It's a Mini adventure
This is a story about 51 seconds of my life.
The brief was to race around a winding track marked with traffic cones as fast as possible without a) knocking over any cones, b) skidding off the side of the mountain and c) driving through the garage door and hitting the bar fridge, which was really just a euphemism for a row of bright-orange traffic cones that marked the end of the course.
Initially I was apprehensive when I was told to go and drive a Mini in the snow. All the advice is stay home when it's snowing, avoid going out at all costs.
But seeing you pass this way only once, my philosophy is well, why not. My next thought was that after wrapping my 1.8-metre frame into a Mini, swerving all over the iced roads and ending up in a snow bank, I would look like Mrs Bean. It was not to be, however, because this was no ordinary Mini. The Mini Countryman is a dream car.
Not only did it have headroom to spare, but also good legroom under the steering wheel, which was adjustable up or down. There was space around my body so I didn't feel cramped at all.
The Countryman is Mini's first with four doors and a four-wheel-drive option. It looks so different from what you're used to with the Mini Cooper that initially I walked right past it with the feeling that something was familiar but I must be mistaken. But this was it, a Mini but fatter, higher and longer.
Everything inside has the same iconic Mini looks but in bigger proportions, still cute but a little bit more rugged.
Opinion on the oversized central console, with its aviation-inspired speedometer, was divided. It was easier to read the digital one behind the steering wheel. There were a whole lot of other toggles, switches and do-dabs where form seemed to rule over function. A couple of things didn't even have a function but must have been there just for the design.
Aside from that, the Countryman was a dream to drive. It handled well on the corners as we powered our way up to Snow Park at Cardrona Valley. The 1.6-litre engine had a lot of grunt and never felt like it was straining up the hills. The only negative was its lack of stickiness coming down the hills in automatic. If the roads were wet or icy you'd be better off switching to manual, which isn't a problem because the ALL4 four-wheel-drive facility is really easy to use.
Back at Snow Park, however, we were given a practice run through the track accompanied by BMW technical training manager Lance Roskilly.
To be honest, Roskilly was looking a little frazzled. His job for the day was coaching a dozen people, most of whom were young A-type thrill-seekers (me excluded) who wanted only to go very fast (me included) around the track. His first piece of advice when driving in snow is to take the vehicle out of automatic and put it in second.
Pull away slowly (which no-one did) and head to the cones. Gentle manoeuvres are the key as you wind between the cones. Speeding around the bend at the end inevitably meant the back wheels started to slide out. When that happens, said the voice in my ear, take your foot off the accelerator and steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go.
If your rear wheels slide left, steer left and visa versa. The front wheels on the Countryman have great traction and grip the snow as I round the cones. It helps that there is cornering brake control (CBC). With the finish line in sight, Roskilly says fine judgement is needed. Leave it too late to brake and you'll skid through the cones at the end earning a five second penalty on your final race time.
Practice over, I head for the start line. On the count of three I'm off. It's so tempting to go as fast as possible and while I make it past the first few cones as I line up the bend to bring me round to the home straight I can feel the back start to slide through the snow.
Incredibly, I remember not to swing the steering wheel the other way although it seems counter intuitive and I remember not to brake up but ease up on the accelerator. The front wheels grip and take me forward. I keep as close to the cones as possible trying not to swing too wildly even as I risk running over them.
Luckily I don't. Finish line ahead I start to brake, but kick myself because I know it's too early. The ABS brakes lock, the tyres bite into the snow and I slide to a stop just at the finish line. There's a call of 51 seconds. Slower than some but faster than others. Competition aside, it was a very exhilarating minute of my life.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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