smart winter expedition
smart winter expedition. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Bob McHugh

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Day one
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Day two

“You’re going where … to drive what? The Yukon…in a Smart Car!”

That’s the typical double-take reaction I got from family and friends when I told them I would be driving a Smart Fortwo from Whitehorse to Vancouver in February.

It made sense to me: where’s the challenge in driving a Jeep or a Land Rover in extreme conditions? A little Smart Car, now that’s a real test!

Parent company Mercedes-Benz Canada, however, had its own reasons for doing the Smart Winter Expedition. Four of them, according to Marcus Breitschwerdt (President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Canada), who sportingly drove a Smart on the second leg.

smart winter expedition
smart winter expedition
smart winter expedition. Click image to enlarge

Number one, Mercedes wanted to demonstrate how safe a Smart is; two, that a Smart can be driven at high speeds on highways for prolonged periods; three, that a Smart can be driven in snow and on ice; and four, that a Smart is a reasonably comfortable vehicle to travel in on a long road trip.

Seven brand-new Smart Fortwo vehicles were prepared and used in this event. They were all fitted with (Continental) winter tires and the windshield washer fluid was boosted to -49C protection – that’s it! The convoy also included three Mercedes support vehicles, one of which carried some extra wheels, tires, windshields, washer fluid and other parts.

The event was run in three (roughly 2,500 km) legs and with three groups of media. The first leg, which was driven by Autos’s Managing Editor Grant Yoxon, started in Kelowna and finished in Whitehorse in the Yukon. The second leg, driven by Senior Editor, Paul Williams, continued the trip to Inuvik in the North West Territories, and returned to Whitehorse. The homeward and longest leg, which I was on, brought the cars back to Vancouver. Today, I’ll relate my journey from Whitehorse to Fort St. John, and next week, the final leg to Vancouver.

A very early start (6:00 am) was deemed necessary to travel the 650 kilometres to our first stopover at Muncho Lake. It was -15C, which apparently is unusually mild, as we packed our bags into the back of the little Smart for the first time, in the dark. Our two carry-on size suitcases, a backpack, a camera bag and a laptop case all fitted into the back. Surprisingly there was still space to see out the back window.

smart winter expedition
smart winter expedition
smart winter expedition
smart winter expedition. Click image to enlarge

The Alaska Highway drive took us south and then east along the B.C. and Yukon border. The ice covered roads were slick, but there wasn’t much traffic, so we still made good time. When an occasional oncoming big truck sped by, however, a cloud of trailing spray engulfed the Smart like a dense fog. It seemed much longer than the one or two seconds it took to drive though it.

The weather was mostly overcast with some light snow flurries. You quickly learn to keep a safe distance from the Smart in front as the gravel spread on the road was full of rocks that hop off the windshield. We counted six major cracks and loads of smaller chips in ours and it was in better shape than most of the other Smarts.

Our drive took us through Watson Lake where we took a time-out to admire the well photographed Sign Post Forrest. Other stops along the way were usually for moose or bison lingering near the road. The bison sightings actually got so commonplace that the photo stops had to be curtailed.

After overnighting in a fishing lodge at Muncho Lake we continued on our way to Fort St. John. There was a ploughed (700-metre long) ice runway for aircraft on the frozen lake behind the fishing lodge which proved an irresistible playground for the Smarts, and they did some choreographed formation driving, as the Sun came up.

smart winter expedition
smart winter expedition. Click image to enlarge

On cue, the sky cleared for what was to be our most spectacular stretch of the Alaska Highway, through the Rockies where the temperature varied between -25C and -8C in pockets. This 690-km drive section then took us to Fort Nelson and a more populated region. Instead of nice white stuff, the more-travelled roads yielded a brown sticky mud spray that now completely coated the Smarts.

We were out of windshield washer fluid and had to pull off the road twice to wipe the brown guck off the headlights. Eventually, we made it into Fort St. John after dark.

Next week, the Smarts return to Vancouver… for a date with Rosie – she’s a real looker!

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