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BSCB Exclusive: The car landscapes of 30 Chinese cities and regions

All the cities and regions explored by BSCB since 2013.

Across five years, BSCB has been lucky enough to visit no less than 30 Chinese cities and regions spread all around the country. We came back with extensive Photo Reports so you can discover how the car landscapes vary geographically but also through time as we were able to return to a few cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou. Every year, BSCB attends at least one major Chinese Auto Show, and these are also covered extensively in separate reports. You will find below all Photo Reports covering the cities and regions BSCB has explored since 2013, and all of them indicated on the map above.

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

The cars of Guangzhou and Huangge, Guangdong province (2017)

The cars of Tagong and Daocheng Airport

The cars of Dégé, Sichuan province

The Chola Pass, Sichuan province (videos)

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

The Kangding to Dégé road, Sichuan province

The cars of Kangding, Sichuan province

The cars of Chengdu, Sichuan province

The mountain road from Xiahe to Xining, Gansu province

The cars (and 3-wheelers) of Xiahe, Gansu province(video)

1. VW Jetta Taxi Kangding China 2016VW Jetta Taxi in Kangding, Sichuan province

The cars of Tongren, Qinghai province

The Chinese car dealerships of Xining, Qinghai province

The cars of Xining, Qinghai province

The cars of Beijing (2016)

1. Great Wall Wingle 6 Xiahe China 2016Great Wall Wingle 6 in Xiahe, Gansu province

The cars of Guangzhou, Guangdong province

The cars of Mohe, Heilongjiang province

The cars of Harbin, Heilongjiang province

The cars of Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang province

Chery QQ YanjiChery QQ in Yanji (notice the Russian sign)

The cars of Yanji, Korean autonomous prefecture

The cars of Changchun, Jilin province

The cars of Shanghai

Taklamakan Desert May 2014Crossing the Taklamakan desert, Western China

The cars of Turpan, Xinjiang Uyghur, Western China

The cars of Kuqa, Xinjiang Uyghur, Western China

Crossing the Taklamakan desert, Western China

The cars of Hotan, Xinjiang Uyghur, Western China

Travelling on the Chinese Silk Road like a Boss (videos)

2. K2On the Karakoram Highway: the pyramid-shaped mountain in the back is the K2, the world’s 2nd highest summit.

On the Karakoram Highway – China side

The cars of Kashgar, South-Western China

3. Dongfeng Pickup 4WDDongfeng Pick-up at Kashgar livestock bazaar

The pick-ups of Kashgar, South-Western China

The cars of Ürümqi, Xinjiang Uyghur, Western China Part 2

The cars of Ürümqi, Xinjiang Uyghur, Western China Part 1

1. Chana TaurusChana Taurustar in Chongqing

The cars of Chongqing, Central China

A voyage into Beijing hutongs (2014)

The cars of Badaling, Great Wall of China

A visit to the Chaoyang car market in Beijing, China

The cars of Beijing (2013)

Photo Report: Driving a Tesla Model X along the Australian East Coast

Kangaroo meets Tesla Model X

Two and a half years ago, I test drove the Tesla Model S and had one thing to say: believe the hype. This time around I want to take the Model X on a longer trip to also evaluate the burgeoning network of charging stations around Australia. Although Tesla won’t communicate sales figures for Australia, anecdotal spotting on the streets and a recall earlier this year indicate the American manufacturer has already sold north of 1.500 units in the country, a real success. Worldwide, the Tesla Model X is simply one of the top selling electric vehicles, up there with the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, BYD Qin and BAIC EC-Series. There is one Telsa store in Sydney, located in the northern suburb of St Leonards, “north of the bridge” as Sydneysiders would say.

