By on February 23, 2013

Most harebrained ideas are hatched under the influence This was no different. A thousand miles removed from Canada’s largest city, two freelance automotive writers were guzzling beer and bandying about ideas for potential stories. Most of the concepts were actually elaborate ruses designed solely for gaining access to OEM press fleets.

“Let’s drive to Toronto!” Mark heartily suggested. “It’s only, what, a thousand miles?”

“That’s sixteen hundred kilometers, in Queen’s English,” I corrected him. “Why? For what purpose?”

“Well, the Canadian International Auto Show is in February. Let’s crash that party.” White out!

Perfect. Smartphones were synced. Billfolds were audited. A plan was put into action. Deciding to go was the easy part; now we had to figure out how to get there. Clearly, driving would be the preferred method, given that we both write about cars. For me, a personal rule is that if I can drive to a destination with minimal fuss and aggravation, I will do so rather than suffer the anguish of thundering through the atmosphere in a poorly ventilated jet-engined cigar with wings.

Several OEMs were approached and the idea was pitched that two Large Persons driving a thousand miles to Toronto in the dead of winter would make for a great story. Two manufacturers grabbed hold of the concept – Mazda provided an MX-5 and Chrysler ponied up a Fiat 500 Turbo. Shod with winter tires, having a couple of sport compacts out of their natural elements promised to be entertaining.

 

Little did we know just how entertaining. Setting off at promptly 9:48am from far flung Truro, Nova Scotia, spirits ran high. The sun blazed, crystallizing the record snowfall from a major snowstorm that had dumped a foot of snow the day previous. As we vacated town, the hills rang with snow-blowers, and the occasional mating call of a rare species, the Snowplowus Interruptus.

We were in northern New Brunswick, about seven hours on the road, when the snow was back, to strike hard and fast. With little daylight remaining, we exited the highway, trundling to a halt at a little used coffee shop that smelled like pee. Eschewing their blackened offerings, we weighed our options. The snow was falling at an apocalyptic rate. Even a military convoy ahead of us had sought shelter at a nearby, downtrodden motel.

“I’d rather get a kick in the nuts than drive in the dark in this shit,” I blustered aloud while beating two inches of ice off the little Fiat’s wiper blades.

Taking a long drag on his cigarette, Mark flatly suggested that we at least make a run for the Quebec border, some 200km distant. Knowing full well that once I had the chance to curse the weather and refill the windshield washer fluid tank on the Fiat, I’d be game to continue the drive. He was right. We reentered the divided highway full of gusto, verve, and fuel.

“The little red-headed Italian likes to wiggle her hips,” I tersely reported over the two-way radio. Hardly the car’s fault, this. In fact, the snow was so deep that the front bumper of the MX-5 often acted as the most rudimentary of plows, biffing fluffy white powder up in the air and back over its bonnet. Snow was a good six inches deep on the road surface.

In the Fiat, the windshield washer fluid reservoir continued to stick in my craw, running dry at what seemed to be three second intervals. Memo to Fiat: please, please increase the windshield wash capacity. At a mere two litres, all it takes is for a few trucks to roar by the 500 Turbo to deplete its meagre allotment of blue liquid. At minimum, add a LOW WASHER FLUID idiot light to the cinnamon bun of a gauge cluster. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Fiat driver’s seat was astonishingly comfortable for this six and a half foot author.

Trucks rocketed past in the fast lane, secured by the weight of their 52 foot heavy trailers. With visibility near zero, I went on ahead in the Fiat, hazards blaring. I figured that if I illuminated the car, my chances of being found when I eventually deposited myself into a crusty roadside snowbank would rise from None to Slim.

It was during this leg of the journey that I dubbed the whole event the First Annual White Knuckle Challenge.

But you know what? The sojourn into the snowbank that seemed so inevitable simply didn’t happen. Not only did we forge through to the Quebec border, we made it all the way to our planned stop at a hotel which had been booked several days prior. It was a solid thirteen hours after setting out from Truro that morning and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

For two cars that are usually approached in winter with the same caution as one would approach a lump of plutonium that has suddenly appeared in the lettuce crisper, the 500 Turbo and MX-5 were totally and superbly competent machines. Cars are like sex: with the correct rubber on, they can go anywhere.

