A 500-odd mile road trip sounds easy peasy, but throw in some of the most inhospitable conditions anywhere in the world and things begin to get interesting. Phil Huff reports on an extra special expedition in Mazda’s CX-3 all-wheel-drive.
During our briefing, the words ìbeing out of the vehicle for any length of time could prove fatalî grabbed our attention. Until that point weíd assumed that the road trip we were about to take would be a little easier than the destination suggested, with events like these usually well managed to avoid getting into horrendous difficulties. Or in other words, avoiding ending up dead. Weíre guessing that things work a little differently in the Arctic Circle.
Our journey started at Heathrow Airport, and involved six flights on ever smaller aircraft to increasingly tiny airports with each one featuring a more ëenthusiasticí pilot. HonningsvÂg, Norway, was the destination for our road trip, the closest town you can stay in to Nordkapp, the very northernmost point of mainland Europe. The next land mass is the Arctic Ice Cap, and thatís not even land.
The next morning, we embarked on the drive 21 miles north, until itís impossible to go any further. Waiting for us under the low arctic sunrise is not a Land Rover Discovery, a Toyota Land Cruiser or a Jeep Wrangler kitted out with a winch, large balloon-like tyres and a boot full of flares, just in case things go wrong. No, we have a Mazda crossover vehicle waiting for us. Itís the CX-3, so a mini-SUV if you like, which comes with the option of four-wheel drive. Apart from studded tyres, itís entirely standard, with no special provisions made for the potentially deadly terrain ahead.
There was one concession for the trip north though. Due to the dangerous nature of the roads, we had to follow behind a snowplough. This one was driven, we assumed, by Kimi R‰ikkˆnen, given the speed that he shot up what qualified as a road. Snow plumes were sent high, visibility was down to nothing at times, but the CX-3 made the short hop, and the reward was the most magnificently crisp and clear environment that we have ever had the fortune to experience.
The blue sky and bright sun was misleading, as a howling wind chilled us to the bone, then through the bone, then right out the other side again. Our shirt, jumper, fleece, coat, gloves and hat didnít stand a chance. We were at the very top of mainland Europe and, whilst we wouldnít want to be left exposed out there for too long, it all seemed rather easy. There was the small matter of getting the little Mazda back again though, and this time it wasnít a 20-mile hop to HonningsvÂg, but a 500-mile slog to the harbour city, and home of Facebookís European data centre, in LuleÂ, Sweden.
This trip was going to be altogether more challenging. Fortunately, Mazda’s people took the time to explain just how the four-wheel drive system in the CX-3 works, and it all sounded rather impressive. Rather than simply measuring grip levels through the wheels, Mazdaís system takes in readings from a variety of sensors and tries to predict if youíll need all the wheels being driven, rather than just the front two. Are the wipers on? How cold is it? What angles are the wheels at? There are 200 data points a second from 27 sensors that help the car make a decision before you know that a decision even needs to be made.
Heading out into wild Norway, sun blazing on the frozen Christmas-card like snow blanket, the sheet-ice road ensured attention levels were high, but very soon the scenery demanded more than a passing glance. Flat plains sat behind plunging mountain roads that took us to the coast, and along roads sandwiched between beautiful, but deadly waters and equally stunning, but dangerous craggy cliff faces. The odd tunnel punctuated proceedings, with one that descended beneath the sea being more than five miles long.
We had a walkie-talkie to keep in touch if things went awry, but very quickly it was obvious that we were on our own, the next nearest car in this most relaxed of convoys being beyond the five-mile range of the radio. As the landscape changed to vast desert-like plains of pure white, uninterrupted by anything as urban-esque as a service station or fast food joint, the isolation made itself felt. The light-hearted banter between us and our co-pilot subsided, and a more contemplative atmosphere filled the car.
With those studs forcing themselves into the ice, roads that went straight on for 10 miles, with next to no traffic and good visibility, the pace was picked up. Soon the little Mazda was travelling at speeds that would have attracted the attention of the constabulary along any road in the UK, but out here, in the wilderness, it seemed perfectly reasonable. Anything to get closer to civilisation. In reality, as we passed through the narrow strip of Finland, we were actually getting closer to a snowstorm. Even the ënormalí conditions we faced would have brought the UK to a standstill, but out here it was just another Wednesday. That was until the snow started falling. Quickly it turned into something that would close Heathrow Airport, and the road started to white over. With so little traffic, the snow settles quickly and the edges disappear, which is made all the more alarming when a truck approaches from the opposite direction. Used to the conditions, they donít slow down for anything or anyone, making the road feel alarmingly narrow. The cloud of snow left behind them is blinding, adding to the drama, but the weather conditions were deteriorating so quickly that visibility was an issue even in the clear. Speeds were reduced, and LuleÂ began to feel a long way away.
The sensation wasnít helped as the fuel warning light flickered. In all the excitement, concentration, awe and excess, we hadnít spotted the needle dropping. The computer was reading around 40mpg, which wasnít bad considering the fuel-sapping tyres and rather enthusiastic driving style, but the 44-litre tank is also rather smaller than you might like in these conditions. Fortunately, given the remote nature of the land, Mazda had included a couple of jerry cans of fuel in case we ran things just too fine. Fortunately, a fuel station appeared, offering relief from the fuel woes, and providing a handy respite from the perishing conditions. We really didnít want to be at the side of a road with near-zero visibility filling up the tank, and so the sight of the fuel stop was most welcome.
Fuelled up ñ both the car and us ñ and on the road again, the weather cleared and Finlandís barren landscape gave way to the picture postcard beauty of Sweden, densely forested, but still covered in snow and ice. One final stop was planned, albeit a rather obvious one. The Arctic Circle is clearly defined, and the Swedeís have been good enough to put a large parking area by the line, along with a whacking great big sign. ClichÈd photos now in the bag, it was time to embark on the final 80-odd mile slog to LuleÂ.
Weíre sure it was purely coincidental, but as we left the Arctic Circle behind us, the weather conditions changed once again. The temperature rose a couple of degrees and the snow gave way to light rain, creating a wet road surface that was (mostly) free of ice. While this made progress a little easier, the studded tyres created so much noise that we were soon wishing the trip would be over. While the tyres made driving through the ice a breeze, grip levels on tarmac were something of an unknown, but soon the outer limits of LuleÂ came into view. A few more urban streets to navigate and then weíll have done it.
Over a reindeer steak and a local beer, we reflected on what we had just achieved. A small crossover vehicle had taken us through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, and come out the other side as if it had just taken a trip to Waitrose. It was comfortable, reliable, surprisingly entertaining and pretty frugal.
With the four-wheel-drive Sport Nav edition accounting for around 25 per cent of CX-3 diesel sales last year, and fuel economy figures that are approximately 10mpg worse when comparing the official figures, itís understandable that three quarters of buyers veer towards the regular 70.6mpg front-wheel-drive models, especially considering the mild winters that weíve experienced over the past couple of years here in the UK. But shelling out an extra £1,500 and driving North, you can feel like Fiennes, Scott or Hubert, without exposing yourself to too much danger or inconvenience, just like we did.