From North Cape to Gibraltar – Part 5: Driving through Lapland, Finland

bjorn-arctici-circleI never thought crossing back the Arctic Circle would feel so southernly…

This is Part 5 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series. You can also check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central SwedenPart 2: Kustvägen to FinlandPart 3: The journey to North Cape and Part 4: To the Russian border. We are looping the loop with this 5th part and coming back to Stockholm. The 1.700km-long journey takes three days but the most interesting part of the trip is the first 550km section from the Russian border in Grense Jakobselv to Rovaniemi, crossing the iconic Lapland region of northern Finland.

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2-degrees-outsideWe are back in Finland to explore the northern tip of the country.

After watching the sunset in Grense Jakobselv metres away from the Russia border, Björn and I take the 215km journey to Inari on the shore of Inarijärvi (Lake Inari) at night. The scenery is magical: a constant succession of lakes and immense forests, with the almost full moon bathing the landscapes with a surreal glow. The temperature goes down to a lowest-for-this-trip 2 degrees Celsius, which in fact isn’t that low given how far up north we are: above Iceland and almost as far north as where we started our U.S. North to South adventure, in Barrow Alaska. The reason behind this relatively mild climate is weather systems warmed by the northern Atlantic Gulf Stream drift into Northern Europe. Driving in darkness is the best opportunity to test Björn’s headlights. In contrast with the particularly weak lights of the two Ram pickups I drove in the U.S., the Volvo XC90’s lights are so strong I often though the trees were either illuminated artificially by street lights and I was entering a village or they were lit by a car coming my way behind the bend. Talk about powerful.

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inarijarvi-1The shores of Inariyärvi

Inari is every bit the quiet, unassuming fishing village I thought it would end up being. With a population of only 550 people, it’s a peaceful nature retreat where life flows in slow-motion. Inarijärvi (Lake Inari) is a constant calming presence throughout the village. It is Lapland’s largest lake at 1.153 sq-km and contains over 3.000 islands. The endless forests surrounding the village give the impression to be cut out from the rest of the world. The locals are laid back and friendly, the Hotel Inari is so perfectly comfortable I decided to stay another night to recharge batteries that were starting to go low after almost 4.000km driven in five days. Here I saw my second aurora borealis, but once again it was so fleeting and faint that I had no way of bringing back a photographic proof. It’ll have to be next time I’m in this neck of the woods as we are almost at the southernmost point where auroras can be seen at this time of the year (mid-September).

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sami-shoesSiida Sámi culture museum

Although it is a fantastic location to unwind, Inari’s main pull is its status as Finland’s most significant Sámi centre. The best place to learn about the Sámi culture is the Siida museum in town, which I strongly recommend you visit while in Inari. The Sámi, totalling 137.500 people, are the oldest remaining indigenous people in the whole of Europe. Since prehistoric times, they have lived and worked in an area covering the present-day northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Kola Peninsula. In order to acquire aboriginal rights, the Finnish government claims the Sámi must “prove” their land ownership, an idea incompatible with the traditional reindeer-herding Sámi way of life. In 1973, the Finnish Sami Parliament was established in Inari and Finland recognized the Sámi as a “people” in 1995, but they have had very little representation in Finnish national politics. The Siida museum is a fascinating display (indoors and outdoors) of the past and present Sami traditions and culture.

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bjorn-1000km-fuel-autonomyBjörn warns me of herds of reindeers coming up on the road and achieves its best fuel autonomy.

We are now back on the road towards Rovaniemi, driving through one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas. There are 326km between Inari and Rovaniemi, and roughly halfway is Sodankylä with its bustling population of 5.540 souls. This is the main service centre for one of Europe’s least-populated areas with a density of just 0.75 people per sq km. There were herds of reindeers wandering on the road, but I knew about it beforehand thanks to on-point warnings from Björn’s GPS system. Impressive. Some pretty constant driving at 120km/h pushed the autonomy to 1.030km on a full tank of fuel during this stretch of the trip.

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bjorn-santa-claus-post-officeBjörn paying a visit to Santa Claus.

8km before arriving in the capital of Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi, lies the Arctic Circle – the southernmost line at which the sun doesn’t set on at least one day a year. I never thought it would feel so southernly to cross the Arctic Circle again… But most importantly this point is the official residence of Santa Claus! I was bracing for an unhealthy dose of cringeworthy attractions but the Santa Claus village is actually quite tastefully executed. You can visit the Santa Claus Post Office and, wait for it, actually meet the real Santa Claus every day of the year in an impressive grotto. There is a massive photo board showing all celebrities and politicians that have paid Santa a visit (pretty much every head of state). Did I meet Santa? Of course I did! And it was a pleasure: he acted as an ambassador to the region and inquired about my travel itinerary, while never getting out of character. Santa Claus must have a degree in public relations! An experience I recommend also, especially if you are visiting with kids!

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tesla-charging-stations-scandinaviaLapland car landscape and Tesla charging stations in northern Scandinavia

Leaving Finland to return into Sweden means it’s time to share a few notes about the car landscape in Lapland. Here too, there is a very strong bias towards station wagons, but one segment smaller than in Sweden: the Toyota Auris SW is particularly successful, as are the VW Golf and Kia Cee’d. I also spotted a handful of Honda Civic Tourer: the first time I saw this variant in the flesh. Last but not least, I saw the very first Tesla of this trip – a Model S. You may wonder why I have not seen any in Norway, a market where it ranked #1 in September 2013, December 2013 and March 2014. The explanation is simple: the charging stations don’t extend that far north (see map above) and I spotted the Model S near the second northernmost grey point on the Finland map.

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bjorn-review-2Over 4.800 km later, Björn is back home in Stockholm…

We cross back into Sweden, and the trip to Stockholm swallowed in a little more time than I would have wished for, due to low speed limits and a constant flow of trucks making any passing attempt perilous on this one lane “highway” After a 4.821 km loop that saw us reach North Cape, it’s now time to (reluctantly) return Björn home, hop on a plane to Paris and take delivery of our Mercedes C-Class Coupe responsible for stretching this trip all the way to Gibraltar. But first, a quick review of Björn, our Volvo XC90, awaits.

bjorn-review-1Time to (reluctantly) give the keys back.

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  • The entire driving experience oozes comfort and sophisticatioed. All sound indicators/alerts are gentle, piano-like notes. The ride is plump, the seats are plush and the massage function enabled me to drive for 4.800km with no back ache. Unheard of. The Volvo XC90 is an optimal mix of luxury and liveability.
  • Very intuitive and practical touch-screen console. Able to monitor all elements at once while zooming on a particular one such as the GPS function for example. Pinch and zoom function great to use.
  • Line-assist aid is faultless and deeply reassuring. It progressively nurtures a more relaxed way of driving and, interestingly, a faster drive: no hesitation while passing trucks at high speed as you know the car will stay within its lane no matter what. You can watch beautiful Finnish lake landscape a little longer than you normally would, and you can also change clothes while driving as you can remove your hands from the steering wheel with no impact on the car’s trajectory for a few seconds (don’t do this at home!). It’s like driving on rails.
  • The car “won’t” let you overtake unless you indicate (it will gently resist the lane change). Puzzling at first, but a great way to ensure safe driving.
  • Discreet night lights throughout the cockpit, under seats and inside the door knobs ensure visibility of all essential functions at all times.
  • Fantastically coordinated stop-start system that restarts the car just
  • Very strong and effective headlights.
  • Incredible Bowers & Wilkins sound system. Sound doesn’t abruptly starts or stops, it always comfortably phases in and out.
  • Aggressive yet classy exterior design.

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  • Driving aids can become overbearing over long periods of driving (such as 5.000km in a week, but who in their right mind would do that?). It’s impossible to do something out of the ordinary without being told off: overstepping on the opposite lane to check the road ahead before passing a truck will invariably trigger a “time for a rest” alarm for example, even if you are just starting your day of driving. The tricks of computer-assisted driving, which Volvo will without a doubt iron out as this technology becomes even more sophisticated.
  • GPS (seemingly based on Google Maps) had a few inconsistencies in really remote areas of far north Norway, which made me lose one hour on Day 4. This is probably more of a Google Maps issue but Volvo needs to carefully double-check and iron out the interaction between Google Maps and its own GPS.
  • Wobbly rear end at high speed on dirt track is a little disconcerting for an SUV.
  • Cruise control sometimes quits abruptly and wouldn’t set back. Needs a car restart to function again.
  • Windscreen wipers aren’t always reacting to rain automatically.
  • Some speed limits weren’t correctly read by the car’s cameras – tricky ones such as roadwork-specific limits, or superseded limits that were still indicated on the side of the road. This potentially something Volvo could work on in cooperation with Scandinavian road networks to ensure all signs are displayed in a way that can be read by a computer, not just a human.

Stay tuned for the second part of this Europe series taking us to Gibraltar!

From North Cape to Gibraltar – Part 4: To the Russian border

bjorn-russian-borderBjörn at the Russian border.