The next morning brought more snow covered roads and much appreciated daylight. Precipitation and perspiration ceased about an hour after we left the hotel, and we approached the froggy delights of Montreal with élan. Pausing for some photos at the base of a picturesque mountain in a random megabucks suburb, the two sport compacts suddenly looked like the entirely right choices for this journey. At that moment, I couldn’t have imagined driving anything else. Onwards, then.

 

Montreal drivers frequently displayed a dangerous mixture of apathy and aggression, prompting banzai lane changes and the occasional furrowed brow. In fifth gear, the Fiat’s turbo lag is best measured with a calendar, forcing one to row their way through fourth and even third gear in order to keep the 1.4L on full boil while maintaining flank speed in heavy traffic.

Navigating the busiest highway in North America, we wound our way to our hotel in downtown Toronto. Arriving in the dark, I reflected on how damn well these two cars performed, completely out of their element. The Fiat even returned good fuel economy, 7.2L/100km. That’s 40mpg , as close as makes no difference. On snow tires. In rough conditions. Win.

At the base of CN Tower, high fives were exchanged. We made it in one piece, even though the brown pants factor was high on occasion. That evening, more alcohol was consumed and more plans were hatched. What kind, you ask? Let’s just say it involves a couple of full-sized trucks and some precision driving. VTEC just kicked in, yo!

For this journey, Mazda provided an insured MX-5 while Chrysler provided an insured Fiat 500 Turbo, both with clutch pedals. Save the Manuals!

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45 Comments on “First Annual White Knuckle White-Out Challenge...”


  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Impressive.. I would not think that the little Fiat would brave so well and return such good mpg’s. Great read!

  • avatar
    olddavid

    Excellent hook.This should have been titled the ” Yates-Davis-Swig Banzai Winter Challenge.” Hot sake optional.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    T$he SUV sales boom that mercifully ended with $4 gas was based on one particularly-egregious fraud: That SUV’s are superior in snow. They really aren’t. Basically, any car with decent snow tires is better in the snow than any other car without them. Suddenly, because its winter, you “need” an ill-handling, poor braking gas guzzling monster to be “safe?” A Miata with Blizzaks, especially the latest generation, is actually a superb winter vehicle.

    I often accuse TTAC of perpetuating silly urban legends instead of really telling the “truth” about things cars. TTAC has never properly exposed the manifold frauds and lies about SUVs, nor has it ever properly discussed the amazing capabilities of modern snow tires, which have benefited from an infusion of high tech that must rank as one of the truly revolutionary and astounding developments in the tire industry.

    • 0 avatar
      olddavid

      I have to agree with P2. I travel between the Oregon coast and Calgary with Spokane and Couer d’Alene stops en route. This is only a year-round, comfortably reasonable proposition with Blizzaks or their equivalent. From the greasy ruts of the Gorge to the deep snow of Lookout Pass and the windswept glare ice of Browning to Peigan, I feel in control. In a 14 year-old Cadillac. The State Patrol even sanctions these new tires as traction devices. I have no idea why anyone would stud these, as it would seem to negate the handling character on pavement. I may be of the “get off my lawn” cohort, but I’m very appreciative of the technological leaps we’ve taken in the last 20 years. I have two cars with over 300 horsepower that get 25 plus at 80 MPH and even sense when to retard the timing for the poor fuel in Montana. For a man who gapped contact points in the rain as a kid, the modern automobile is a marvel.

    • 0 avatar
      Redshift

      Larry, while I agree that there is a lot of misunderstanding in the general public on what works in the snow, it seems like you are also perpetuating a bit of a silly urban legend that I see on TTAC every time there is an opportunity to discuss snow tires/SUVs etc and it drives me insane.

      Why is everybody so focused on a Regular Car with snow tires vs 4WD on All Seasons? I don’t think anybody with any sense would argue against the superiority of snow tires, but, the anti-4WD brigade continually refuses to accept the possibility of snow tires on a 4WD vehicle, as it doesn’t line up with their “4WD owners are misinformed fools” mindset.

      I would take a FWD car on snow tires over a 4WD SUV on all seasons any day in bad weather, but, I will take my AWD Subaru on snow tires over anything else.

