As the luxury Inflite Charters helicopter begins its steady climb from Mechanics Bay, the pilot’s voice crackles through the headphones. We rise over Ports of Auckland, glide through the crisp blue sky past Sky Tower, and I think to myself, if only all Monday mornings could begin like this.
It seems like no time before we’ve reached the Waitakeres. We turn north and skim the windswept black-sanded coastline, ocean-side of Lion Rock, then head slightly inland, dropping above the Jurassic Park-esque green canopy close to a sheer rock face. The cool cliff-top Parihoa Farmhouse, edges into view, and outside a fleet of sport and luxury European automobiles, whose combined worth is comparable with an Auckland home, forms a threatening line.
Verve (along with other media and potential buyers) has been invited by BMW to test drive some German gems, an event to be followed by a degustation menu curated by Michelin-starred chef and BMW ambassador Josh Emmet. The main attraction is set to be the BMW M760Li xDrive, the most powerful Bimmer ever made. After a brief introduction and beguiling promo video we are led out to the line of cars. Amiable instructor Lance will take the lead vehicle directing the rest of us through a walkie-talkie as we follow on, stopping at various checkpoints to stretch our legs and swap vehicles along the way.
The green and graceful 740e is a staggeringly silent hybrid sedan with a 2-litre turbocharged engine and electric motor good for 322hp (the engine alone produces 258hp) with a range of more than 20km running off the battery only. The M6 Gran Coupe, my favourite drive of the day, is its near antithesis, swapping out a little of the suave for a lot more snarl, its menacing stance tailor-made for the race circuit. Alas we, we’re on public roads so are unable to experience the full thrust of its TwinPower Turbo 8-cylinder engine, but the winding west coast roads are ideal to get a sense of its electrifying handling capabilities. This one feels like a proper, old-school sports car with a growl.
The i8 is a rare road beast indeed in the sense that it still resembles a concept car. The sporty, space-age ride is certainly the biggest head-turner in the group—and that’s before the butterfly doors have popped open and we’re given instructions on how to get in and out (mini-skirts would not be recommended). Inside feels like the cockpit of a fighter jet, or perhaps, more fittingly, an X-wing Starfighter. It may look the most futuristic, but this plug-in hybrid is not the fastest in the herd, either off the blocks or in terms of top speed (though not far off), though it sure feels fun and furious owing to its athletic, lightweight carbon design with a wide, low-slung stance that holds the road as if magnetic. Its interior is crafted from recyclable materials, its electric-only range is 37km — an exciting glimpse of tomorrow’s sports supercar.
You’ll need to set aside a stupendous $347,000 to snag the most ambitious BMW ever built, the M760Li xDrive. It weighs an astonishing 2.4 tonnes yet manages to get from stop to 100km/h in 3.7 seconds (the i8 does it in 4.4), and your stomach catches up around half-a-second later. Under the hood sits a fuel efficient 12-cylinder 6.5-litre engine, in the cabin a heap of fascinating features including Minority Report-like gesture control that allows you to take charge of the infotainment system, multi-view camera (that enables you to see all around the car), and hands-free calling, with a simple swipe or flick. Knobs and dials are crafted from ceramic as opposed to the usual plastic, the trim is wood and the seats cloaked in leather—the front ones even boast massage settings. A panoramic glass roof adds to the spacious environment, and come nightfall, it can be illuminated with mood lighting. Rather than calling shotgun for the front, passengers will be fighting for the armchair back seats in this, owing to their ability to tilt back, along with fold-down foot rests in the back of the front seats, a Champagne fridge, and tablets. At the touch of a button, the front seat folds almost completely away, creating an aeroplane business class equivalent space in the back for a power nap on a long drive — or just to spoil the person you’re chauffeuring. Don’t worry about tight parking spots either — you can even step out from the car and edge it and out of a space via remote control. How James Bond is that?
Back at base, with the driving all done, we’re welcomed with a glass of bubbly and ushered through to a dining table that stretches out in front of floor-to-ceiling windows that look straight on to the Tasman Sea. I’m thrilled to discover I’ve been seated next to Josh Emmet, and he seems relatively pleased to be plonked next to a Pom with whom he can discus football (he’s a massive Tottenham Hotspur fan). The exquisite degustation menu consists of delights like seared tuna, and pan roasted hapuka — the accompanied by wines and brandies. Before we leave, a last temptation is dangled before our eyes, a thrilling video presentation of the BMW Alpine xDrive whereby drivers get to throw BMWs around icy tracks high in the Southern Alps. A week later, I’m on another helicopter (helicopters are like buses, you wait a lifetime for one, then end up in two in a week) looking out over the snowy peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park, with a whole new appreciation of a region on whom I already had a serious crush.
Now into its eight year, the week-long BMW Alpine xDrive event takes place at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, winter testing facilities that attract the world’s most prestigious car manufacturers to put their as yet unreleased models through their paces. We are welcome to gawp, but are warned that photography of such vehicles is strictly forbidden. Sixteen snowy tracks are spread over 490 hectares of land at an altitude of around 1,400m, surrounded by mountain scenery. Expert BMW instructors are on hand to tutor drivers as to how to drift a range of their vehicles around the ice. The package also includes two-nights’ accommodation at Arrowtown’s Millbrook Resort, with a much welcome cocktail function upon arrival, slap-up buffet breakfasts and a wonderful, fine-dining celebration dinner after the event, booze included. You’re also transported to the tracks via a scenic helicopter flight.
Minutes before we’re due to depart for the event, we’re summoned for a meeting and glumly informed that the previous night the temperature didn’t drop enough so there’s not enough ice on the tracks making them impossible to drive. The mountain facility has been closed. The drive is off, the disappointment tangible. We’re told it’s only the sixth time it’s ever happened, and the BMW team jump into action. They instruct us to reconvene at reception in two hours. The irony of a motoring event being cancelled due to the weather being too unseasonably warm is not lost.
What should be a 15-minute helicopter flight is extended to well over an hour, passing glaciers and landing next to an otherwise inaccessible lake in a snow-dusted, craggy amphitheatre where we indulge in a glass of chilled bubbly before being flown to Kinloch, near Glenorchy, for lunch and some light river fording in some SUVs. One more surprise awaits on the drive back — via the Glenorchy to Queenstown Road, one of the most beautiful stretches of tarmac in the world — as the snowy tracks are swapped for watery ones and we’re treated to a thrilling ride on the legendary Shotover Jetboat. Everyone leaves wet and smiling — a stellar save by the BMW team. As for Milbrook Resort, it certainly deserves its reputation as one of the nation’s leading lodgings, the 200 hectares of manicured grounds — including a sprawling golf course—are peppered with waterways and woodland that both mornings still draped in mist.
At $2,395, with all except aeroplane flights included, I reckon it’s pretty good value for what is a once-in-a-lifetime experience on a world-leading facility while staying at a world-leading resort—and I’m far from a petrol head. But for now, I’ll just have to imagine the thrill of those icy high-altitude lanes.