Tiny ForTwo a novelty turned protector after crossing Arctic Circle in mid-winter
By Michael Bettencourt
Inuvik, NWT – The ‘Inuvik or bust’ message scrawled into the slush-covered rear of our tiny Smart Fortwo somewhere north of Whitehorse was not meant to be taken literally. But in the midst of a 2,610 km trek to Inuvik, the furthest north one can drive in Canada and likely North America year round, it seemed like only one would prevent the other.
And it almost did.
But first, think of a checklist of things you’d want in a vehicle for a long road trip up north in the middle of winter: all-wheel drive or 4×4 traction to help get through deep snow, high ground clearance (ditto), and plenty of cargo room for extra food, emergency supplies, and warm weather gear would all be high on the list. Our two-seat Smart, a city commuter more used to battling parking police than high polar winds, had none of these.
What it did have was a point to prove: that it could be driven north of the Arctic Circle and back, even if no one in their right mind would actually drive their own Smart in such hostile conditions. The only foul-weather additions made to the stock Fortwo Passon models were Continental winter tires, and windshield washer fluid rated to -49 degrees Celsius, instead of the namby-pamby -40 stuff that would apparently freeze instantly at some of the temperatures we expected to see.
“If you have a Rogers cell phone, you may as well not have a phone,” said Danny Kok, president of Driving Unlimited, the advanced driving team that planned most of the logistics for this convoy of seven Smarts, including the creating and updating of a Facebook page throughout the event. There was a brief spell of service in Inuvik, surprisingly, but otherwise Kok was right.
Our particular Fortwo had already had one unintended run in with a nasty snow bank before it got to us. We soon nicknamed it Celine, in honour of the car’s endearing style, French roots (built in Hambach, France) and Canadian connection, the car’s highly rated tridion safety cell designed by the European chassis division of Aurora, Ontario-based parts powerhouse Magna.
Getting into Celine for the first time, perhaps the most surprising part of the trip was somehow managing to carry five days worth of serious cold weather gear for two people in the back. With an official 220 litres of space behind its two seats, and 340 if you cram it to the ceiling, it took some careful packing, but there’s more space back there above the engine than you’d think. We could even see out the back, or at least we would have if the rear window was not continually covered in muck, which we all soon tired of clearing with the wiper and defrost.
Celine’s standard heated cloth seats were very welcome in minus double-digit temperatures, while its panoramic roof allowed for uninterrupted views of the Ogilvie and Richardson mountain ranges, and the picturesque winter wonderland that continually enveloped us. We had expected lots of featureless tundra and driving in darkness for much of the trip, given our usual 7 am departure times, but even though the sunrise officially occurred around 11 am while we were there, it was bright by 10 or so, well before you could actually see the sun.
After triumphantly crossing the Arctic Circle, with Inuvik a mere 12 kilometres away, moving over just a touch too much for an oncoming car led to a high speed run in with a snow bank. Celine’s passenger side grazed the knee-high snow before all became white, snow started flying everywhere, as we spun 180 degrees, the snow bank somehow spitting the little ForTwo back up into the centre of the road, perpendicular to traffic, jagged evidence in the previously smooth snow bank.
At that point, I became very appreciative of the stability and safety systems built into the Smart, plus the good reflexes of the Smart driver behind me, who pushed the limits of that Fortwo’s stability control system on that dark and snowy road in avoiding Celine and us both. Everyone ended up okay, except for Celine, who had a piece of her bumper added to the previously cracked windshield as evidence of our battle with the northern elements.
So in the end, Celine came through when we really needed her. It was Inuvik, not bust, luckily for us.
The Canadianization of our Smart Celine
(A poem inspired by Robert Service’s ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,’ as well as a challenge put forth by fellow Inuvik Smart adventurer, poetry fan and Mercedes-Benz Canada president Marcus Breitschwerdt)
Frost dripping pines bent over their white weight
‘Tween mountains and valleys that most creatures forsake
A land blind to wars, no debt to man paid
An undisturbed country of history displayed
Through its heart went the Smart, our trusty Celine
With roots both in France and in nations Eur’pean
Just like her new home, a base in discourse
Forged in steel for a strength with Canadian force
She may tremble in protest at cold winds come screaming
When cracks by the rock missiles thrown start appearing
But her armour was strong, her iron will even stronger
When valiant Celine conquered snow bank, no longer