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Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Torture Testing the Toyota Prius
It wasn’t supposed to work like this. The point of taking a Toyota Prius to the northernmost community in eastern Canada that you can reach by paved road was to see how well it would perform – indeed, if it would perform – in conditions much more severe than those it had to deal with around our metropolitan Toronto offices. We wanted to head up and out of the comfortable city to the north to find real cold. A quick check of the Internet the week before we set out on a Friday morning, and we couldn’t wait: minus-40 degree temperatures with minus-60 wind chills.
But first the big chill hit Toronto, burying the city under several inches of snow, with cold winds that would have rivaled anything we could experience in Chisasibi, the Cree community we were headed for on the edge of James Bay. Northern Quebec experienced the closest thing to a heat wave that it could hope for in the middle of January, with temperatures balmier than we had just left, and with barely any wind chill at all. All of this we discovered only at the end of a 1000-km day of driving, shoehorned into a couple of dormitory rooms with a communal bathroom at the all-purpose service stop at the 381-km marker along the James Bay road.
So if we weren’t going to get to do a proper cold-weather test, with frigid temperatures, cars buried deep in snowbanks, and some inevitable cold-start woes, we were at least going to have a great big adventure. I mean, how could any adventure be anything other than great big, covering over 3200 km in a long weekend, what may be the world’s most high-tech four-door, and a Porsche Cayenne chase vehicle packed with spare tires, spare blankets, and lots of snacks?
It had already been pretty fun on the way to km 381. We’d blown breezily up through Ontario, made a right turn somewhere, and continued straight through a lot of Quebec, picking up what may have been the first speeding ticket ever in a hybrid press car (126 km/h in a 90 km/h zone, thankfully just after I’d swapped out of the driver’s seat) and stopping only for gas and pizza along the way. On the highway, the Prius had managed a pretty disappointing 7.2 l/100 km – admittedly most of it at speeds slightly above the posted limit – but once we were on two-lane roads, and making more use of the economy advantages rendered by running in electric mode in stop-start driving, that quickly improved to just over 6.2 l/100 km. Which is worse than the car’s Transport Canada ratings, but not bad considering it was laden with two passengers and quite a lot of cargo, including a really handy Garmin StreetPilot GPS navigation system. Its maps, uploaded into flash memory, stretched far further than our Cayenne chase car’s system.
After deciding not to stop in Matagami, where the entire nightlife consisted of a drunken miner wearing a funny hat and a snowmobile jacket and army khakis, we signed in at the James Bay road’s control hut and promptly discovered what may be the best road I’ve ever seen for a supercar. With huge, wide lanes, impeccable pavement, and gently winding curves, I for a moment lapsed into fantasies of screaming through at 200 km/h in an Enzo, or carving along the picturesque treeline behind the wheel of a Carrera GT. For the road, you see, is owned and maintained by Hydro-Quebec, and there are no speed patrols. Have a big one, though, and you may have to wait a while before help arrives.
January, too, is caribou migration time. Past the 300-km mark, the road is full of the gangly, fluffy things, drawn onto the road because they have a taste for the salt. They head towards headlights, they don’t move for cars, and their hooves slip and their legs splay comically as they try to gain a grip on the slick, snow-over-ice roads. The only way around them is through them – driving slowly, using your lights to herd them gently out of your way. The last hundred or so kilometres, we take at a virtual snail’s pace, dodging and weaving through clumps of caribou, trying not to create a scene we’ve seen already all too frequently on this road: chunks of carcass here or there, or even just a red smear across the road if some enterprising individual has decided to remove the carcass for their own use. As we set off the next morning, the groups of them aren’t as thick, but there are more of them, clumps of five or six skittering across the road every few minutes. Too cool for words.
Chisasibi is another 400 km or so past 381; you go most of the way to Radisson – which is where the amazing, huge, impressive, insert other superlatives here, dam is located – and make a left, then sign in at another little shack before making your way into town. The last stretch is in the dark and involves blowing snow and gusty winds. The Prius, despite rolling on some pretty spectacular Toyo snow tires, isn’t at its best in these conditions. It’s exceptionally sensitive to crosswinds, jumping half a lane over at every strong gust of wind. The steering, throttle and brakes have no feel at all – a byproduct of all of them being in some way electronically controlled – making quick corrections, changes of directions, and sudden stops for when you’ve missed your turn, are all pretty harrowing experiences. The overactive, and non-defeatable, vehicle dynamics control system doesn’t help either, its early and brutal interventions punctuated by incessant, nagging beeping from somewhere deep in the dash.
