First Annual White Knuckle White-Out Challenge
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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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).
There is actually a highway busier than the San Diego freeway (I-405). Wow!