is exaggerated and by being gentle and buttery smooth with those inputs, not only can you make quick forward progress, you can also cut surprisingly accurate lines. Even having experienced AMG’s snow driving course in the past, I still wasn’t expecting the level of speed and accuracy attainable in a rear-driver powered by a twin-turbocharged V8. You can also experience proper sideways momentum at one-tenth of the effort it takes on the road. It really is drifting in slow motion.
Yet nothing here really computes. Turn left and you find yourself sliding right. Braking points start 10 metres behind your current location and the cars that you think will be made for this turn out to be the real handfuls. Case in point, the E 63 S. With 450kW and 850Nm coupled to 4matic, what could really go wrong?
Presented with an area that is roughly the size of 10 football fields, we are given the opportunity to get sideways at speed and drift in circles a couple of hundred metres wide. The lack of walls immediately encourages us to be overly confident. You can lean on the four driven wheels to such a degree that holding a drift for 15 to 20 seconds is completely possible. Yet that all-wheel ability gives you confidence that really isn’t there, and when a E 63 S bites, it bites hard. That perfect drift being captured by one of your passengers on their iPhone can turn you from hero to zero in a flash. But when you get it right, it’s just about the best feeling you can have in a car.
I also realise that our driving abilities find their sweet spot around 60 percent of the way through each exercise. After that point, we tend to think we have it figured out, with the outcome being cars almost always pointing in the wrong direction.
I’ve never taken a G-wagen off road, but I finally get to use one in a way it was intended. Following our lead G63, I’m instructed to aim it at an impossibly high climb that is covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow and to go for it. I start to make excuses as to why I’ve got stuck halfway up before even taking off. But I do as instructed and aim the G up the hill, and up and over we go. Along a snow-covered obstacle course, we drive in such undramatic fashion that we might as well be looking for a parking spot at Bondi Beach. Not once do I feel the G-wagen is going to get stuck. In fact, they come in rather handy when other cars do just that.
While it’s great fun to drift in GTs, C63s and G-wagens, it turns out the highlight of the day for most of us is the GLA 45. The brilliance of 4matic in these junior performance SUVs cannot be underestimated, and it turns almost anyone into a drifting God. After two or three runs up and down the slalom course, we are drifting between multiple cones like we were born in Sweden. Until of course we start to think we know what we are doing, and then we find ourselves pointing the wrong direction yet again.
The Mercedes-AMG Snow Experience is a great deal of fun while learning the limits in relatively safe confines. It’s a magical place to be but the cars are the stars. Every Mercedes-AMG product on sale is tested in conditions ranging from 50 below to 50 above. That complete 100-degree spectrum is just silly when you think about it. Over the course of the day, not once does a car complain, regardless of what we put them through or how many times they spin.