We roll into town around dinner time, and to tell you the truth, it’s kind of a weird place. There seem to be as many snowmobiles as there are cars, and none of them follow the road like we do – not that we know where the road is, come to think of it, because there are virtually no signs. Everything other than the main thoroughfare is a cul-de-sac, and sometimes they branch off from each other into levels of cul-de-sac-age, making it very easy to get lost if you can’t read Cree. We search in vain for our motel until we discover that we’ve driven past it several times; it’s on the top floor of the deserted and dilapidated community centre, but there’s nobody around to let us in and there aren’t any cars outside. Like I said, weird.
Most of Chisasibi’s 3500 residents moved there when the town was relocated pretty much wholesale from Fort George, the island which it once inhabited a few kilometres away. The next morning – after a fairly restful sleep thanks to the fact that visitors are instructed to park their cars beside the police station five blocks’ walk away to avoid them being vandalized – Sam Cox, the town’s tourism manager, shows us photos of the move, which often involved uprooting entire buildings from their foundations and bringing them over to drop on new ones. The Catholic church in the middle of town came over like this, as did many of the prefab houses.
The Prius is more in its element here. In the -15C weather (Sam says last week it dropped below -40, freezing his truck so solid it wouldn’t start), it can run on full-electric mode much of the time, and it even shuts off the gas motor sometimes on the way to the shore of James Bay. On the snow, and at lower speeds, it’s an easy car to drive, with finger-light steering, responsive brakes, and a decent ride, though even in this relative warmth the car’s overtaxed HVAC system sometimes has trouble simultaneously keeping the windows unfogged and our toes warm. We leave the car “on” each time we stop and let the electric heater continue to blow warm air, but it’s far from being as toasty as the gas-fed Cayenne, and it doesn’t have heated seats, either.
As for the bay itself, it’s indescribably huge. You can drive right up on top of the dam on a two-lane road that undulates up and down the side of it, passing bright red doors that are several stories high and control booths on stilts way up above. When we walk out onto the frozen surface to take some photographs of ourselves, all you can see for miles around is a horizon line, a faint change of shade from dark white, where the bay is, and light white, where the snow-filled wind blows. Our yelling and screaming doesn’t echo so much as just fade instantly away, and out here, there’s very little to stop the bitingly cold wind from quickly freezing your extremities. We hop back into the cars and point our way back to town, stopping to check out the crossing where all those buildings came over back in 1981, doing a few celebratory donuts in the parking lot (with much beeping from the Prius’ VDC) before dropping Sam off at his tourist office and picking up our stuff from the motel.
We drive back to Toronto in a 24-hour marathon, dodging and taking pictures of caribou most of the way to base camp at km 381, then cruising steadily along through a night-time snowstorm to the security gate at Matagami and on to the Ontario border another 600 km or so away. During one of the overnight stints, I spend four hours behind the wheel of the Prius, squinting through the blizzard to keep track of the Porsche’s lights up ahead, cursing its wandering steering and weak headlights while simultaneously appreciating that it’s able to maintain a pretty impressive pace through these tough conditions. By the time we reach North Bay, it’s so caked in frozen crud you can barely tell what kind of car it is, its front and rear bumpers having long transformed themselves into giant icicles, which might help to explain the (relatively) dismal fuel consumption of 7.1 L/100 km. A smallish 45-litre tank means we’re filling up as often as we are the Cayenne, though those fill-ups generally cost us a lot less: clearly, this isn’t a purpose-built long-distance cruiser.
Anticlimactic as it is, that’s pretty much it for our drive, save for a bit of a comedy of errors when two of us drive off in the Cayenne with the Prius’ keys still in our pockets (our tester had the optional keyless-start system, see, and we hadn’t realized until we were well down the road what had happened). Suffice to say that the Prius performed with flawless reliability, its stereo cranking Les Mis and Monty Python until we all went mad, its wipers doing a way better job than the Porsche’s in the white stuff. Honestly, we would expect no less of a Toyota in the same conditions, and despite the fact that our economy figures were far off the company’s claims for highway driving, it was still on balance a remarkably economical car to take on such a drive.
That it wasn’t designed to do such a drive isn’t much of a surprise, either. The Prius is, after all, one of the few cars that gets better mileage ratings in the city than it does on the highway – it has the full-electric mode to thank for that. But that’s not to say that it won’t do a long road trip either, as we’d amply proved. It may not be the ideal car to drive to James Bay and back on a weekend, but like any other Toyota, it’s a workhorse: it’ll do whatever you want it to with little complaint.