Taking stock of the beastOur itinerary: Sydney to Byron Bay and back, covering 1.765km / 1.100miMikey posing next to the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour

Don’t get me wrong, getting such an impressive car on the road is an impressive feat in itself. It’s a car for early adopters, the kind of buyers that don’t bat an eyelid when learning the Model X’s price tag. According to the spec sheets sent by Tesla PR, this is a Model X P100D and it comes in at a demoralising AUD 278.025 (US$209.000, 177.400€), including AUD 43.612 worth of Luxury Car Tax, a local specialty. That’s double the price of the Model S I tested before and an awful lot of money indeed. The base price is AUD 203.600, to which metallic paint (AUD 1.400), 22″ Onyx Black Wheels (AUD 7.600) and Six Seat interior configuration (AUD 8.300) were added. For comparison, for this price in Australia you can get two top-spec Volvo XC90, two top-spec Toyota Land Cruiser 200, almost three base-spec Porsche Cayenne and three top-spec Jaguar F-Pace S. Ex-Luxury Tax, it costs roughly the same as a Mercedes GLS 563 AMG or a Range Rover Sport SVR and is significantly dearer than any BMW or Audi SUV, including the X6 M (AUD 197.900) and SQ7 (AUS 153.300).

Joey in his mum’s pocketMikey gets acquainted with the locals

Needless to say that for that price, I will expect top-notch quality and performance, but also some serious off-roading capabilities. Judging by the puzzled look and unmistakably paler face of the Tesla salesperson when I inquire about exactly how much off-road driving we can do with the Model X: not at all. Her response: “What do you mean by off-roading?” Hmm never mind. This is a performance car that happens to be shaped like an SUV. But first, a name for our expensive ride: after Ivanhoe the Haval H9, Joey the Toyota Hilux, Kaitlin the Peugeot 208 and Lars the Volvo V90 we need a somewhat Australian name starting in M, a male name as this is an SUV, therefore a truck which has a masculine gender in my native tongue, French. We will go with Mike, but Australianised as ‘Mikey’.


Tesla Supercharger in Heatherbrae near Newcastle

We start the trip with 3.503 km / 2.177 miles on the odo, and although the sticker on the windscreen says 542 km / 337 miles of range, we’ll never reach that figure and full charge allows us a maximum of 430 km / 286 miles. Organising a road trip with an electric car is, for now, a completely different experience than with a combustion car. The deep Australian outback and its iconic red earth is out of the equation as there aren’t enough charging stations out there. We have to stick to the coast and take the direction of Brisbane. Another option could have been joining Melbourne, but we judged that to be a lot less eventful. A rule of thumb is that you should never miss a supercharger when you reach one. With these, a full charge is achieved in 30 mins so it’s a little like a lunch stop. Except that the businesses that house the superchargers have not yet cottoned up to the opportunities and do not offer quick meal options tailored to Tesla users. Weird.


Mikey in Worimi National Park NSW

Our first stop is the Morisset Reserve, which has to be one of the only places in Australia where you can actually pet wild kangaroos (only if you have carrots to offer). Very shy in nature, the quintessential Australian animal is surprisingly tame here. A secret spot 1h30 north of Sydney I warmly recommend to all of you visiting the city, or the country for that matter. The Reserve, open to the public, is located on the grounds of one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in Australia and I came to imagine that living this heart-warming experience with the kangaroos could be therapeutic for the patients. After supercharging in Heatherbrae near Newcastle, we head towards Worimi National Park, home of the largest sand dunes in Australia. We dare not drive onto the sand so we have to do with some snaps with a sandy background (above).

Hotel charging in GraftonGrafton car landscape

The first night has to be spent at the Fitzroy Motel Inn in Grafton as this the only Destination charging station around. These are slower chargers (approx 5 hours to full charge) usually placed in the carpark of hotels, that you can only use if you are a patron of the hotel (in most cases, some are free for all). But you must call in advance to make sure the station is reserved for you as most only have one or two stations. These added elements can make or break a trip as arriving to a fully booked charging station can mean you have to delay your departure by half a day. By now the car landscape has well and truly tilted towards pickup trucks with the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger kings of the Australian countryside. Roo bars protecting against kangaroos are also common.

Mikey sitting on the easternmost point in continental Australia in Byron BayIn Lennox Head

Eager to figure out whether the Model X can match the safety features of the Volvo XC90 and Volvo V90 CC I drove recently, I am disappointed. The press cars have the autopilot mode deactivated, which means no line assist, no emergency braking and, most irritatingly, no adaptive cruise control. Granted, it is an exceptionally smooth ride and the 0 to 100 km/h (0 to 60 mph) in less than 4 sec and 0 to 160 km/h (0 to 100 mph) in under 9 sec are experiences I was so keen to rekindle with and left me very satisfied indeed. Even though it doesn’t offer loads of storage options, the cockpit is a lot more practical than the Model S which was my main criticism then, with many cup holders for example. And the giant central touch screen console is so hypnotising, easy to use and stylish that it’s really hard to be mad at the Model X.

