Have Smart, will travel: Arctic Circle, here we come!

Journalists frequently participate in media events all over the world and these events are almost always very well structured and leave little room for adventure. But I must admit that the idea of participating in an expedition to the Arctic Circle at wheel of a Smart is anything but ordinary. The Smart is a car that would have been way down my list of vehicles for this type of adventure, but as they say, no guts, no glory, so the manufacturer Mercedes-Benz chose nothing less than the SSmart to make this journey.

And the little Smart was not chosen by accident. While this car has been on Canadian roads for several years now, potential buyers are still worried about its winter driving capabilities. So, what better way to prove that the little Smart is capable of taking on the worst winter conditions than to invite automobile journalists to the Canadian northwest to spread the good news! If the Smart is up to the challenge, that is...

An adventure begins

Suffice it to say, the stage was set for an extraordinary drive. The pre-trip checklist contained some pretty unusual suggestions, like “Don’t forget to bring very warm clothing. Avoid wearing jeans. Prepare not to have any means of communication.” What? These days, who can live without a Blackberry and e-mail? A satellite telephone number was also on the list so that our loved ones could contact us in case of emergency. Now that’s recipe for an expedition way out of your comfort zone, especially when the first people we met upon arrival told us that they were afraid to go to Inuvik in a 4X4, much less a Smart!

The expedition was divided into three segments. I did the first part of the journey that began in the city of Kelowna, B.C., and ended in Whitehorse, Yukon. My colleague Nadine Filion took part in the second stage, which brought her to Inuvik, smack in the Arctic Circle. You can read her summary on The Car Guide website. The expedition concluded with a third segment, which ended in Vancouver.

Day 1: A walk in the park

After previously receiving the safety directives and a brief outline of our journey, we hopped on board of one of the seven Smarts that were part of the expedition. The cars hadn’t been significantly modified, with the exception of good winter tires (which are a must) and washer fluid guaranteed to -49 degrees. The first thing we noticed was that it wasn’t easy to put all our gear into this two-seater. The Smart has nowhere near the space of an SUV, but we managed to close the hatch, albeit with an assist from my right knee. Our first success. As a safety – make that survival – measure, we were accompanied by two Mercedes GL Class vehicles and a Mercedes-Benz G military vehicle. Furthermore, the G-Class was transporting any and all necessary equipment in case of a problem. Specifically, they stocked gas, wheels, replacement parts and windshields, of which the latter ended up being the most useful.

The city of Kelowna had Olympic fever, and the Olympic flame even passed through town during our stay. Some 580 km later, we made it to the city of Quesnel, where we spent the first night. The route was set against some magnificent Far West scenery, particularly around Kamloops. This part of the trip had dry roads, very mild temperatures and no snow. Basically, it was a walk in the park, even for a Smart.

Although we weren’t in an urban area, the first thing we noticed was how well the Smart manages on the road. Sure, we had to make a few stops to stretch our legs, but the car isn’t bad at all. Its three-cylinder, 70 horsepower engine seems laughable compared to the competition, but the car’s weight/power ratio helps make up for it. Still, you’ll have to expect passing to be slightly more touchy than if you were in an AMG.

Day 2: The Alaska Highway

We departed early in the morning en route to Fort St. John, more than 560 km away. As the climate became less and less inviting, cars became more and more rare, giving way to heavy wood transport trucks pulling not one, but two trailers at a time. These trucks made us feel very small aboard our Smarts. The drivers, in turn, seemed very surprised to see a string of Smarts in their path and, believe you me, you don’t want to find yourself coming at them in the opposite direction. After some small towns, we found ourselves going through villages that seemed to pop out of nowhere. Time seemed to be standing still in this part of the country – makes you wonder how people live that way. Who knows, maybe they have it right after all!

The roads became more and more snowy as we climbed upward and the mercury fell. Finally, we arrived in Dawson Creek, which is Mile Zero, the start of the Alaska Highway. The Sunday drive is finished, and the adventure is about to begin.

Day 3: Off the road!    

As we were quite far north, we departed on Day 3 in darkness. The destination was Muncho Lake, 630 km away. Gone were the nice roads; you’d have thought we were on snowmobile trails and we couldn’t see the road which was covered with ice. There were a few dealerships along the way, all of which stocking only pick-up trucks. This is pick-up and 4x4 country, after all, and cars are almost non-existent. We raised more than a few eyebrows, since the Smart is definitely not a familiar car in this neck of the woods.

While the countryside was like something out of a fairy tale, the lead GL alerted us of transport trucks arriving in the opposite direction. The icy road was narrow and very rounded, prompting us to drive in the centre as much as possible so as not to slide into the ditch. Throw in the difficult visibility because of the snow stirred up by all of the cars and the winding and mountainous escarpment-lined roads, and you get anything but a Sunday drive. However, we managed to maintain a more than respectable cruising speed and everything was made easier by the Smart’s handling and lightness. In fact, on the ice, the Smart turned out to be more agile than the big SUVs that accompanied us, which were saddled with a more significant weight and a higher centre of gravity. Like a go-kart, the Smart ended up being as solid as rock. Plus it was well supported by its traction control system, which stepped in to correct certain minor excesses.

With my co-pilot at the wheel, a transport truck made the lead Mercedes GL swerve a little too far to the right, and next thing you know, it was off the road followed by a group of Smarts sideways on the road. Just then I said to my partner, “Don't hit the brake!” But it was too late, and we found ourselves off of the road and sinking into the snow. Once the bowling game was over, our technical leader, who was trailing the group, calmly said, “All the cars that were not involved in the accident should continue driving.” That’s all it took for me to say to myself, “Finally, some action and some good pictures!”

Jerry, the pilot of the Mercedes G military vehicle, agreed. He had a hard time hiding his smile now that he could finally use his toys to free the two vehicles. Sure, the brass at Mercedes wasn’t thrilled to hear what happened, but the journalists sure were giddy. Mrs. Caza, the head of public relations at Mercedes-Benz Canada, can take comfort in the fact that her cars are indeed safe. But they are, like all other vehicles, at the mercy of who is behind the wheel.

Day 4: Arrival in Whitehorse

Another night-time departure from Muncho Lake, as day-time didn’t wake up until several hours after us. The sun only came out for a little while, following a tiny arc without ever passing directly above us. If you think there isn’t much light at our latitude, go spend a winter in the north. You’ll be ready for therapy after just a few months. Once again, snowy landscapes dominated and we saw wild animals along the route regularly.

We got the feeling that we were nearing Whitehouse as we passed a series of businesses specializing in windshield repairs. The only damage we sustained was three pretty significant cracks in the windshields and two areas where the glass shattered, which could be said for all of the Smarts in the group. However, travelling in a convoy didn’t help matters. There were seven windshields to replace!

All in all, the Smart did quite well in this first stage. It remains to be seen if this will continue up to the Arctic Circle. Sure, the Smart isn’t the most spacious car around, but its small wheels, lightness and electronics helped us reach our destination day after day. Only a blizzard with large accumulations could have stopped our expedition.

The moral…

These days, while many accuse the automobile of all of the planet’s ills, it’s important to remember and acknowledge that few experiences are as enriching as a long car ride with friends and family. There’s no other means of transportation that will let you access and discover such interesting parts of the country. For your next vacation, pass on the week in Cuba and hit the road to discover unusual places. You’ll come back transformed.

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