This is Part 4 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series, check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central SwedenPart 2: Kustvägen to Finland and Part 3: The journey to North Cape. Now that we’ve reached the northernmost point of our adventure, instead of flatly driving back the way we came, why not drive east instead, to see where Norway meets Russia. This would end up being the easternmost point of this adventure, as we find ourselves further East than Cairo in Egypt… I have no plans to get into Russia per se, for three reasons: I have already been there in 2013 (Check out the 20 posts in our Trans-Siberian Railway series here), I have no visa and – most importantly – Björn is not allowed to leave the European Union. But that doesn’t mean we can’t check out the border.

russian-border-mapGoogle Maps doesn’t venture as far as the Russian border in Grense Jakobselv, but we did.
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vadsoVadso

From Nordkapp we drive back south to Smørfjord then Lakselv, then follow the coast east to Kunes, Ifjord and Torhop. It doesn’t look like much distance on the map, but I spent the morning going back to Nordkapp to take sunlit pictures, and Björn made its first GPS mistake of the trip: he kept wanting me to drive all the way down south to Finland and then straight back up northeast to Tana – an additional 3 hours – so I went on the wrong route to start with. To his credit, Google Maps does the same mistake, weirdly, as the section from Isfjord to Torhop seems to be recorded as unpassable.

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northern-norway-2The road to Vadso

As a result, I had to stop in Vadso, the closest town with a hotel. Pause. Yes, the closest town with a hotel. Although we are not as isolated as in the Australian desert, this part of Norway and the world is only very sparsely populated, with villages and cars painting a lonely picture in the landscape. Distances are stretched between settlements and the roads can be windy as they trace through the harshly indented coastline. It’s another rhythm altogether and now that I am used to the line-assist aid of the Volvo XC90, the feeling of driving on rails is growing on me. I feel like a train conductor combing out unchartered territory. There’s definitely a frontier feel in Vadso. An impression of calm before the storm: a quiet town with wild east streaks such as people driving dangerously (gasp!) and less-than-welcoming hotel personnel. One can definitely smell Russia in the air.

russian-border-gps-1The Russian border is the grey linerussian-border-point-1First Russian border point

The next day I retrace my steps from Vadso to hop back on the E6 to get up close and personal with the Russian border. A few km after Elvenes, I have my eyes glued to the GPS map as it seems the road I am driving on actually forms the border between Norway and Russia (see map above). The weather is grey, the clouds are low and the air wet, combining to create an eerie feeling of forbidden. Out in the real world though, there’s no sign yet that I am touching Russia with Björn’s wheels, and without GPS I wouldn’t have guessed. There’s not a single Russian car on the road. Things change where the E105 to Murmansk splits just before the official Russian border point. It’s a highly secured area and I had to take the above picture while still driving as stopping is strictly prohibited. I turn left on the 886 to Grense Jakobselv.

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bjorn-to-grense-jakobselvBjörn on the way to Grense Jakobselv

The road suddenly gets a lot narrower and Björn’s GPS is starting to seriously stress out, gently but repeatedly suggesting a sharp u-turn. This part of Norway is another unchartered GPS area, including on Google Maps which can’t for the life of it tell that there’s actually a road – granted, sometime a dirt track – that leads to Grense Jakobselv. I persist as the skies get greyer and more menacing by the minute. To add to the tension, I start to spot a few military vehicles parked on the side of the road. As I snap a few pics including the one above, a Norwegian military squadron on quads appears out of nowhere. Have I done something wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time… (I had a similar experience in 2013 in Moscow) But no. Big waves, big smiles and big hellos as they drive off into the wilderness. I stand there astounded.

russian-border-gps-2The dirt track hugs the Russian border (grey line on the GPS) bjorn-russian-border-2Russia is literally at a stone’s throw from Björn’s window.

At one point the road curbs sharply to the left and becomes an unmaintained dirt track. The only sound is the river flowing to my right. It turns out this is the Russian border. We are now driving northbound straight to the see and the track hugs the river so close it even acts as riverbank a few times. The air is electric with tension. Whats the big deal? I hear you ask, it’s only Russia. The natural feature forming the river is totally passable: you could even walk through the river easily, so shallow it is. Except no one is allowed to cross here. Beacons and captors are lined up at regular intervals along the water and although the only sound is of the river flowing, I could swear I’m hearing the regular beeps of cameras filming.

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russian-border-point-2“The border runs in the river”

Björn my Volvo XC90 suddenly feels like one of James Bond’s high tech cars taking me to a dodgy encounter in a god forsaken location. Many signs pepper the riverbank, explicitly indicating that crossing the borderline – aka the river – is strictly prohibited by any means (land, motor or air). Not only that, but it is also prohibited to “throw items across the borderline (!), to intentionally make contact with, or act in an insulting manner towards persons on the other side of the border and to photograph Russian military personnel and equipment in an aggressive or provocative manner”… At the point of the track where the river is the narrowest, there is a roadside shelter with a bench, tarpaulin, covers, donnas and basic food supplies. It seems river crossing is in fact happening here, and the Norwegian authorities have decided to soothe the experience rather than aggressively deter it. A fascinating sight.

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grense-jakobselv-gps-locationGrense Jakobselv

The arrival in Grense Jakobselv is as haunting and mysterious as it looks. This place is actually not fully inhabited and could very well qualify as a ghost town. No wonder Google Maps didn’t want me here! There’s no more than a handful of houses and a gaunt church towering the location. The Norwegian military squadron makes a surprise reappearance just to make the scene completely surreal. Although the entire area feels tense today, I can’t help but imagine how heavily the stink of paranoia would have suffocated this part of the world during the Cold War years. This tiny river flowing in a barren landscape used to be the material illustration of the iron curtain, the frontier between two ideologies, the gaping pit between the East and the West, for decades.

Mazda CX-5 Vadso September 2016. Picture courtesy caradvice.com.auThe Mazda CX-5 and CX-3 are the best-selling nameplate in the Vadsø district.

Exclusively to BSCB, we can also share the detail of the best-sellers in the two districts we have traversed in this Part 4 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series. The Vadsø district is Mazda territory, with the CX-5 and CX-3 brilliantly leading the sales charts so far in 2016. It’s also SUV territory with the Top 5 best-sellers belonging to this segment, and 7 out of the Top 10. The Toyota RAV4, Mitsubishi Outlander and Nissan Qashqai shine, while the national #1, the VW Golf, has to settle for a discreet #9 ranking.

Vadsø district – 1/1-18/9/16:

Pos Model Vadsø % Norway % Nor FY15
1 Mazda CX-5 23 11.6% 2,022 1.7% 11 10
2 Mazda CX-3 16 8.0% 1,778 1.5% 12 32
3 Toyota RAV4 16 8.0% 3,683 3.2% 4 7
4 Mitsubishi Outlander 14 7.0% 4,561 3.9% 2 6
5 Nissan Qashqai 14 7.0% 1,446 1.2% 19 12
6 VW Passat 11 5.5% 3,711 3.2% 3 8
7 Nissan X-Trail 10 5.0% 787 0.7% 47 36
8 Ford Mondeo 8 4.0% 1,386 1.2% 21 14
9 VW Golf 6 3.0% 10,664 9.2% 1 1
10 VW Tiguan 6 3.0% 1,758 1.5% 13 28

Source: OFV. Norway data is 1/1-30/9/16

Nissan Pulsar Norway September 2016The Nissan Pulsar ranks 4th in the Kirkenes district.

Eastwards in the Kirkenes district which includes Grense Jakobselv, Volkswagen holds the two top spots with the Golf and Passat while Nissan vastly over-performs, placing the Qashqai, Pulsar and X-Trail inside the Top 5. Carbuyers in this part of Norway are also very keen on SUVs, with 5 out of the Top 10 best-sellers inside that segment. The Suzuki Vitara in particular is favoured here at #7 vs. #32 in the whole of Norway.

Kirkenes district – 1/1-18/9/16:

Pos Model Kirkenes % Norway % Nor FY15
1 VW Golf 24 19.5% 10,664 9.2% 1 1
2 VW Passat 15 12.2% 3,711 3.2% 3 8
3 Nissan Qashqai 9 7.3% 1,446 1.2% 19 12
4 Nissan Pulsar 8 6.5% 126 0.1% 122 98
5 Nissan X-Trail 7 5.7% 787 0.7% 47 36
6 Toyota RAV4 7 5.7% 3,683 3.2% 4 7
7 Suzuki Vitara 6 4.9% 1,180 1.0% 32 29
8 Toyota Auris 6 4.9% 3,554 3.1% 5 2
9 Suzuki SX4/S-Cross 5 4.1% 689 0.6% 51 41
10 Toyota Prius 5 4.1% 1,572 1.4% 17 43

Source: OFV. Norway data is 1/1-30/9/16

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vw-transporter-kirkenes-2016Peugeot Expert and VW Transporter near Vadso.

We’ll finish on a few comments on the (rare) car landscape of the area, filled with VW Transporter and Caddy LCVs. These two models do not appear in the sales charts we publish every month, simply because we have stopped covering Light Commercial Vehicles sales for Norway. However these category sells in great numbers here, and the latest launches seem to already have resonated with buyers: I spotted a few examples of the the twins Toyota ProAce and Peugeot Expert (pictured above).

