Of all the extreme places you can go in a diesel car, Riksgransen has to be one of the toughest; not at this time of year, when it is still daylight at midnight and the only ordeal is clouds of marauding mosquitoes, but in winter, when it’s an entirely different story…
Just a few months from now, this remote Lapland resort will take on an entirely different character. As the world’s most northerly ski resort, straddling the Swedish- Norwegian border 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it is one of the coldest places on earth in mid-winter, and one of the most inhospitable places to drive. It lies deep in the zone where hundreds of motor industry engineers go every year to spend gruelling winter months where the temperature regularly drops as low as minus 40 degrees C. It’s a valuable annual activity. If a new car under development can be made to work efficiently in these Arctic conditions, there’s a fair chance it will cope on a frosty morning in Surrey.
But it’s a mighty tough test of men and machines, as I experienced on a driving adventure there with Volvo earlier this year. When the mercury dips past 30 below, wiper blades turn brittle, tyres harden, and the oil in an engine’s sump thickens to a gloopy sludge. As for diesel in the fuel tank, it takes on the coagulated consistency of wax. In such a harsh environment, you need unusual aids just to be sure of getting the car started in the morning. Rather than waking up to an engine frozen solid, Laplanders hitch their cars up to an umbilical cord when they leave them parked overnight. This feeds it a trickle of warmth that is just enough to give the engine a fair chance of working come morning.
Welcome to life in the outdoor equivalent of a domestic deep freeze. This far north, you don’t see Tarmac from October to March. Everything is blanketed in snow and ice, reindeer are a prime road safety hazard and frozen lakes become part of the road network, to be driven across rather than around.
The ice has to be a metre thick to bear a car’s weight. Even so, you quickly learn not to stop in one spot too long with the engine running, and to park with cars spaced apart to spread the load. Somewhere way down below, there are fish swimming beneath the ice, and you’d rather not join them.
On sheet ice, normal tyres have less traction than an overweight novice on a ski slope, so winter tyres with between 80 and 120 metal studs embedded in the surface are a legal requirement in winter Lapland. They are amazingly effective at making a car driveable on a surface you can barely stand up on.
Volvo’s invitation to go ice-driving was to give us a flavour of what their test drivers do in the far north every winter. At any one time, Volvo alone has around 500 personnel working on its extreme weather test programmes. Just imagine that multiplied across the rest of the motor industry. In a scene repeated across northern Lapland, the vast lake at Riksgransen was snow-ploughed to create a series of interlocking circuits where test drivers can safely put cars through their paces on a knife-edge of adhesion.
Banks of piled snow edging the circuits act as barriers for a softish landing when you get it wrong and the car pirouettes out of control like some inebriated ballerina. One moment you’re relishing the sensation of being an automotive Torvill and Dean, the next second you’re swirling involuntarily in a white kaleidoscope. It happens in an instant. From a cautious start, it is remarkable how quickly you can build up confidence on the ice, trusting the studded tyres and electronic traction control systems to take care of you as you feather the throttle into tight curves, squeeze on the power along ominously glistening straights and snake through snow-dusted coned slaloms. But as confidence merges into bravado, it’s all too easy to find yourself going just that bit too fast into just too tight a curve. Then the laws of physics intervene and find yourself instantly bonnet-deep in a snow-drift.
Driving on frozen lakes allows handling characteristics, traction control and all of a car’s complex systems to be tested and honed on a massive natural skid-pan. The purpose of Arctic ice-driving is trying to minimise the risk of making a car that lets owners down on cold mornings, catches him out on a frosty surface, or that’s merely equipped with too puny a heater. That may not seem too much of a worry in midsummer, but it’s something to be grateful for if you’re planning to drive to the Alps next winter. Or even just negotiating the M25 in a cold snap come Christmas.