Ferry crossing in Lawrence NSWGreat Wall V-Series Pickup Ford Ranger

Also, the windscreen extends above your heads to end up atop the rear seats, creating a unique impression of space and awesome upward visibility. The Falcon Wing doors are mighty impressive but really just a gimmick in my eyes. However there were some negative surprises. The cabin was surprisingly noisy especially on the passenger side with a constant wind noise sounding like the door was still open (when it’s well and truly shut). For large swaths of the trip – which was almost entirely done in heavily populated areas – the GPS does not recognise the Pacific Highway although new construction has been done with for almost two years. Surprising given Tesla’s “constant update” policy. And for half a day the GPS voice froze and was stuttering out of control, taking an overnight stop to reset it. Automatic high beam needs fine tuning as it goes off abruptly and a lot of times unnecessarily, whereas the low beams are too weak, actually creating a dangerous situation when there was none.

Posing with a vintage lot near Grafton NSW

I was also surprised when it became apparent that windscreen wipers don’t trigger automatically with rain, a function that exists in 20 year-old entry level cars such as the Peugeot 206 for example. The user manual says this “will be available in a later software update”… This is so weird that a Tesla owner we met and chatted with at one of the supercharging stations (these locations do create a Tesla community) asked us about it. He also told us that his previous Model S did have the function. I console myself by indulging in yet another ludicrous acceleration: never, ever will I get tired of this.

Foton Tunland in Brooklyn NSWToyota Hilux in Ballina

We soon reach Byron Bay and get Mikey to pose near the local lighthouse which is the easternmost point in the whole of continental Australia. Popular vehicles around here include the Nissan Navara, Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota Kluger, VW Amarok, Mitsubishi ASX and of course the Toyota Hilux, national best-seller in 2016 and headed towards a second consecutive year on top in 2017. But one nameplate that seemed to be everywhere during this trip is the Hyundai Tucson, up 20% to #7 in the country so far this year with its frequency on the streets fully reflecting its position in the sales charts. Finally, both the new generation Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5 are already well established here, and Chinese pickups such as the Great Wall V-Series and Foton Tunland are not uncommon,

We then drive back to Sydney via a ferry crossing in Lawrence and a last night in Brooklyn NSW in the Hawkesbury River region. We return to St Leonards with 5.269 km / 3.274 miles on the odo after swallowing 1.766 km / 1.097 miles in four days. So. What is the Tesla Model X doing well, and not so well?

  • Ludicrous accelerations either from 0 or at any speed make overtaking a little too enjoyable. The force at which the car speeds up, flattening you against your seat, is an experience I cannot forget
  • Handles truly better than most combustion sports cars
  • Central giant touch screen console is brilliant and stylish yet does not divert your attention from driving too much as it is really easy to use
  • Interior sober sophistication invites luxury. More practical than the Model S
  • Giant windscreen gives impression of space above head
  • Falcon Wing doors are fun to watch but relatively impractical
  • Easter eggs such as the Holiday song and dance to the Wizards of Winter in the video above are unique to Tesla, entertaining a special link with its customers
  • Supercharging is fast (30 mins) and the 430 km range helps with range anxiety once you are accustomed to bending your trip to meet charging locations and destinations
  • Excellent sound system

  • Autopilot deactivation means we couldn’t test any safety features as it also cancels adaptive cruise control. These functions should be separated
  • Windscreen wipers don’t trigger with rain
  • GPS is lost and can’t find main arteries such as the Pacific Highway for a large part of the trip
  • GPS voice froze and took an overnight stop to reset
  • Its extravagant price reserve the Model X to fanatics of the “concept” Tesla offers, not pragmatic buyers that will prefer it a true luxury off-roader such as the Range Rover
  • Noisy cabin with wind noise on passenger side
  • No sunnies holder above your head
  • Indications on the touch screen such as the time, distance and time to destination (pretty essential) are too small and hard to find
  • Automatic high beam too sensitive and low beam too weak
  • Door opening system with a key in the shape of the car, is impractical
  • Range, although satisfying, is over 100 km less than announced by Tesla

Stay tuned for our next test drive: a Toyota C-HR in the Australian desert.