Best-selling LCVs in Norway – January-November 2016:

Pos Model Nov-16 % 2016 % Pos
1 VW Caddy 470 13.7% 4,282 14.0% 1
2 VW Transporter 362 10.5% 3,637 11.9% 2
3 Mercedes Vito 256 7.5% 2,354 7.7% 4
4 Ford Connect 231 6.7% 1,907 6.2% 5
5 Peugeot Partner 219 6.4% 2,475 8.1% 3
6 Isuzu D-Max 175 5.1% 841 2.7% 8
7 Toyota Hilux 171 5.0% 715 2.3% 10
8 Toyota ProAce 148 4.3% 601 2.0% 13
9 VW Amarok 115 3.4% 666 2.2% 12
10 Citroen Berlingo 113 3.3% 1,114 3.6% 7
11 Toyota Land Cruiser 110 3.2% 750 2.4% 9
12 Ford Ranger 110 3.2% 669 2.2% 11
13 Ford Transit Custom 105 3.1% 1,153 3.8% 6
14 Opel Vivaro 72 2.1% 525 1.7% 14
15 Peugeot Expert 63 1.8% 473 1.5% 16

Now that we have hit the Russian border, it’s time to head back south. Next, for the last iteration of the Scandinavian side of this North Cape to Gibraltar series, we cross northern Finland to visit the Sami people and Santa Claus. Stay tuned!

From North Cape to Gibraltar – Part 3: The journey to North Cape

bjorn-nordkapp-1Spectacular sunset over North Cape.

This is Part 3 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series, click here to check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central Sweden and Part 2: Kustvägen to Finland, a succession of impossibly stunning fishing villages. Today is the big day: the road to North Cape – Nordkapp in Norwegian, roughly 600km from our Finnish pitstop, Ylläsjärvi. We cross into Norway as Finland has no access to the sea northbound. I had imagined a spectacular end-of-the-world location, but not only is it absolutely breath-taking, the journey to reach North Cape is actually the most spectacular part of the trip…

yllasjarvi-nordkapp-with-reference-mapnordkapp-2Road to Nordkapp. Map from Google Maps.

Our first milestone is the Norwegian border, and to reach it we need to cross through some of the most isolated parts of Finland for close to 200km, skirting the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park for almost the entirety of this stretch of the itinerary. It’s the first time we travel through Finland in daylight which gives me an opportunity to confirm that the most popular new cars in this part of the country are consistent with the 2016 sales charts. Even though we are a whopping 1.000 km from the capital Helsinki, the Skoda Octavia – almost exclusively as station wagon –  Nissan Qashqai, Opel Astra (already a few new generation) and Toyota Auris – also as station wagon, are the most frequent nameplates I encountered in and around the border-town of Muonio.

destination-nordkappIt’s not every day we set a car’s GPS destination to Nordkapp…reindeer-caribou-world-distributionWorld distribution of caribou (green) and reindeer (red). Picture Wikimediawhite-reindeerCurious reindeer isn’t fazed by the ballet of cars around.

But for once I have to admit it’s not the cars that fascinated me the most in Finland. A mere few km after leaving Ylläsjärvi and as a potent signal that we’ve entered into their territory (see map above), a full herd of about twenty reindeers find itself peacefully grazing by the side of the road, crossing nonchalantly to explore greener pastures. Not in the least disturbed by whirling ballet of cars slowing, stopping and u-turning to capture the moment. Most of them have grey fur but a few a sparkling white. Little did I know that this ritual would now become par for the course.

norwegian-frontierBjörn is now setting its wheels into Norway.

We now cross the border into Norway to enter a region confusingly called Finnmark – a mix of Finland and Denmark located in northern Norway. Still with us? First is the Finnmarksvidda Plateau, a stark expanse of land sparsely populated with Sámi people. My first encounter with this native people of the area was at a at roadside petrol station/restaurant in Muonio, an elderly woman wearing a full and bright red outfit. I may have stared a bit, but it was from sheer surprise, admiration and awe. Much more on the Sámi people in a next iteration of this Series.

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norway-towards-nordkappIt’s a straight road north in the barren Finnmarksvidda Plateau.

Thanks to Jan our correspondent in Norway we can share with you exclusive sales data for this region of the world. In the Alta district, the first section we crossed, the best-seller is the Skoda Octavia. Even though the Octavia only ranks 8th overall in Norway, this isn’t that illogical given the district’s proximity to Finland where the Octavia leads. We have a surprise in 2nd place though: the Peugeot 208, up from #57 in Norway. Another smashing success here is the new Mercedes GLC at #5 and #2 SUV below the VW Tiguan. The Skoda Superb (#7) and Kia Sportage (#9) also over-perform.

Alta district – 1/1-18/9/16:

Pos Model Alta % Norway % Nor
1 Skoda Octavia 30 7.4% 2,838 2.4% 8
2 Peugeot 208 26 6.4% 574 0.5% 57
3 VW Golf 23 5.6% 10,664 9.2% 1
4 VW Tiguan 20 4.9% 1,758 1.5% 13
5 Mercedes GLC 16 3.9% 936 0.8% 43
6 VW Passat 14 3.4% 3,711 3.2% 3
7 Skoda Superb 14 3.4% 1,600 1.4% 16
8 Mazda CX-5 13 3.2% 2,022 1.7% 11
9 Kia Sportage 13 3.2% 956 0.8% 42
10 Mitsubishi Outlander 12 2.9% 4,561 3.9% 2
11 Volvo V70 12 2.9% 1,206 1.0% 31

Source: OFV. Norway data is 1/1-30/9/16

bjorn-brennelvBjörn in Brennelv along the E69 leading to Nordkapp.mercedes-cla-hammerfest-september-2016The Mercedes CLA is the best-selling vehicle in Norway’s Hammerfest district.

The Hammerfest district is the northernmost in Norway, and the 2016 sales charts up to the time I visited are even more of a surprise: it’s a Mercedes festival here, with the German luxury carmaker placing no less than five nameplates inside the Top 7. Granted, the market is small (152 sales YTD) but it’s still a stunning achievement nonetheless. The Mercedes CLA holds 11.2% market share thanks to 17 units finding a buyer – and we will assume the majority of these sales are for the Shooting Brake station wagon variant given the particular taste for this format in Scandinavia. The Toyota RAV4 and VW Golf complete the podium.

Hammerfest district – 1/1-18/9/16:

Pos Model H’fest % Norway % Nor FY15
1 Mercedes CLA 17 11.2% 551 0.5% 60 49
2 Toyota RAV4 12 7.9% 3,683 3.2% 4 7
3 VW Golf 10 6.6% 10,664 9.2% 1 1
4 Mercedes A Class 9 5.9% 513 0.4% 65 58
5 Mercedes GLA 9 5.9% 355 0.3% 75 62
6 Mercedes B Class 8 5.3% 1,652 1.4% 15 20
7 Mercedes E Class 6 3.9% 601 0.5% 52 63
8 Toyota Auris 6 3.9% 3,554 3.1% 5 2
9 Toyota Avensis 6 3.9% 1,264 1.1% 28 27
10 Ford Focus 5 3.3% 1,141 1.0% 34 18
11 Mercedes GLC 5 3.3% 936 0.8% 43 94
12 VW Tiguan 5 3.3% 1,758 1.5% 13 28

Source: OFV. Norway data is 1/1-30/9/16

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nordkapp-road-detailNordkapp arrival detail 

355 km north of Ylläsjärvi we hit the Barents Seat in Alta. Then, a further 120km northeast we arrive at Olderfjord for the start of one of the most spectacular roads I’ve ever had the chance to travel on. The E60 kisses the east coast of the peninsula that leads to Nordkapp (pictured above). Peppering the voyage are only a handful of fishing settlements too small to be called villages with only four to five houses at most. It’s drizzling, the sky is grey and menacing. The drama goes crescendo as I drive Björn on the 130km leading to Nordkapp. I stop many times. To grasp the silence, hear the wind and smell the rain. It’s the end of the world.

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nordkapp

midnight-sun-nordkapp-picture-courtesy-wikipediaNordkapp at sunset – above the cloud base – and a sunlit picture courtesy of Wikimedia.

Just as I thought this couldn’t get any more spectacular, the 7km-long North Cape tunnel makes the journey that much more mysterious, enabling Björn and I to cross the Magerøysundet strait between the Norwegian mainland and the island of Magerøya where Nordkapp is located. After a couple more tunnels on the flank of the cliff we’ve been hugging for over 100 km, we arrive at Honnigsvåg which is the only village on the island. A few more hills as we elevate our position to roughly 300m above see level and finally, around a bend, I suddenly come face to face with Nordkapp just as the sun blazes the sky pink. I can’t avoid a big loud gasp, as it looks almost too beautiful to be true. I quickly park the car at a viewpoint to snap a few photos including the one atop this article. Then, as if in a fairy land far, far away from common sense and lives, three curious reindeers quietly and softly come close to the car, all the while continuing to graze. Nordkapp is a magical land.

nordkapp-3

bjorn-nordkapp-4Nordkapp sunset, and Björn stretching its wheels on the Magerøya island leading to Nordkapp.

While I had Nordkapp in my field of vision, it is another 20 km to actually hit the North Cape, where there is only a visitor centre that was closed when I arrived. There is an earth globe to mark the spot and a steep cliff coupled with strong winds and chill factor all combined to make this visit a rather haunting one. The sun finally set under the clouds below us and all was back to darkness, like a dream had sailed off. This cliff is located at 71°10′21″N 25°47′04″E, 2.102 kilometres south of the North Pole. But there’s a catch: although North Cape is often referred to as the northernmost point of Europe, this title actually belongs to neighbouring Knivskjellodden point, just to the west, which extends 1.457 metres further to the north but is only accessible by foot. There’s more: given both of these points are situated on the Magerøya island, the northernmost point of mainland Europe is actually Cape Nordkinn, 5.7 km south. According to Wikipedia, the northernmost point of Europe including islands is several hundred miles further north, either in Russia’s Franz Josef Land or Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, depending on whether Franz Josef Land is considered to be in Europe or in Asia.

bjorn-nordkapp-2Spectacular scenery on the Magerøya island near Nordkapp. Click on picture to enlarge.

