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2010 Smart fortwo Passion tackles the extreme ice and snow. (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
2010 Smart fortwo Passion tackles the extreme ice and snow. (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

2010 Smart fortwo

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The smiling and pointing by fellow drivers started soon after we headed north from Whitehorse, our caravan of Smart fortwos stretched out in a line between protective Mercedes-Benz full-size SUVs. This is four-by-four country, where four hooves usually outnumber four wheels.

With the closest Smart dealer about 2,000 kilometres southeast in Edmonton, some of the locals had likely never seen our pocket-sized urban commuters in person.

And Whitehorse was just the starting point. Our destination was Inuvik, 1,300 kilometres north, past the Arctic Circle, to the northern conclusion of the treacherous Dempster Highway, which is the furthest north that any year-round highway will take you in this country.

According to the globe sitting on my desk, Inuvik lies about a thumbs width below the North Pole. The plan was to do the 2,610-kilometre round trip in four days. In the dead of winter.

"Oh my God, you're doing that drive in a Smart car?" said Lisa van Doornick, a hotel clerk and nature photographer in Whitehorse who has logged plenty of hours documenting the natural beauty of the inhospitable winters up here. Having lived in Switzerland, she knew the two-seat fortwo, and the congested European cities that form its natural habitat. "I hope the best of luck to you."

It was far from the only warning about the dangers on our journey. "You're driving on pure ice, and there are 10- to 20-foot drops that fill in with snow that you can't see at the side of the Dempster Highway," said Danny Kok, president of Driving Unlimited, the advanced driving team that planned most of the logistics for this trip. "That's why it's too dangerous to stop at the side of the Dempster."

His team's preparations included support vehicles that would carry extra fuel, food, medicine, spare parts, tow ropes and emergency supplies, just in case. The tow ropes had already been needed in a previous leg of the trip, when a Smart and the lead Benz GL ended up in a snowbank.

But we didn't need the support vehicles to carry our baggage - we managed to fit five days worth of serious cold-weather gear for two people in the back of the Smart. With an official 220 litres of space behind its two seats - 340 if you cram it to the ceiling - there's a healthy if not quite generous amount of cargo space back there above the engine.

Extra trunk room, should you need it, is available by moving the seats forward, although we never had to resort to this legroom-limiting last resort.

Once on our way, we quickly discovered that driving in the true Canadian North is nothing like driving unplowed roads in cottage country. Even though snow plows are a common sight, high winds quickly blow fallen snow onto the road, leaving snow drifts of indeterminate depth on all but a single lane along the centre yellow line. Driving down the middle of the road therefore makes most two lanes a de facto single lane road in winter. And that's if you're lucky enough to drive when it's not snowing.

Our first day led us north on the Alaska Highway, enjoying the clear conditions and relatively balmy minus-12 C temperatures - about 20 degrees warmer than it had been just days before, according to locals.

Even with only 70 hp underfoot, we managed to keep up real highway speeds on the bumpy, curvy roads salted with marble-sized rock chunks, thankful for the rear-wheel-drive runabout's standard stability control system that prevented its back end from sliding alarmingly, although it still required your rapt attention. On these rocky roads, it felt on the edge of control at 120, but almost normal at 100.

By the time we reached the Klondike Highway, on the straight shot north to Dawson City, the Smart's previously chipped windshield started to crack, the reason many car rental companies won't allow cars to be driven this far north.

The possibility of sudden weather changes and closed highways always loomed, as word had reached us that the Dempster that we were to tackle the next morning had been closed all day with high winds and dangerous whiteouts.

The long 800-kilometre stretch to reach Inuvik was the true adventure stage of our run. Three Smarts ended up mired in snow banks, requiring tows to be removed, although two were practically driven straight into tall snow by drivers who didn't realize it until they were stuck. When the road and snow drifts are both pure white, flat ground looks just like raised snow.

The Smart's limited ground clearance also means that it can get stuck in relatively low levels of snow, winter tires or no winter tires. And, at with a curb weight of only 750 kilograms, it was a struggle keeping it stable in the high polar winds. On the plus side, the panoramic roof allowed for uninterrupted views of the Ogilvie and Richardson mountain ranges.

After celebrating the crossing of the Arctic Circle, and just 12 kilometres from our destination, I moved over a touch too much for an oncoming car and headed toward the snow bank.

The Smart's passenger side grazed the knee-high snow as I managed to regain some steering control. Then, all of a sudden, we spun 180 degrees, snow flying everywhere, the snow bank somehow spitting the little fortwo back up into the centre of the road, perpendicular to traffic.

A rock or piece of ice embedded in the snow bank likely caught us out, the brunt borne by the lower right edge of the car's bumper, a small piece of which appeared almost surgically removed. I was thankful for the stability and safety systems built into the Smart, plus the good reflexes of the driver behind me, who pushed the limits of his fortwo's stability control system in avoiding us. The cars and passengers were intact as we rolled up to our destination in Inuvik in darkness.

The Smart is far from the ideal long-distance Arctic explorer - the auto equivalent of high heels on wheels, rarely practical or very comfortable, but so stylish and fun that it's worth the occasional pain.

Considering that the Continental winter tires and minus-49 C washer fluid were the only changes from a bone-stock fortwo passion model, we came away impressed. And more importantly, alive.



Type: Two-seat urban hatchback

Base price: $14,999, as tested $18,250

Engine: 1.0-litre, inline-three-cylinder, DOHC

Transmission: Sequential manual with auto mode and paddle shifters

Drive: Rear-wheel-drive

Horsepower/torque: 70 hp/69 lb-ft

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 5.9 city/4.8 highway; premium recommended

Alternatives: Hyundai Accent, Kia Soul, Mazda MX-5, Mini Cooper, Toyota Yaris

Like: Euro-chic styling that radiates care-free fun, even deep into 4x4 country; Quiet engine that's surprisingly refined; Surprising, if not over-abundant, cargo room; Panoramic tinted roof that's great for mountain and moon gazing

Don't like: Its shape and lack of power don't convey the most macho image to the world; Automated manual transmission agonizingly slow and jerky in fully automatic mode; Doors began to collect ice in latches after a few hours, making them hard to close; Painfully rough ride on those northern roads

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