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Snow day out with BMW and Mini

BMW Alpine challengeI find driving to the supermarket stressful enough, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect of the BMW Alpine challenge, where its X range gets an airing on snow and ice in the Southern Alps. In a particularly melodramatic moment, I envisioned driving out onto a frozen lake, hearing the 'thwack' of cracks spidering outward, and sinking to a watery death.

In fact, it was quite good fun – plonked firmly behind the wheel of an X3 with the traction control dialed down, I'm not sure I quite got the hang of 'feathering' the accelerator around turns, but I definitely got in a good few satisfying jolts, wrenching the wheel from side to side and feeling an immediate response. The course had us steer through a bunch of road cones, (none of which I toppled despite some most inexpert weaving) and by the end I was positively tearing around the last corner.

I also got to take one of the new top-end Mini Countryman John Cooper models for a wee outing. The Countryman is a fun car to drive – responsive and grunty, with a dash of style. Stylistically, it's all about circles, harking back to Mini's heritage, from the retro dials (including the massive inbuilt navigation/entertainment system that dominates the dashboard) to the vents to the toggles and handles. Stainless steel pedals and steering wheel paddles play up the rallying angle, while heated front seats and a higher ride height enhance the overall experience.

Since its purchase by BMW, Mini has been hard at work churning out new models to appeal to a wide range of customers, with the Countryman being more of a practical "lifestyle" car, with four doors and a decent sized boot. Original Mini fans haven't always been receptive, but corporate communications manager Ed Finn reckons that's changing, with the company organising events such as the recent Italian Job stunt that brought both the younger and older generations together.

As for BMW itself, it's looking to eat into the market share Audi holds (it's dominated the premium segment for a while) and shake up its staid image as the traditional Beemer demographic ages. Time will tell if that strategy pays off.