Returning to Honnigsvåg for the night, I was welcomed by a full hundred people-strong marching band all smiles in the town’s main (and only) street. Yes, today is a day to celebrate as we’ve reached one of the two extreme points of the European saga. But it’s far from the end. Tomorrow we are headed to the Russian border… Stay tuned!

More photos below.

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From Cape North to Gibraltar – Part 2: Kustvägen to Finland

bjorn-sorfsjardenBjorn in Mellanfjärden along the Kustvägen (Coastal Road).

This is Part 2 of our Europe 2016 Cape North to Gibraltar series, click here to check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central Sweden. After getting a glimpse of Sweden’s capital Stockholm and touring the home of the iconic Dala Horse near Lake Siljan, we continue to head north – a rather good idea if we do want to reach Nordkapp indeed..

gnarp-yllasjarvi-with-reference-mapToday’s itinerary, northbound from Gnarp to Ylläsjärvi in Finland, starting with the Kustvägen.

Starting in Gnarp, we first discover the impossibly beautiful tiny harbours lining up the famed Kustvägen (Coastal Road), then hop on the majestic Höga Kustenbron (High Coast Bridge) to follow the Bothnian Coast all the way up to Finland, in Ylläsjärvi to be precise, where one of the wonders of Scandinavia awaits us: the aurora borealis…

auto-motor-sport-mentionProud to see bestsellingcarsblog.com mentioned in Sweden’s best-selling car magazine. 

But before we go exploring today, a nice surprise from Sweden’s best-selling car magazine, Auto Motor & Sport. AMS has been supporting BSCB by subscribing to the site from the very early days on, but it’s always heartwarming to see bestsellingcarsblog.com mentioned halfway round the world. The issue that was on sale when I visited the country had a special world market exploration dedicated to Kenya, and AMS kindly quoted us as the source. Thank you!

bjorn-kustvagen-bear-signWe met no bear – incidentally, björn is Swedish for bear…

In the first post of this Photo Series, I revelled in the fact that everything is working the way it’s supposed to in Sweden after spending four days in Malta, the kingdom of rip-off. But it’s not just “things” that are pleasantly efficient here. People are kind, trustworthy and reliable. At the end of my first day of driving, I arrived very late at a guesthouse in Gnarp that I had booked online only an hour earlier. Not to worry, the staff was asleep but left the entry door open, with the keys of all available rooms at reception for me to choose from. I just had to leave a note saying who I was and which room I chose. In the morning, it’s all smiles and welcome and copious buffet breakfast. Honesty goes a long way.

bjorn-skatanBjörn in Skåtanvolvo-v40-skatanSkåtansorfsjardenThis is the Sweden I remembered.

From Gnarp, we backtrack a few kilometres to catch the Kustvägen right from the very start at Jättendal and its picturesque church. Headed towards the Bothnian Gulf, we soon reach Mellanfjärden – pictured above and right at the top of this article. Back in 1993 when I first visited Sweden as a teenager, I got totally mesmerised by tiny, hauntingly quiet harbours open to a mirror-like sea. One of the aims of this portion of the trip was to recapture this feeling. And as soon as I get out of the XC90 in Mellanfjärden, it’s right there again for me to experience. Boat masts, water against the jetty and seagulls are the only sounds. No one seems to live here yet everyone is so discreet and quiet that all houses could be full of people for all I know. I drive Björn to the end of the jetty for a few photos. I soak in the calm. It’s heaven.

bjorn-lorudden

lorudden-3Lörudden

Our next stop on the Kustvägen is Skåtan (see pictures further up in the article). Driving into Skåtan is like driving into a town-sized museum. Every house is impeccably painted with the traditional red colour we have come to get used to since we left Stockholm, all gardens are meticulously manicured, yet it all feels homely, natural and welcoming. Being outside of summer season, the main/only restaurant in town is closed – another opportunity to enjoy the calm. Everyone passing by says hello. Can I please retire here.

lorudden-2

lorudden-1Lörudden towards the end of the Kustvägen.

The last noteworthy stop along the Kustvägen is tiny Lörudden, where the houses (red-obviously!) give straight onto the harbour with no cars allowed near them, instead a vast parking is provided hinterland. Perfect. As I arrive the place is foggy and a little mournful, but goes from fog to full sunlight in a matter of minutes. And the spectacle continues. Simply but tastefully decorated windows, nothing out of place, Lörudden is a village deliciously frozen in time.

hoga-kustenbronHöga Kustenbron

After 48 hours familiarising myself with Björn our Volvo XC90, I have to admit it’s been very difficult to fault him. The cabin exudes sophistication, every noise alert – seatbelt, line-assist, car in the blind spot as you prepare to overtake – is smooth and non-confrontational. The line-assist itself, as I progressively get used to it each day, is a stunning piece of technology that actually does make you feel safer on a constant basis. You know the car will nudge you back in place, without fault. I did try to provoke it into not reacting (repeated movements, fast, slow…) but always failed. The touch screen display is brilliant and instinctive to manoeuvre, keeping menu navigation bars at all times so it’s effortless to switch screens. You can get an overall view of what you really want to follow on the screen without having to back- and forward-screen all the time – see below two examples: 1. the all-navigation menu and 2. the detail of music menu with other menu bars (Navigation, Phone…) still there and clickable but not obtrusive. You can zoom the navigation map by just pinching the screen like on an iPad. Simply brilliant.

abba ace-of-base When in Rome…

So of course, I did play the mandatory ABBA and Ace of Base to put me in a full-Swedish mood. I had to. Now one fantastic option this XC90 has been equipped with is the $4.500 Sensus Premium Sound by Bowers & Wilkins. I’ll cut to the chase: this is quite possibly the best sound I have ever got to listen to in any car I have driven so far in my life. Yessir. I threw everything I could at this sound system, the biggest bass lines, treble, music that would normally send even a robust sound system to the grave (try some good ol’ bass-heavy rap or nineties eurotrash), but nothing even came close to ruffling its feathers. Very impressive indeed. The only slight disappointment I have so far with Björn is the instability of the car (truck?) on the unsealed sections of the Kustvägen. At a full two tonnes, the XC90 isn’t a lightweight, granted, but it’s not the heaviest of the pack and its rear-end got a little too wobbly for my liking when I pushed the car more aggressively on winding roads. Surprising, yet again I am also discovering that this is not an SUV that was primarily destined to play in the mud.

hyundai-i30-sw-loruddenHyundai i30 SW sporting its add-on headlights like a Boss.

As for the surrounding car landscape we are encountering on this part of Sweden, the one element that has stood out the night before when arriving at Gnarp is the presence of add-on headlights on the bonnet of almost every single car. This is a rural part of Sweden with the only one-lane artery connecting Stockholm to Luleå, the rest being unlit countryside narrow and winding roads. Still, the Swedes seem to have a particular love for facing over-lit night landscapes, and this could have a lot to do with the omnipresence of wildlife throughout the country, namely reindeer, elk and bear. We have spotted none of the above yet though.

vw-golf-alltrack-lorudden

mercedes-e-class-loruddenVW Golf Alltrack and Mercedes E-Class Kombi in Lörudden

The main trend we described in the First Part of this series – an obsession with Station Wagons – continues on as we progress north, with a significant amount of VW Golf Alltrack such as the one pictured above spotted in Lörudden. This is however not a new trend, illustrated by the robust amount of middle-aged – I did not say vintage, anything older than 15 years seems to have miraculously disappeared from Swedish roads – luxury Mercedes, BMW and Audi-branded kombis, streaming around in the company of Volvos.

finland-borderBjorn and I are crossing the border into Finland.
finnish-breakfast A very hearty Finnish breakfast.

It’s full 900km and past midnight before we cross the border into Finland, and with an (unexpected) one-hour time difference between Sweden and Finland we immediately find ourselves even further into the night. But there’s a surprise waiting. Contacting my hotel earlier in the day, I learnt that the aurora borealis forecast was good for the night. A little like trying to spot kangaroos in the wild when I first arrived in Australia, the search is made harder when you don’t actually know what to look for. But suddenly and right above my head, here it is. Like curtains dancing in the sky. It was the very beginning of the aurora season when I visited (mid-September) so this almost god-like apparition only lasted a few seconds and prevented any pictures to be taken, leaving me wondering whether this was just all a big hallucination as perhaps I had been driving for way too long today. A nice chat wit the hotel owner around a very hearty Finnish breakfast the morning after confirms I have not lost my mind: I did just see my very first aurora borealis. 

yllasjarvi-finlandOnto another day, just after sunrise in Ylläsjärvi, Finland.

As I get ready for what could end up being the most exciting day of this European adventure, I notice the morning sunlight has a very distinct, softened glow. We have arrived in Lapland.

Stay tuned for the next iteration in this Photo Series: the journey to Nordkapp…

Photo Report: Witnessing Volkswagen’s last stand at Rally Australia

vw-polo-andreas-mikkelsenAndreas Mikkelsen, winner of Rally Australia 2016.

Last weekend I had the privilege to reconnect with an age-old passion of mine: World Rally Cars, to witness Volkswagen’s very last outing after the shock announcement earlier in the month that the company would retire from WRC, effective immediately. I watched three stages on Day 1, and one each on Day 2 and 3. Interestingly, the New Zealand public (for Hayden Paddon) and – more surprisingly – Estonian fans (for Odd Tanak) were present in force in the spectator areas all along the rally, which was won by Andreas Mikkelsen, giving Volkswagen its ultimate victory and completing an almost immaculate list of awards.

