smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik
smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik – on the Dempster Highway. Click image to enlarge

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smart winter expedition: Whitehorse to Inuvik

Whitehorse, Yukon Territory – According to Marcus Breitschwerdt, President of Mercedes-Benz Canada, the introduction of the Smart Fortwo to our market in 2006 was typically greeted by three questions: Is it safe? Will it go on the highway? Can it handle our winter?

Questions about safety were addressed by conducting in-house crash tests between the Smart and a much larger Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan. Result? The smart performed admirably (and subsequently received a “good” safety rating in independent testing by the U.S. Insurance Institute of Highway Safety).

Regarding the smart’s highway performance, Mr. Breitschwerdt points out that the smart is a German vehicle, designed in a country where high-speed highway travel is an everyday requirement. Consequently, the Smart will easily attain and exceed any highway speed limits in Canada.

smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik
smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik – on the Dempster Highway. Click image to enlarge

But when it came to scepticism about the Smart as a winter vehicle, Mercedes-Benz Canada thought it really needed to make a point: hence the Smart Winter Expedition.

The logic is that if a Smart Fortwo can handle a concentrated dose of seven-thousand kilometres of tough Canadian winter driving, then it can handle your daily urban commute, no matter where you live.

Autos’s Grant Yoxon drove the Fortwo from Kelowna, British Columbia to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory on the first leg of the Expedition, and came away impressed. The next leg would see the diminutive Smarts battling the remote route from Whitehorse to Dawson City, and then on to Inuvik. The destination is well inside the Arctic Circle.

smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik
smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik
smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik
smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik
smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik
smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik
smart expedition Whitehorse to Inuvik – on the Dempster Highway. Click image to enlarge

You’ve heard of “Ice Road Truckers?” Well, this is their territory, and at first glance, you’d think the tiny Smarts would be way overmatched. In fact, the 500-km drive from Whitehorse to Dawson City was tough but manageable. The Klondike Highway is paved — although at this time of year it’s ice-covered in many places — and our vehicles were shod with Continental winter tires, equipped with electronic stability control, electronic cornering control and anti-lock brakes among other technologies designed to aid the driver in everyday or emergency situations.

The cars felt stable on this surface, with the steering tightening up at speed, making the Fortwo feel like a much larger and more substantial vehicle. The ride was generally smooth (although the sunroof tended to chatter when conditions deteriorated) and noise from the 70-horsepower, one-litre three-cylinder gasoline engine was virtually undetectable.

Once daylight finally arrives (at around 10:00 am), it reveals pleasant alpine scenery, punctuated by stands of pine trees and meandering rivers. The overall impression is of a rural road in the depths of a northern winter. The speed limit is 90 km/h, and we kept a pace maybe 10 km/h more than that. Perhaps we became a little blasé.

Dawson City, site of the 1898 Gold Rush, is a community of 1,500 people that looks much the same as it did one-hundred years ago. Mainly a tourist destination now, the buildings are “period” with some of the older ones listing weirdly, demonstrating the effect of permafrost on their foundations over time. We stayed at the Eldorado Hotel, had a beer at the Sluice Box Lounge, and enjoyed the balmy minus 15-degree weather: so far, so good.

The next morning, dark and early, we packed the Smarts for the 750-km drive to Inuvik. Two people per car was the arrangement, and the cargo area behind the seats was crammed full with a pair of wheeled carry-on bags, a couple of laptops and two heavy jackets. The smart has more room than you might expect, but I think “cosy,” best describes its interior (to borrow a real-estate term).

We had to backtrack 40 kilometres from Dawson City to reach the beginning of the celebrated Dempster Highway, which is named after an RCMP officer who used to make the journey to Inuvik by dogsled. It is lightly travelled, is periodically closed due to weather, and it is altogether the most remote and potentially dangerous highway that I have ever encountered.

For one thing, it’s not paved. This highway is made of ice that is elevated a couple of metres above the surrounding landscape, and while it is maintained by a team of intrepid highway workers, its inclination is to vanish back into the natural landscape at first opportunity.

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