A few weeks back I ventured to Turners Auctions with a friend who was on the hunt for a new steed. If a car caught our eye, we'd kick the tyres, push a few buttons inside, lift the bonnet, check the oil, and stand back and say 'yep, she looks pretty good'. The engine could have been inserted upside down and we probably still would've said that, so, given this complete lack of mechanical knowledge, it was perhaps slightly ironic that a few days later I was invited to venture to Central Otago to take some beefy new BMWs for a few frosty donuts in the snow. But, as a freeloading journalist with a rich boganic Invercargill heritage, it was an offer too good to refuse.
Typically, driving on slippery things is something to be avoided. But near Wanaka at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds, an impressive business that has created a brilliant niche hosting car companies in relative secrecy so they can put their newest advances to the test in taxing conditions and try to get to market before their competitors, it's to be encouraged. So, along with a selection of motoring journalists from Australia and New Zealand and a couple of fellow vehicular Luddites thrown in for good measure (when Kiwiblog's David Farrar uttered the phrase "Ford Corolla", there was a deathly silence from the attendees who actually knew what the hell BMW's technical guy was on about during the introduction that morning), we jumped into a bus and headed to the Snow Farm on the Pisa Range.
- Photos by Simon Darby, Wanaka Photography
Under the watchful eye of BMW's uber-instructor Dieter Schoner, basically a German version of Sean Connery who flies around the world teaching, among other things, government drivers how to escape with their precious cargo in tact should they be attacked, two groups set off down the winding tracks of the Snow Farm in their BMW xDrives on an absolutely perfect day to partake in slalom courses, drag races, braking exercises, powerslides and savoury muffins.
I might not be able to tell if an engine is inserted the right way up, but, having spent a few nights outside our flat on Stuart St in Dunedin after it had snowed chortling at others' expense as cars slid uncontrollably—but slowly and relatively harmlessly—down the hill, I know that being able to drive comfortably and safely on ice and snow is pretty bloody impressive. They are pretty remarkable machines, and they're infused with a whole range of technology that aims to protect us from ourselves by making split second adjustments on the fly based on the conditions. In fact, the technology's so advanced it's almost at the point where foolish humans aren't needed (in hill descent mode the car does all the work sans hands or feet), although thankfully all those safety features can be turned off for those who want to get sideways.
The technology couldn't stop over-enthusiasm, however. Ex 60 Minutes journalist Mark Scott was tasked with doing a hill descent in reverse on a slope the instructor believed would be too steep to scale in the car. That was basically like a red rag to a bull and, with a big run-up, Scott came hurtling up the hill. The onlookers waiting at the top dispersed quickly as he sped towards them and he flew through the air in the huge $160,000 beast as he came over the lip, missing the other cars parked nearby by inches.
After a long peel out session on the skid pad came the second ice slalom time trial of the day. I was surrounded by hyper-competitive alpha male motoring journos who get to do this kind of thing all the time when they test out new cars or get taken to track days by the manufacturers, and I was sharing a car with a man who had driven the Trans-Siberian rally for Porsche twice, so I didn't hold much hope for victory. But oh me of little faith. Perhaps it's my affinity with tipping diesel out on the Southern roundabouts or my experience doing rakies in paddocks, but I somehow clocked the fastest time (which I now remind my wife about regularly when she's telling me to slow down or change lanes).
So what's this got to do with marketing I hear you ask, jealously? As the Research Agency's Andrew Lewis wrote in a recent edition of NZ Marketing, brand is gradually becoming a less important driver of purchase. And in the prestige car stakes, their research showed there is no strong emotional preference between the three major options. So how do you get customers across the line—and keep them coming back? Renowned anecdotist Mike Hutcheson often looks back fondly on a simpler time when consumers might choose a particular type of vehicle because "they spoke well of it in the advertisements, m'dear". Now events like this are increasingly being used to offer added value to important customers—or, in some cases, those selling the cars to important customers. And rightly so, because doing is a hell of a lot more interesting than listening and, in the premium category, there's no substitute for getting bums on seats and showing that the extra cash you'll be splashing is actually worth it.
It's also an opportunity to find new customers. This event isn't just reserved for VIPs and gloating journalists. You don't even need to own a BMW to partake. You just need to put your name in the hat if you want to get yourself one of the limited spots available. Corporate enquiries can also be made. So, instead of promoting office bonding with trust exercises in the staff room again, I can fully recommend getting your drift on next year in some very impressive cars and in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.