Judge for yourself: starting at the Monte Carlo Rally 2013, Australia is the 43rd victory for the VW Polo R out of 52 participations. That’s an incredible 83% winning ratio. Volkswagen finished one-two 20 times and one-two-three four times, winning both the driver and manufacturer World Championship titles for each and every season they participated (2013 to 2016). The German manufacturer won 640 of the 958 special stages it started, with Volkswagen drivers finishing inside the top three 1.570 times and finishing one-two-three 109 times. Finally, Volkswagen claimed 87 podium results in 52 WRC rallies – 43 of these have been victories, 26 second places and 18 third places. These stats sourced at wrc.com

hyundai-i20-hayden-paddonHaydon Paddensebastien-ogier-wrc-australiaSébastien Ogier

The emotion and tension was palpable with the mechanics in the Volkswagen stand at the Service Park. Sébastien Ogier and Andreas Mikkelsen appeared focused but preoccupied, while Jari-Matti Latvala escaped the area as soon as he arrived at the Park. But the big question on everyone’s mouth in Australia was “Where next for Ogier?” An article published on wrc.com before Rally Australia mentioned Ogier was in talks with Citroen and M Sport (Ford) but it was revealed today that he just tested the 2017 Toyota Yaris WRC. In other words, all bets are still open. “There are only weeks before Monte Carlo, so obviously we are already a little bit late now to be in optimal condition for next season but I hope that very soon I’ll be able to take my decision.” said Ogier to wrc.com.

ford-fiesta-eric-camilliEric Camilli 
wrc-australia-snake-warningSnake warnings at the entrance of each spectator section.

Waiting patiently for Ogier’s decision are the two other Volkswagen pilots, Andreas Mikkelsen and Jari-Matti Latvala. A clearly emotional Mikkelsen resumed his experience at Volkswagen after his win to wrc.com: “Volkswagen is the team that gave me the opportunity to step up into the top class of the WRC. They put a lot of faith in me and made so much possible for me. They will always have a special place in my heart. Everything came together at the final rally. Everything, absolutely everything, worked perfectly – it was simply the optimum of what we have achieved together in four years in the World Rally Championship.” On next year: “Obviously it’s not really ideal, it’s so late in the season that the seats are taken. I guess it’s the same situation for both myself and Jari-Matti – we have to sit and wait and see what Seb does.”

toyota-rav4-big-banana-coffs-harbourThe unmissable Big Banana in Coffs Harbour… 

Rally Australia was also the opportunity for me to take a rental Toyota RAV4 for a spin, to try and find out why despite the dominant position of Toyota in Australia, the RAV4 isn’t the best-selling SUV in the country. This honour has been held in Australia for a stunning four consecutive years by the Mazda CX-5, including 2016 so far (20.702 sales), with the RAV4 currently ranking third in the SUV race at 16.438 units below the Hyundai Tucson (16.814).

johns-river-petrol-station-australia-october-2016Johns River petrol station

First we have to name this RAV4, and as my trip coincided with the announcement that the revered – and personal favourite of mine – filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki was coming out of retirement for one last movie, Hayao the RAV4 it will be. For those of you BSCB readers who are following our adventures closely you will have noticed that we jumped from Esmeralda the Fiat Panda from Sardinia directly to the letter H. That’s because of an epic European summer adventure involving two cars (F.. and G…….) I will be reporting on shortly.

toyota-rav4-dorrigo-nsw-2Hayao in Dorrigo, NSW 

First impressions of Hayao, keeping in mind the No Bird rental I drove was a base model, is that the dashboard is pleasingly intuitive and not overcrowded yet the touch screen is on the smallish side, the finish is basic, there is no GPS and the seats are adjusted manually. The RAV4 does drive as nimbly as a car despite its inflated dimensions since the first two generations. The bonnet is curved up on the side giving you a truck stature, feeling particularly high on the street – which is the intended effect.

toyota-hilux-isuzu-mu-x-coffs-harbourToyota Hilux and Isuzu MU-X support cars at Rally Australia. 

I drove from Sydney to Coffs Harbour and back, totalling 1.669km and following the Pacific Ocean coast through quaint sun-kissed villages such as Johns River, Crescent Head, South West Rocks, Urunga, Dorrigo and of course I couldn’t afford to miss the World Famous (?) Big Banana… I drove the entire four days within some of the most populated areas of New South Wales, but as soon as I left the Sydney metropolitan area, the car park changed drastically, as it was already the case when I took a Haval H8 to Birdsville last July. According to our exclusive 2015 Australian State by State rankings, the best-sellers in New South Wales are the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and Hyundai i30 in this order…

ford-ranger-rally-australiaFord Ranger WRC 000 opening car

None of this compact car nonsense outside of Sydney, and the rupture is extremely clear. Up North, the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger ferociously fight for supremacy with a flood of new generation models inundating the countryside roads. But there is one clearly over-performing ute (Australian slang for pickup truck): the pragmatic Isuzu D-Max. Great value for money, this robust fare has convinced the Australian country folks in droves.

toyota-rav4-fortuner-dorrigo-nswHayao with a Toyota Fortuner in Dorrigo NSW

A striking correlation to the tremendous success of utes in this part of Australia is the wild over-performing sales of pickup-based 4WDs, a new occurrence in the country. By these I mean the Toyota Fortuner (#74 so far in 2016), Ford Everest (#84) but most strikingly the Isuzu MU-X (#48). The MU-X should rank within the 10 best-selling nameplates in and around Coffs Harbour in 2016, so many of them I spotted on neighbouring roads. The success of these true blue 4WD is yet to be replicated nationally, one of the quirks of an Australian car market more than ever hungry for SUVs. Note that both Toyota Land Cruiser (70 and 200) are also particularly popular here, including the LC70 pickup.

toyota-land-cruiser-urunga-nswToyota Land Cruiser 

The rest of the region’s park is still resolutely skewed towards Australian-made models, a characteristic of regional Australia all the while the big cities have long opted for imported fares that will be the norm from 2018 onwards. The Holden Commodore is still very frequent on the streets – including the current generation both in sedan and ute variants, as is the Ford Territory and Holden Captiva (technically not made in Australia but assimilated as such due to its badge). The Mazda CX-5 justifies its status of #1 SUV even more so than in the cities.

ford-everest-coffs-harbourFord Everesttoyota-rav4-crescent-headAustralian Spring near Crescent Head

This concludes our World Rally Cars Photo Report, stay tuned for a trans-European adventure shortly.

Photo Report: The cars of Malta in 50 pictures

1-land-rover-nadur-gozoLand Rover Pickup in Nadur, Gozo

Up until today, Malta was a rather secretive market on BSCB with no official sales figures and one lonely update based on Youtube videos dating back to 2010. This is no more. Sometimes car sales data has to be sourced from the very source and on-location research is the best way. There will therefore be two separate Malta updates: one detailing the overall car park of the two main islands (Malta and Gozo) forming the country, and one detailing the best-sellers so far in 2016 – exclusive info you won’t find anywhere else but on Bestsellingcarsblog. We will start with the cars of Malta in 50 Pictures. This is a selection from over 700 snaps of the most striking cars I found in Malta. Enjoy!

2-toyota-hilux-zebbug-gozoToyota Hilux in Zebug, Gozo

First about the actual experience of visiting Malta. If you are planning to visit Malta in the near future, don’t bother perhaps read these lines before you commit. Granted, the colourful balconies, Valletta, Vittorioso and the entire island of Gozo are unique and splendid. However, if you need a room and a car, you must be prepared to end up paying 3 times what you agreed to pay for, for something that will almost certainly end up being the opposite of what you paid for…

3-daihatsu-hijet-marsaxlokkDaihatsu Hijet in Marsaxlokk

For example, a rental car booked online with Goldcar for 43€ ends up costing 118€ due to a ‘mandatory’ all-excess insurance to be paid in case you don’t have a credit card – no mention of this when the company accepted my debit card details online of course. It’s a seasoned business: the cancellation fee is set at 150€ so you are plain and simply hijacked. One hour wait later, I get a Peugeot 208 that was so damaged the staff rolled their eyes at having to write down all the bumps and scratches on the sheet. The hotel room and petrol stations were a similar experience, to the point that for each € spent, I ended up having to spend 3€ for things I had not agreed to pay for – or for actually nothing at all. One day, Malta will wake up with so many consumer law suits on their hands they won’t know where to turn. If all this sounds like an appealing proposition to you, then by all means go visit Malta. End of rant! Now onto the cars.

4-kia-picanto-toyota-rush-vallettaKia Picanto and Toyota Rush in Valletta

5-toyota-vitz-vallettaToyota Vitz in Valletta

A former British colony, Malta gained its independence in 1964 and therefore is a Left Hand Traffic country, requiring Right Hand Drive (RHD) cars. The two main islands that form the country are very small, therefore cars don’t get used that much and can be kept on the road for a lot longer than in a continental location. As a result, the Maltese car park is a striking collection of RHD imports, mainly from Japan, the UK and India. As soon as I hit the airport carpark a flow of used imports from Japan invaded the landscape, king of them being the Toyota Vits (aka Yaris) with original Japanese logo on the bonnet. A lot would follow.