      • 0 avatar
        JuniperBug

        I’m also constantly stumped by people’s apparent insistence that AWD and snow tires don’t mix, especially given that I live in a province that legally requires snow tires on all vehicles in the winter. I’m not saying it’s needed – my last winter car was a Mk2 Jetta on performance all-seasons – but all else being equal, AWD sure does give additional capability in snow, whether you like it or not. Whether AWD and a higher centre of gravity trumps FWD and a lower one when travelling on slippery surfaces at highway speeds is a different question, and one that I’m not sure I know the answer to.

        • 0 avatar
          DC Bruce

          It’s not that they don’t mix; it’s that lots of owners believe having the former (AWD/4WD) eliminates the need for the latter.

          It seems more likely that, for people in most on-road winter driving environments, it’s the latter (true snow tires) that eliminates the need for the former (AWD/4WD).

          For other than true off-road use, I think AWD has been very greatly oversold.

          • 0 avatar
            Kingdumb

            2WDrive, FWDrive, AWDrive & 4WDrive only make a difference when one depresses the accelerator. However when one depresses the break pedal they’
            re all 4WBrakes regardless of their method of drive.

      • 0 avatar
        fredtal

        I agree with you that snow tires are a very important requirement for driving in snow and ice no matter what type of vehicle you choose. The tall SUV does have the advantage of getting enough clearance so that you don’t have to plow thru the snow as mentioned in the story.

        • 0 avatar
          sparhawk

          Also agree. I have a Honda CR-V which seems like a good compromise. It has much the same handling as a compact car, but 8.1″ of ground clearance.

          With winter tires, it’s a blast to bomb through the unplowed side streets after a big snowfall like the one we got in Toronto a few weeks ago.

          With a conventional sedan, even if it makes it out of the driveway, it gets stuck exiting the side streets on the drifts that the plows throw up clearing the main streets.

          • 0 avatar
            ect

            Yes, we got a big snowfall in Toronto 2 weeks ago. For the first time in 5 years. and the snowplows made everything drivable within 24 hours.

            If you live and drive in T.O., or any comparable or warmer climate, there is no point basing your car/tire choices on the “once every 5 years” model. The reality is that the extra fuel your SUV with winter tires consumes will vastly outweigh any self-perceived advantage you might have for 1 day out of 1,825.

        • 0 avatar
          Manny Calavera

          I too agree, though depends on what you want. Used to have this old yet rare (and tinily overboosted) Mazda 323 GTR, and ran it through an especially icy winter with summer tyres. Makes one feel like a rally driver, but in real slow motion. AWD keeps you going as long as you are on the throttle, though on ice that could be in any direction. (Though with proper snow tyres the next winter, it was properly fun – lightness and short wheelbase is a good combo).

          I actually prefer a RWD car on slippery roads. You do need to be more careful and maybe slower than a FWD, but it does present more options to steer when the front end is not biting enough.

          A SUV with its lardy weight does have more traction. But this advantage is way more offset by the aloofness of the experience. Just go tractor slow it’s good, any more and you are asking for it.

      • 0 avatar
        Kingdumb

        0 avatar
        Kingdumb
        February 23rd, 2013 at 1:51 pm
        Your comment is awaiting moderation.

        2WDrive, FWDrive, AWDrive & 4WDrive only make a difference when one depresses the accelerator.
        However when one depresses the break pedal they are all 4WBrakes regardless of their method of drive.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      @LarryP2

      In general, I agree with you 125%. But I will also say as the owner of an ’02 Jeep Grand Cherokee fitted with a fairly serious set of snow tires, when the going gets deep, the Jeep keeps going. We have 14″ of new wet snow on the ground at my place, and it is still snowing. The Jeep completely ignores this fact. It’s like it is not even there. That cannot be said for my roommates otherwise very capable snow-tire shod RWD Volvo with locking diff. – simply not enough ground clearance. Of course that goes for pretty much all of the crappy car-based CUVs too – that extra inch of ground clearance over a car will get you nowhere, AWD or not. I would NEVER, EVER have this ill-handling, gas swilling pig of a vehicle as my only car, but it sure is handy to have. Just another tool in the toolbox.

