February 2, 2010
Article and photos by Grant Yoxon
Whitehorse, Yukon – Have you ever woken up with a totally crazy idea? Like, “Let’s climb Mount Everest!” or “Let’s sky dive from a tall building!” Perhaps not: it usually takes only a few minutes for the totally crazy (or totally dumb) idea to disappear into the ordinary reality of getting dressed, making lunches for the kids and heading off to work.
Sometimes our crazy ideas do become reality. (I wonder how far a compact car with 50 litres of fuel will go before it runs out of gas? See our 50-litre Challenge to find out.)
Well, someone at Mercedes-Benz Canada woke up one morning with a totally crazy idea. Why don’t we drive a group of smart fortwo coupes up the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse, on to Dawson City via the North Klondike Highway and then up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, just about as far North as you can drive a vehicle in Canada? Better yet, why not do it in January, in the depths of Winter?
A totally crazy idea for sure; and in the opinion of one RCMP officer, a totally dumb idea too. But when Mercedes-Benz contacted us about their crazy idea, we didn’t hesitate to jump on board. Count us in!
And the crazy idea became reality when on January 25th, I flew out to Kelowna, BC, to join a group of equally crazy journalists, several Mercedes-Benz staffers and the knowledgeable people from Driving Unlimited who made this crazy idea – the Smart Winter Expedition – a reality.
Smart Winter Expedition – Regina Chan, Autonerve (in middle photo); Smart Winter Expedition – Olympic Torch Relay – Kelowna (bottom). Click image to enlarge
We set off from Kelowna, following the Olympic Torch Relay out of town and headed North. Temperatures in Kelowna were a balmy eight degrees. Not a bit of snow to be seen anywhere. We had coffee in Kamloops (no snow) and lunch in Williams Lake (still no snow), and ended the day at Quesnel (some evidence of snow). Day two took us from Quesnel to Fort St. John. Though there was much snow on either side of the road, the day was bright and clear and the roads bare and dry. This was beginning to look too easy.
But it gave me and my driving partner, Regina Chan of Chinese language magazine, Autonerve, two days to learn how to drive the smart fortwo. The smart redefines the meaning of compact: it is just 2,695 mm (106 inches) long and seats only two. It is powered by a 999-cc, 70-hp gasoline engine. It is by far the most fuel efficient two-seater you can buy, earning an Energuide rating of just 4.8 litres/100 km in highway driving (5.9 L/100 km in the city). On the downside, 70 horsepower and 68 lb.-ft. of torque is not a lot of power, even in a vehicle that weighs just 820 kg (1,807 lbs). Add in several hundred pounds of driver and passenger, and a full trunk of luggage, and the poor little three-cylinder engine can feel downright exhausted. But the problem, as we learned on that first day out of Kelowna, is not the engine but a lazy shifting five-speed automatic transmission that, if left to its own devices, is set up to save as much fuel as is mechanically and electronically possible.
This is perfect if your normal day’s driving consists of grocery store parking lots and crowded city streets, the kind of driving for which the smart is intended and for which it is arguably the best thing to happen to cities where traffic congestion leads to excessive air pollution and scarce parking. But if your commute takes you from country to city or from Kelowna to Whitehorse there has got to be a better way.