6-birgu-street-sceneBirgu street scene

Malta being neutral during the Cold War, there is also a very distinct Eastern European influence on the streets with many 1980s and 1990s Skodas and Ladas. Korean brands have been present for longer than most European countries, with Kia trucks dating back to the early eighties still in operation.

fordson-thames-1948-1954-vallettaFordson Thames (1948-1954) in Valletta

6-ford-escort-rabatFord Escort Estate (1968-1974) in Rabat

7-kia-truck-xaghra-gozoKia Truck in Xaghra, Gozo

8-kia-picanto-peugeot-108-maruti-gypsy-mdinaKia Picanto, Peugeot 108 and Maruti Gypsy in Mdina

The best-selling new cars will be detailed in a separate post, but mini cars are the norm with the Kia Picanto, Peugeot 108, Hyundai i10 and Citroen C1 very frequent.

9-maruti-gypsy-san-lawrenz-gozoMaruti Gypsy in San Lawrenz, Gozo

The Maruti Gypsy imported as used straight from India has melted the hearts of Maltese drivers, especially on the island of Gozo where it is used as an airy taxi under the blistering summer heat that was enveloping the island when I visited.

11-maruti-omni-birzebbugaMaruti Omni in Birzebugga

10-maruti-800-vittoriosa2 x identical Maruti 800 in Vittoriosa

The Gypsy isn’t the only Maruti popular in Malta, with the 800 so frequent still despite its age that more than one example in the same street is a common occurrence as pictured above.

12-seat-ibiza-smart-fortwo-mdinaSeat Ibiza and Smart Fortwo in Mdina

13-tata-sumo-birzebbuga2 x Tata Sumo in Birzebugga

14-tata-telcoline-marsaxlokkTata Telcoline in Marsaxlokk

Tata has also had its very successful time, with some rarities popping up regularly such as various generations of Sumo and the Telcoline with its air of Mercedes pickup.

mitsubishi-l200-victoria-gozoMitsubishi L200 in Victoria, Gozo

One staple of Malta is the older Japanese pickups streaming along every single street and unsealed road, with the Mitsubishi L200, Toyota Hilux and Isuzu D-Max of absolutely all generations extremely well represented.

land-rover-birzebbugaLand Rover Pickup in Birzebuggaland-rover-nadur-gozo-pic2Land Rover Pickup in Nadur, Gozo
land-rover-mgarr-gozoLand Rover in Mgarr, Gozo

But the main emblem of Malta will have to be the valiant Land Rovers spread all across the two islands and looking almost pristine. Malta is a fascinating voyage in time where most cars have been conserved to near their original state. Just for this, it’s well worth the trouble.

15-marsaxlokk-street-sceneStreet scene in Marsaxlokk

The Full Photo Report (50 photos) continues below.

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Photo Report: Driving a Fiat Panda through Sardinia, Italy

Panda Blu sunsetEsmeralda, our “Panda blu”

After exploring remote areas of the Chinese Sichuan Province, we now fly over to the European summer, more precisely in Sardinia, an Italian island located west of the mainland and south of the French Corsica island in the Mediterranean Sea. Our itinerary goes around the island anticlockwise, starting and ending in Olbia on the north-eastern coast and exploring such wonders as the Costa Smeralda, the jetset cities of Porto Rotondo and Porto Cervo, the stunning archipelago of La Maddalena…

1. Fiat 500X Bosa SardiniaFiat 500X and Lancia Ypsilon in Bosa, Sardinia (click on any picture to enlarge).

… Santa Teresa de Gallura from where we can clearly see the Corsican coast, Castelsardo, Alghero, Bosa, San Salvatore, Cagliari, Terra Male and Cala Gonone (see map below). It’s a total of 1.450km over six days – many thanks to Audrey for putting on the driving cap every second day. Our ride in Sardinia is, logically, a rental Fiat Panda. The Panda is the current best-selling vehicle in Italy with 8% market share and sales up 23% so far in 2016, but also the #1 vehicle in the rental car sales charts in 2015.

Sardinia mapThe itinerary: from Olbia to Olbia, via Alghero, Bosa and Cagliari.

After Albert the Ram 1500 in our U.S. Coast to Coast 2014 exploration, Bob the Ram 2500 in our U.S. North to South 2015 Report, Charlie the Jeep Wrangler in our Hawaii 2016 Report and Damo the Haval H8 of our Australian Outback adventure, the next BSCB ride had to get a name starting with E. We chose to baptise our “Panda blu” Esmeralda, the first female name we choose at BSCB, simply because this is the first “car” we drive as opposed to the “trucks” we had before. In French, my native language, a car is feminine and a truck is masculine, and therein lies the rationale behind all our name choices.

2. Fiat Panda Cagliari SardiniaFiat Panda II in CagliariFiat Panda Bosa SardiniaFiat Panda I in Bosa

But why “Panda blu” I hear you ask. Upon arriving long after sunset in the tiny northern village of Aglientu, we asked our way to a group of Italian mammas gossiping on the sidewalk. One of them promptly picked up her mobile phone to directly call the manager of the accommodation we were staying at and give her directions to come pick us up. Description of our car: “una panda blu” – said in the endearing singing voice of all Italian mammas. That would be because our Panda was blue (same pronunciation in Italian). We thought it rang well, even better than Esmeralda. So it would be our “Panda blu” from then on. But patience: the full Panda blu review is further down in this article.

Fiat Panda Palau Sardinia 2Fiat Panda III in PalauFiat Seicento Bosa SardiniaFiat Seicento and Panda I in Bosa

The most frequent nameplates spotted over the entirety of the trip, from various tiny town streets to large autostradas, were without a second thought the Fiat Panda followed by the Punto, in this way reflecting the past decade of new car sales in Italy as a whole and aligning Sardinia with the rest of the country. The Panda has indeed just overstepped the Punto for the first time in the Past decade sales charts (see table below). All generations of the two nameplates are very well represented, but a striking observation is the high frequency of first generation Pandas (1980-2003) compared to the near-absence of any Fiat Uno (1983-1995). Granted, the Uno had a much shorter lifespan but it obliterated the Italian sales charts then, culminating at 23.8% share in 1986.

Best-selling nameplates in Italy – Past decade (2006-2015):

Pos Model 2006-2015
1 Fiat Panda 1,370,026
2 Fiat Punto 1,366,027
3 Ford Fiesta 673,429
4 Lancia Ypsilon 539,357
5 Fiat 500 490,096
6 VW Golf 468,922
7 Citroen C3 433,532
8 Toyota Yaris 414,806
9 Opel Corsa 401,772
10 VW Polo 374,272

Source: UNRAE

Time has passed since that domination though, and not many Unos have survived up to this day. Instead, the first generation Panda, inside the annual podium during most of its 24 year-career (it ranked #2 in 2002!), has left a much stronger mark on today’s Sardinian car landscape. The 2nd generation Panda, #2 in Italy during its entire career (20042011), is the most frequent vehicle on the Sardinian coast, slowly being caught up by the 3rd gen which has led its home market without interruption since its first full year of sales in 2012, ending then 18 consecutive years of Punto domination.

Citroen Mehari La Maddalena SardiniaCitroen Méhari in La Maddalena.

During all our worldwide explorations, we often declare cars as the heroes of a specific region as they appear to be particularly successful there. Sardinia has two heroes.

1. Citroen Méhari

Just as the cumbersome e-Mehari makes its entrance in Europe, the first Sardinian hero is the valiant Citroen Méhari (1968-1988), a kind of ancestor to the off-road convertible SUV. This observation is particularly valid in the archipelago of La Maddalena, in a way an island of an island. Méharis stream through La Maddalena, the main town of the island, to the point that it’s not uncommon to have at least one in our field of vision at any given time – see picture below with 3 Méharis “at once”. The perfect summer car even almost 50 years after its original launch and 28 after its discontinuation, the Méhari would remain a surprising symbol of this Sardinian trip.

Citroen Mehari x3 La Maddalena SardiniaThere are three Citroen Méharis on this picture – in La Maddalena.

For a bit of history, 144.953 Méharis were produced in twenty years. Originally, a méhari is a fast-running camel which can be used for racing or transport, this according to Wikipedia. The Méhari weighs just 535 kg (1,179 lb), has a body made of ABS plastic with a soft top and is based on the Citroen Dyane 6. It employs the 602cc flat twin petrol engine shared with the 2CV6 and Citroen Ami, similarly to the way the mechanical parts of the 1960 Mini became the 1964 Mini Moke. And it’s fair to say Sardinians are still in love with this endearing vehicle. Plus, my observations throughout the island showed the Citroen brand surprisingly strong with a continuous stream of 1st gen C3, the C-Elysée already common as well as many C3 Picasso, new C4 Picasso and 1st gen Xsara Picasso.

Land Rover Defender Bosa SardiniaLand Rover Defender in Bosa
Land Rover Defender San Salvatore SardiniaLand Rover Defender in San Salvatore 

2. Land Rover Defender

Second hero of the island, the just discontinued Land Rover Defender was a true surprise. Sardinia has a very modern road network serving the very touristy coastline, and the first impression is that this shouldn’t require any vehicle to have any particular 4WD abilities. But once venturing inland it’s a vastly different story. In no time, the network transforms into tiny winding roads making their way up the relatively high mountains populating the centre of the island, notwithstanding a multitude of rocky dirt tracks that we did not dare explore. The Defender thus became a staple of the Sardinian inland, along with its license plates always starting with ZA. This is not a separate 4WD categorisation as I first thought, rather the mandatory lettering when your rear plate is square – one of the many intricacies of the Italian license plates system.