      Do I NEED to be able to get out of the driveway in 14″+ of snow without bothering to get the snowblower out? Nope, if I didn’t have it I would have snowblown or stayed home. But having the capability is mighty nice. Once out on the plowed road, my RWD BMW, also on very good snows, would have been about as good, but still nice to just pretty much shrug off the road conditions. But I do agree, the secret is the tires, not the 4WD/AWD – saw PLENTY of stuck, wheel-spinning SUVs and Subarus today.

      The Jeep also performed its winter sacrificial anode duty today when some moron in a Ford Focus slid into the back of it at a stoplight. Pushed in the corner of the bumper of the Jeep, comprehensively re-arranged the front of the Ford. I’ll put the insurance check towards parts for my Porsche project. Had it been my BMW I would be crying. The Jeep, eh, who cares!? Cheap winter beaters rule!

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      Two things (one already mentioned):

      1) Ground clearance. SUVs have more (as a general rule).

      2) Wheelwell clearance. You just can’t put chains on many cars these days as there is inadequate space for them. That means that you have to have AWD in order to cross mountain passes when chains are required.

      Tires absolutely do make the difference as already pointed out. I’ve had winter tires for both my RWD and FWD cars and would take either of them into any winter road conditions. It’s the other clueless idiots on the road that scare me the most, however!

  • avatar
    zeus01

    Save the manuals indeed! When I drive across Canada (and I’ve done it in the dead of winter, once in a rust-bucket ’82 RX7 no less) I always try to breeze through Quebec with as few stops as possible. I try to always keep at least one car in front of me to be the guinea pig for speed traps, a policy of mine that’s sharpened to the fact that French-speaking Quebec cops like to dine on out-of-province anglophone wallets even more so than on a heaping plate of poutine and a side of donuts.

    On top of that, I have an aversion to giving any more of my business than absolutely necessary to any province that sucks on the teat of the rest of Canada while thumbing their nose at us and trying to force the French language down the throats of Canadians from coast to coast. So I fill my tank (and coffee mug and snacks supply) in northern NB (or eastern Ontario), and then fill up only once in Quebec, otherwise only stopping to pee.

    Oh, and you’re right about the rude drivers. If traffic is moving along route 20 east of Montreal at 115 kms/hr in the right lane, and you pass in the left lane at 125 you’ll very soon have a Quebec driver riding your bumper and flashing his high beams at you for having the audacity to slow him down from 150.

    • 0 avatar
      Neb

      Isn’t northern NB french-speaking?

      • 0 avatar
        mikey

        @Neb…Yes nothern NB is French,as is northern Ontario. Haters got to hate.

        My Canada includes Quebec.

        • 0 avatar
          daiheadjai

          A lot of Quebecois disagree with the notion (“My Canada includes Quebec”) – since they don’t consider Canada as part of their identity.
          The Pequistes are a great example of “biting the hand that feeds you (everything that you could have asked for/demanded/extorted)”

          Methinks you missed the point – Zeus isn’t beefing with French-speaking Canadians (which would include a good chunk of Manitobans); his/her beef is with Quebecois in particular (the guys who sic the French language police on Italian restaurants for using words like “insalata” rather than the dogmatically-correct French equivalent).

          FWIW, I think Quebec drivers are better than Ontario drivers (skillwise, if not etiquette wise) – particular Toronto drivers (a group I begrudgingly admit to being part of).
          Even on a day like today, I see people doing under 100kph (speed limit) in the fast lane.

    • 0 avatar
      Austin Greene

      It’s people like you Zeus that have made our country what it is today.

      But I’m surprised you quoted speeds in KM. Isn’t that metric system some kind of French plot?

      • 0 avatar
        oldfatandrich

        The metric system is indeed a French plot. Not as bad as Bill 101, but every bit as irksome. Quebec needs to learn that its future arrangements were decided in 1763. By the conqueror’s sufferance, Quebec’s religion and its language were institutionalized. (Westminster’s Quebec Act which got the colonists to the south so sweaty.) Britain’s reward has been a 250 year sulk—which the Quebecois do so well. Never in European history has an indulgent victor been repaid with such churlishness. As an American, I look at Canada and laugh.

      • 0 avatar
        Jon Fage

        Yeah, a French plot. That seems to have spread to every country in the world except America and, interestingly, Liberia and Burma. Great company. Get with it, America. And while you are at it, get a dollar coin. Sheesh.

