Commuter Cars. Urban Cars. City Cars.
You’ve heard SmartCars called many incarnations of those descriptions. And as I watch them zip by on the highway, I still look. And I still wonder where their place will be on the evolutionary scale of automobiles once the car gods put down their pencils.
The best way to test the ability of a tiny car to get you to the office each day? By taking it to the Arctic Circle, of course.
In a 3 part undertaking that began on January 26th, a convoy of 7 SmartCars left Kelowna, B.C. and made their way north. I drove the first leg, a 2500 km trek that would bring the cars to Whitehorse in the Yukon.
The weather was disappointingly good in the B.C. interior. Together with a co-driver, you were permitted to carry only what would fit in your vehicle. Which means a total of two carry-on pieces of luggage, a backpack and a purse. For a 6 day trip with temperatures threatening to reach -50C, my carry-on was comprised almost entirely of very flattering flannel-lined pants and long-johns. With the thermometer hovering around -5C, we were excited to reach our first night’s stop, Quesnel B.C. The previous week temps had plunged to 60 below. We were heralded with -10.
A funny thing happens when you spend hours inside a SmartCar; you forget you’re in a sub- compact vehicle. Loads of head and leg room, which lets you forget you are essentially sitting on the rear axle. Featuring rear wheel drive and a rear-mounted engine, it is very difficult to spin them. Even on ice, in a parking lot, when the Mercedes people aren’t looking.
The cars we drove were equipped with Continental snow tires, and washer fluid suited to -49C. The Passion model we drove, priced from $18,250-$21,250 has heated seats and paddle shifters, which meant you can use the transmission as you would on a manual car – shifting down through the gears for excellent control on steep grades and ice. This would prove important, as you will soon find out.
As we climbed through northern B.C. towards Fort St. John on Day 2, the roads remained clear but the sun didn’t climb out of bed until 9:30am. Snow had accumulated and the trees hung heavy. This is logging country, a fact hard to ignore when the only traffic on the road is comprised of giant logging trucks that blow by you from the opposite direction.
As the temperature continued to drop, more ice was hard formed on the highway. The SmartCar handled admirably; the only indication this isn’t intended as a touring vehicle is the fact your spine essentially starts to serve as a shock absorber on rougher terrain, or by Day Three, whichever comes first. The 3 cylinder engine is effortless on straights, though long inclines are assisted by dropping a gear or two. I was surprised at the absence of cabin noise; many small cars whinge away and assault occupants’ ears with their labouring. Smart grimaces a little on cresting the steepest grades, but overall plays well.
Approaching the Yukon border brought the sternest conditions we faced. Blowing snow reduced visibility, and the roads were essentially ice. While previously the snow dunes lining the highway had been a web of snowmobile trails, they were now covered in tracks from herds of bison and moose.
Driving in a convoy, we were headed by a Mercedes-Benz GL350 with a GL450 as the chase vehicle and a monstrous military G-Wagon bringing up the rear for tech services. Each vehicle is equipped with an emergency radio and a walkie for talking amongst ourselves. With traffic growing sparser as we headed north, the lead GL would radio oncoming traffic.
In early evening at -22C, we drove in the dark toward Muncho Lake. A couple of kilometers from the lodge we were headed for, the walkie squawked. “Truuuuuuuuuuuck,” came the familiar refrain. The Smarts were spaced evenly, perhaps a hundred metres apart. We were headed down a grade, and I’d dropped the transmission from 5th gear to 4th to 3rd,, and my left hand was poised over the paddle as we entered the end of the descent.
We could see the oncoming tractor trailer, and rounding a final curve I saw the tail end of the lead GL heading off the road. The truck was over the line, its headlights filling my windshield. The Smart ahead of me had squirted up a strip of available pavement, but my options were rapidly going from slim to none. In the plume of snow kicked up by the heavy GL I aimed for the only safe place – the sliver of shoulder between the truck’s headlights and the butt of the GL.
You pray for no hidden rocks; you pray for a snowdrift that will stop you before the treeline; you pray you have made the right choice in a fraction of a second. And then you’re thankful for all the additional driver training you’ve had that prepares you for this. “Look where you want to go,” echoed in my head. It’s true: you will head where you are looking. Make sure you’re not transfixed by a tractor trailer’s headlights, nor the bulk of a vehicle that has preceeded you off the road.
Remarkably calm, my co-driver looked at me and smiled. “Good job,” he said. We grabbed our cameras and pulled ourselves out of the car. The GL driver was fine, we were fine, the truck was long gone and the tech master finally had a chance to haul out the tow straps.
I’d watched a Youtube video of a Smart going 112 km/hr into a concrete abutment. The cage held; this is a Mercedes with all the safety and technology that company is famous for. The fact remains we were pushing these vehicles in situations beyond what they would likely be used for. The fact also remains they performed admirably.
I handed off the keys in Whitehorse to Mark Richardson, who will take it on Leg Two to Inuvik. If it can make it there, it can make it anywhere.