Citroen C1 Land Rover Defender Bosa SardiniaCitroen C1 in Bosa
Fiat Panda 500 Palau SardiniaFiat Panda and 500 in Palau

Italy Full Year 2015 – sales to rental companies:

Pos Model 2015 % % rental /14 2014 % Pos
1 Fiat Panda 24,726 7.9% 20% -6% 26,346 10.0% 1
2 Fiat 500L 22,721 7.3% 46% 10% 20,656 7.8% 2
3 Fiat 500 13,615 4.4% 33% -20% 17,046 6.4% 3
4 Peugeot 308 9,130 2.9% 51% n/a n/a n/a n/a
5 VW Golf 8,799 2.8% 22% 14% 7,722 2.9% 6
6 Fiat 500X 8,196 2.6% 25% new 0 0.0%
7 Fiat Punto 7,739 2.5% 14% -36% 12,003 4.5% 4
8 Alfa Romeo Giulietta 7,329 2.3% 32% 32% 5,539 2.1% 9
9 Lancia Ypsilon 7,251 2.3% 13% -12% 8,240 3.1% 5
10 Renault Clio 7,182 2.3% 17% 10% 6,529 2.5% 7

Source: UNRAE

Being a touristic hotspot, the Sardinian car park is heavily influenced by rental cars such as our Panda blu, with the Fiat Panda incidentally the most popular vehicle with Italian rental companies in 2015 ahead of the Fiat 500L, for which a staggering 46% of its 2015 total sales are to rental companies (see table above). Only the Peugeot 308 does “better” (51%) in the Top 10. Up 10% last year vs. a 6% drop by the Panda, the 500L should logically take the lead of the rental sales charts this year, and indeed it is omnipresent on Sardinian roads, as well as the facelifted Fiat 500, #3 rental in 2015. The Fiat 500X is also strong in Sardinia, but at 25% rental ratio it falls closer to the national average (20%) which could indicate it is also particularly successful with private buyers here.

Alghero street scene SardiniaStreet scene in Alghero

Another striking observation in Sardinia – even though it is true in the whole of Italy – is the prevalence of station wagons in the larger car segments. For example, the new generation VW Passat is extremely frequent on Sardinian roads – partly because of its popularity as a rental car – yet I only spotted one sedan in six days. All the rest, probably close to fifty specimens, were station wagons. Even though the station wagon segment has been hit full frontal by the SUV craze and in sharp decline in the whole of Europe bar Sweden, sales in Italy remain solid at 87.614 over the first 7 months of 2016, a whopping 17% year-on-year increase earning it a stable 7.4% market share. The Audi A4 is the best-seller so far in 2016 but it will be interesting to follow the launch of the Tipo SW over the 2nd half of the year as it is the only true Italian offer in a particularly successful segment, and therefore could be destined to huge success.

Italy 7 months 2016 – station wagon sales:

Pos Model 7m 2016 % % SW /15 7m 2015 % Pos
1 Audi A4 8,131 9.3% 90% 56% 5,210 7.0% 4
2 Peugeot 308 7,942 9.1% 59% 21% 6,545 8.7% 1
3 VW Passat 6,386 7.3% 90% 21% 5,268 7.0% 3
4 Ford Focus 6,319 7.2% 61% 9% 5,781 7.7% 2
5 Renault Clio 5,925 6.8% 18% 38% 4,284 5.7% 5
6 BMW 3 Series 5,798 6.6% 81% 44% 4,026 5.4% 7
7 Skoda Octavia 4,657 5.3% 95% 17% 3,987 5.3% 8
8 Opel Astra 4,603 5.3% 56% 10% 4,203 5.6% 6
9 Toyota Auris 3,796 4.3% 58% 12% 3,382 4.5% 10
10 VW Golf 3,177 3.6% 11% 6% 2,999 4.0% 11

Source: UNRAE

The Renault Clio (#5) is the only small car in the Top 10 SW with 1 in 5 Clio sold being a station wagon, and this is confirmed looking at the Sardinian car landscape: the occurrence of Clio SW is a lot higher than at home in France for example. Compact cars occupy five spots in the Top 10 including the Peugeot 308 at #2 (#1 in 2015) and the Ford Focus at #3 with an average of 60% SW ratio except for the Golf (11%). Larger cars are almost exclusively sold as station wagons in Italy and this is a particularity of the local market: no other market in the world behaves this way. Confirming my observations in Sardinia, 90% of Audi A4 and VW Passats are sold as SW, 81% of BMW 3 Series and 95% of Skoda Octavia…

Jeep Renegade La Maddalena SardiniaJeep Renegade in La MaddalenaRenault Clio Bosa SardiniaRenault Clio in Bosa

Sardinian new car sales outpaced Italy as a whole in 2015 at +18% to 25.293 units vs. +16% nationwide. The largest provinces are Cagliari at 9.886 (+18%), Sassari at 6.131 (+24%), Olbia-Tempio at 2.225 (-0.6%) and Carbonia Iglesias at 1.943 (+26%). The smallest is Ogliastra at 603 (+33%). Other popular vehicles across the island include the Jeep Renegade – particularly in La Maddalena as pictured above, the Renault Clio and Captur, Smart Forfour and the Fiat Tipo sedan already although I spotted only one hatch all week.

Panda Blu Sicily by CarOur Panda blu.

Our Panda blu was a rental from Sicily by Car (weird) – by far the cheapest option at 309.75€ for 6 days (US$346) – and a solid companion all through the trip, with no gremlins to report. Sitting inside places you too high in the car – regardless of your height – and the seat is not adjustable that way. There is no USB port which meant no personal music the entire trip, only a… CD player as if tourists were still travelling around with all their music on CDs. The interior design on the other hand is one of the strengths of the car: it’s modern yet playful while replicating the rounded square theme that characterises the car as a whole (headlights…), such as for the hand brake.

Panda Blu detailPanda Blu interior detail: it has its name written all over it… 

Very creative: the letters of the word PANDA make up the texture of the console and interior door top skin (see picture above). Definitely some Italian design flair here. The gear shift placed on the central console – and not on the ground – ends up being quite comfortable in the long run. Pushing our Panda blu to 145 km/h (90 mph) resulted in no notable vibrating or shaking of the car but the small bumps on the autostrada sent the car’s backend a little loose – scary. Above 100 km/h (62 mph), a strident whistling makes its apparition at the base of the driver door window frame, potentially the result of imperfect joints. The car remains relatively silent at high speed though.

Panda Blu Ferry SardiniaOur Panda blu on the Palau-La Maddalena ferry

The overall impression is one of practicality and fun modernity, a car that will do the job and put a smile on your face while driving, all-in-all a very good result given the cut-throat starting price of 8.250€ (US$ 9.230) the Panda is offered at in Italy. No wonder it’s the best-seller here.

Fiat Multipla Cagliari SardiniaFiat Multipla in Cagliari
Maserati Levante Porto Cervo SardiniaMaserati Levante in Porto Cervo
Audi Costa Smeralda SardiniaAudi advertising in Porto CervoAutostrada 50kph limitation Sardinia50km/h speed limit on the “autostrada”

Finally, I couldn’t end this summer Photo Report without a few hand-picked particularities of Sardinia, with an automotive angle of course. Firstly, the autostradas are new and very well maintained, but sometimes tout a 50km/h (31 mph) speed limit… Given the frequency of ridiculously low speed limits popping up everywhere on the island, we came to the conclusion that it was the only way the Sardinian police had found to shock drivers into driving slightly slower. It’s not working: a rule-of-thumb is that it is ok to drive at 3 times the speed limit. 30km/h means 90, 50 means 150, etc… Yep, this is the wild, wild west.
Talking about the wild west, every service station has at least one bay where staff is supposed to fill up your tank for you, at a premium. You must try and find the bay that says “piuself” as sometimes the price difference per litre can verge on the nasty side of outrageous: one Esso servo had a self-serve price of 1.389 € per litre whereas the “rip-off” price was 1.639 €/L, with no indications anywhere whatsoever and no staff to serve you anywhere anyway! Advice from experience: make sure to read the price/L on the actual pump before starting to fill up. Sneaky, but we are in Italy after all.

Mini WoodyClubman by Castagna Porto Cervo SardiniaMini WoodyClubman by Castagna Porto Cervo Sardinia 2Mini WoodyClubman by Castagna in Porto Cervo

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China 2016 Photo Reports: The cars of Dégé, Sichuan Province

1. Wuling Rongguang DegeWuling Rongguang in Dégé, Sichuan Province.

After climbing the legendary Chola Pass, we now arrive at the small town of Dégé. This is the 11th instalment in our 2016 Chinese adventures after BeijingXining in the Qinghai province, the Chinese car dealerships of XiningTongrenXiahe in the Gansu province, the mountain road back from Xiahe to XiningChengdu in the Sichuan provinceKangding, the Kangding to Dégé road and the Chola Pass.

China map with DegeLocation of Dégé in ChinaDégé townTraditional Tibetan houses in Dégé

Dégé, altitude 3.262 metres (10.702 ft) and population 58.600, is known for its printing monastery dating back to 1792. It is an ongoing printing operation that still uses traditional woodblock manual printing methods, and can print an astounding 70% of Tibet’s literary heritage thanks 320.000 scripture plates resting in storage chambers. Observing the lightning fast moves and meditative prayers of the army of printers working in a maelstrom of paper, ink and wood blocks is an utterly fascinating experience.