    • 0 avatar
      nrcote

      zeus01
      > trying to force the French language down the
      > throats of Canadians from coast to coast

      Yes, in Canada, since 1969, because of the Official Languages Act, Corn Flakes boxes must be bilingual (English and French) all over the country. C’est terrible, n’est-ce pas?

      BTW, zeus, if you want to pass someone doing 115 in the right lane, turn off the cruise control and floor it.

      • 0 avatar
        oldfatandrich

        The terrible is not the bi-lingual cereal box. The terrible is the language police. If you can square that with individual freedom, your math is better than mine. But not to worry, as any Canadian will tell you, theirs is the most virtuous nation in the world.

  • avatar
    fredtal

    First; I enjoy down shifting to get some power to move thru traffic. It’s about the only fun you can have in traffic.

    Second; This “test drive” reminded me of what Autoweek was when it was printed on newsprint. Good stories with cars in them. Keep it up and resist the temptation to go glossy.

  • avatar

    I like that photo.

  • avatar
    Redshift

    Interesting road trip gentlemen. (And glad to see more Nova Scotians getting some air time here.)
    Curious if there was going to be a follow up with some insight on how the MX5 performed. The article seemed to be focused on the FIAT.

    I’m curious on if you felt the FWD vs RWD nature of the two made any difference.

  • avatar
    Redshift

    Thanks Mark! Missed that one.

  • avatar
    claytori

    Great story. My SAAB hold 6 litres of WW fluid and can go through it in a day. I buy it by the case. Always two 4 litre jugs in the trunk. Winter tires are essential unless you want to stay home if it snows. Regarding SUV’s – higher ground clearance means you go through deeper snow. A low car with an air dam is a snow plow. At some point the snow builds up under the car and lifts the wheels and you don’t go.

    The other essential pieces of equipment are: a small shovel; booster ca bles; extension cord for the block heater; snow brush and ice scraper.

    I have always been able to get unstuck using the shovel and the 5 psi tire pressure trick. No 4WD required.

  • avatar
    Buckshot

    I like bad weather driving on the roads in Sweden. I see it as a challenge to cope with bad conditions. The worse, the better, although driving in the dark with heavy snowfall can get a bit to much. With my Nokian Hakkapeliitta 7 tires, nobody can outdrive me.

  • avatar
    Neb

    For the next white knuckle event, may I suggest a run from Winnipeg to Toronto along the shores of Lake Superior?

    • 0 avatar
      Mark Stevenson

      Ugh, that would be hell, and it would take more than two days.

      • 0 avatar
        Redshift

        Friend of mine is a long distance rider, and did the around Lake Superior run.
        In fact, he also still holds the Canada coast to coast record. (59 hours and some minutes.)

        Should be do-able in a Fiat (although might not be as reliable.)

      • 0 avatar
        Neb

        @Mark – That’s the idea! A winter trek through Canadian Siberia, with the Lake providing lots of interesting (probably dangerous) weather, and maybe some good visuals. I’ve driven that route in summer, and even then some of the roads were eerie in their emptiness. I can’t imagine what the route’s like in winter.

  • avatar
    bortlicenseplate

    Great story – keep ‘em coming!

    Just curious: did the Fiat handle the snow markedly better than the Mazda on account of its FWD setup, or was it pretty much a wash?

    • 0 avatar
      bortlicenseplate

      my bad – i just re-read the other comments and saw you already answered that.

      • 0 avatar
        Mark Stevenson

        More about that…

        I never once experienced the Mazda darting around in the snow if my inputs were smooth. As soon as I got on the gear, it would try to spin around. But, I was extremely impressed with how planted it was.

        It think Matt really lost confidence in the rear end of the Fiat.

        The only thing I can think of that would cause this difference is weight distribution. But, I am no physics expert.

  • avatar
    daiheadjai

    Great piece.
    I am strongly considering heading West – from Toronto to Vancouver – for a nice 2 week trip or something like that…
    Looking forward to the TransCanada Highway in something fun and frugal (hopefully I can wait till after I somehow manage to get myself into a BRZ)

    Speaking of which, thanks for one more vote in favour of a RWD car fitted with proper snow tires for Canadian winters (didn’t read any negative views on the MX-5 experience).

  • avatar
    nikita

    There is actually a highway busier than the San Diego freeway (I-405). Wow!


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