Wuling Hongguang Dege 7

2. Wuling Hongguang Dege 1

Wuling Hongguang Dege 5

Wuling Hongguang Dege 3

Wuling Hongguang Dege 2

Wuling Hongguang Dege 6

Wuling Hongguang Dege 4Wuling Hongguang’s are everywhere in town.

As is was the case all the way from Kangding, the Wuling Hongguang is master in command in the Dégé car landscape, used everywhere as shared minivan. The all-new S1 variant is already present here, as pictured at the start of the Hongguang photo series above. In these parts of China, the Hongguang is almost always white and very often adorned with “sporty” red and grey stickers on the side.

3. Liebao Black King DegeLiebao Black EditionJiangnan Alto DegeJiangnan Alto

As we’re getting closer to the Tibetan Province and the border with India, the taste in private cars also moves to a closer picture of these two neighbours. The Liebao Black Edition is extremely popular in town. It’s a 1990s Mitsubishi Pajero manufactured locally under license and the overall best-seller in Tibet in 2014. The newer Leopaard Q6 (the new name of the brand) is also and logically successful here. Also, the Jiangnan Alto, the cheapest new car available in China at 19.600 yuan (US$2.900), is one of the favourites in town, replicating a long-held success in neighbouring India and – further away – Pakistan.

4. Toyota Prado DegeToyota PradoWuling Rongguang Dege 2Wuling Rongguang

The Toyota Prado and Land Cruiser are the most successful foreign 4WDs in town, which also displays a clear heritage of Wuling Rongguang minivans (not so many Wuling Sunshine): they must have ruled the Dégé sales charts before the arrival of the Hongguang.

VW Jetta Liebao Black King DegeVW Jetta taxi and Liebao Black Edition

The Dégé taxi fleet is almost entirely composed of previous generations VW Jetta, with the new model still struggling to make its mark here.

Great Wall Wingle 5 DegeGreat Wall Wingle 5Nissan D22 DegeNissan D22

Pickup-wise, we find the best-seller Great Wall Wingle 5 as the logical best-seller here, with the Nissan D22 and Dongfeng Rich also popular. This concludes our study of the cars of Dégé, our next (and last) stop will take us back towards Kangding in Tagong, then to the highest commercial airport in the world in Daocheng. Stay tuned!

Liebao Black King Wuling Hongguang DegeLiebao Black Edition, Wuling Hongguang/Rongguang and Leopaard CS10

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China 2016 Photo Reports: The Chola Pass, Sichuan Province

Chola Pass 12Just after the summit at Chola Pass, Sichuan Province.

Resuming our Chinese adventure, we now launch on the legendary (/terrifying?) Chola Pass, currently the only way to the town of Dégé.  This is the 10th instalment in our 2016 Chinese adventures after BeijingXining in the Qinghai province, the Chinese car dealerships of XiningTongrenXiahe in the Gansu province, the mountain road back from Xiahe to XiningChengdu in the Sichuan provinceKangding and the Kangding to Dégé road.

China map with Chola PassChola Pass location: the yellow section just east of Dégé on the map.

Chola Mountain is part of a mountain range of the same name, whose highest peak is 6.168 metres high (20.236 ft). The National Road G-317 climbs the moutain via the Chola Pass, culminating at 5.050 metres (16.568 ft), according to the marking at the Pass. However, my measurements through the Altimeter iPhone altitude app showed a high point of 4.888 metres (16.037 ft), still the highest point on earth I have ever set foot on and higher than the 4.807 metres Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the whole of Europe.

Chola Pass 14End of the descent on the way back 

I had the chance / horror to do a return trip on the Mt. Chola pass, to and from Dégé, at a two-day interval (and with the same bus drivers!). On the way into Dégé it was snowing heavily whereas on the way back the sun was shining bright. This makes for two very distinct sets of photos I will share with you today.

1. Chola Pass, Manigange – Dégé way

The Mt. Chola Pass is a strenuous 1.5 hour ride on a slim and ill-maintained dirt track carved into the mountain side. Given it is still the only way to access Dégé from the Sichuan side for now, the full gamut of traffic has no choice but undertake the Pass climb, including heavy and large trucks that manoeuvre precociously inches away from the precipice at each crossing. My intense excitement at climbing the Pass once I read about it on the Lonely Planet China guide quickly morphed into disbelief at how insanely naive I was to want to undertake this trip as soon as the climb started.

Chola Pass 1 Chola Pass 3

The bus was swaying widely and uncontrollably at each pothole in the track all while the road was becoming more and more slippery with the melted snow and ice that fast accumulated on it during our climb. Fortunately, I was sitting just behind the – very experienced – driver and therefore could anticipate almost all movements of the bus as I was intensely checking the track ahead of us.

Chola Pass 4The dirt track got a lot snowier as we descended on the way to Dégé. 

Chola Pass 5 Chola Pass 6Just after sunset on the return climb to the Chola Pass

2. Chola Pass, Dégé – Manigange way

A departure just after sunrise on a very clear day on the way back offered a much more serene – even if still agitated – experience. The breath-taking panoramas of snowy mountains are worth all the trouble the climb is.

Chola Pass 8

Chola Pass 7

Chola Pass 9Just before the summit…Chola Pass 10The Chola Pass itselfChola Pass 11 Chola Pass 13

This striking but mandatory experience is about to come to an end though, as a tunnel was nearing the end of its construction at the time I took the Pass (9-11 May 2016). After 90 minutes of high emotion driving, the entire crowd of the bus – all locals as I was the only foreigner, as it has been the case for almost the entirety of this Sichuan adventure – roared in applause when spotting the mouth of the tunnel down the valley (pictured below).

Chola Pass 15Mouth of the Chola tunnel under construction (as of 11 May 2016).

Chola Pass 16Even though still under construction, the nearby Gaesar Airport is already signposted.

China 2016 Photo Reports: The Kangding to Dégé road, Sichuan province

Chana Mini Truck China 2016Chana Mini Truck on the Kangding to Dégé road

We now leave Kangding to undertake a strenuous 14h and 586km / 364 miles bus journey to the small town of Dégé, the closest to the Tibetan province I am allowed to reach as a foreigner without a special permit. This is the 9th instalment in our 2016 Chinese adventures after BeijingXining in the Qinghai province, the Chinese car dealerships of XiningTongrenXiahe in the Gansu province, the mountain road back from Xiahe to XiningChengdu in the Sichuan province and Kangding. This report doesn’t include the Mt Chola Pass (4888m) which is the last main obstacle before reaching the town of Dégé and will form a standalone report to come shortly.

China Map with Kangding and DegeThe section of our itinerary today is in yellow.

Wuling Hongguang S1 China 2016Wuling Hongguang S1

The main learning from this part of our Chinese adventure is that the country’s countryside is where the Wuling Hongguang has, is and will be building its national domination of the sales charts. The vehicle is almost exclusively used as shared taxi to link various little villages along the way – and there were many! Buses like the one I took do exist but they are rather rare (at most two a day) and may not stop exactly where you want, or most likely they are full by the time they reach your village as they only travel between large cities, in my case from Kangding to Dégé. It was a continuous flow of old and new Hongguang all through the day as you can witness in the pictures below. In fact, between Kangding and Garze (386 km), the Wuling Hongguang represents one-third of all cars on the road.

Wuling Hongguang China 2016 Pic4Wuling Hongguang China 2016 Wuling Hongguang China 2016 Pic6 Wuling Hongguang China 2016 Pic5 Wuling Hongguang China 2016 Pic2Wuling Hongguang China 2016 Pic3Some of the numerous Wuling Hongguang spotted along the roadKangding Derge roadWe are met with snowy mountains at the start of the journey.Great Wall Wingle 5 China 2016Great Wall Wingle 5 

Being a more remote area of China, pickup trucks are allowed and frequent on the road. They are logically dominated by the Great Wall Wingle 5, the national segment leader, but I saw no Wingle 6. The next best-selling pickups in the area are the Dongfeng Rich, ZX Auto Grand Tiger and Nissan D22 in this order.

Baojun Yuechi Chery QQ Jiangnan Alto China 2016Baojun Yechi, Chery QQ and Jiangnan Alto 

Among popular private cars in the region, the more striking are a string of mini and very affordable cars: the Jiangnan Alto, Chery QQ and Baojun Yechi can be spotted everywhere. In the SUV aisle, notable popular models include the Leopaard CS10, Brilliance V3, JMC Yushu S350, Hyundai ix35, old gen Tucson, Toyota Land Cruiser and Prado. There is a strong heritage of Great Wall Hover H5 and as a result we can spot many H6, including the more recent H6 Sport and H6 Coupe. Surprisingly, Volkswagens are rare.

BAIC Huansu S6 China 2016BAIC Huansu S6 Kangding Derge road Pic2Tibetan-style houseFord F-150 Raptor China 2016Toyota Tundra China 2016The traditional Ford F-150 Raptor and Toyota Tundra.

Of course I spotted the now traditional Ford F-150 Raptor and Toyota Tundra on the way…

Jiangnan Alto China 2016 Hafei Minivan China 2016Dongfeng Heavy Truck China 2016Dongfeng heavy trucks rule the road  Baojun 730 China 2016Crossing one of many villages
Chana Minivan China 2016Lining up on the road while a crashed truck gets lifted out.

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