Tesla Model X in Ballina Motel

Photo Report: The cars of Guangzhou and Huangge, Guangdong Province

Hyundai Sonata taxi and Baojun 560 in Guangzhou

After detailing the Guangzhou Auto Show 2017 in 20 Highlights and 150 Pictures, it’s now time to explore Guangzhou’s car landscape, with a little excursion in Huangge, a southeastern suburb of Guangzhou, and count the differences with the first time we explored Guangzhou in 2015.

GAC Trumpchi GS8 in Guangzhou

Most of the elements we observed two years ago in Guangzhou are still valid today: among them the supremacy of Japanese carmakers assembling locally such as Honda, Toyota and Nissan, the weakness of Volkswagen and Chinese carmakers in general, especially in the centre of town: 87% of cars observed in Guangzhou’s Zhujiang New Town are foreign (sample 112), vs. 72% in Huangge in the suburbs (sample 40). Taxis however remain the same: Hyundai Sonata and Elantra from a few generations ago, still assembled in China by the Korean carmaker exclusively for such fleet sales.

Nissan Sylphy and Hyundai Sonata taxi in Guangzhou

What is the most popular nameplate in Guangzhou? Based on my observations in the street, it’s a tight race between the Honda Vezel, Nissan Sylphy and Toyota Levin (the Levin being GAC-Toyota’s equivalent to FAW Toyota’s Corolla). Coming close to these four is the most popular Chinese fare locally, the GAC Trumpchi GS4, confirming its stunning career nationally.

GAC Trumpchi GS4 in Huangge

The GS4’s presence on Guangzhou streets is logical given its success nationally, but I was also able to confirm the popularity of the larger GS8, already very frequent here. No GS3 yet though. Among other successful Chinese marques in town, Baojun, Wuling and BYD stand out, but before we get to this we must tackle the one big difference between 2017 and 2015: the presence of electric cars on the streets of Guangzhou.

Zotye E200 Ponycar in Guangzhou

Completely absent from the landscape two years ago, electric cars are making their way into Guangzhou’s streets in a significant manner, thanks to such facilities as a large charging station just next to the Canton Tower for example. They seem to be mainly successful as part of car-sharing schemes: the Zotye E200 appeared under the Ponycar program, the Geely Emgrand EC7 EV under Caocao and the Zhi Dou D2 under DD. Far from being left alone, the charging stations and share cars looked to be well used and Guangzhou inhabitants already used to using them. A very interesting and significant mindset change at play here. Also of note are three Tesla Model X and two Model S spotted in town.

Baojun 510 in Huangge

The first Baojun surprise in Guangzhou is the frequency of the 730 MPV: I saw more of them than national four year best-seller the Wuling Hongguang, extremely popular in the countryside. Seeing many Chinese MPVs was a surprise in itself but that the more upmarket 730 sells more in Guangzhou than the Hongguang could be a big city trait that reproduces elsewhere in China. The 560 crossover is very well established, but it took me a few days and a trip to the suburbs to spot my first 510 (pictured above) – even though already 255.000 have been sold all across China. Overall I only saw two during my stay in Guangzhou. Possible interpretation: the 510 is mostly successful in second, third and fourth tier cities and the countryside, not so much in giant cities such as Guangzhou.

Wuling Hongguang V in Guangzhou

As far as Wuling is concerned, it’s not the Hongguang that’s the most frequent in Guangzhou but the Hongguang V, seen by the dozen here.

WEY VV7 in Guangzhou

For now only available in a handful of cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Great Wall Motors’ WEY semi premium SUV brand has landed indeed: I spotted a couple during my stay here.

Haval H2S in Guangzhou

Haval is well established in Guangzhou, with new generations H6 and H2 already hitting the road.

Venucia T90 and Dongfeng Fengshen AX7 in Huangge

Another relatively popular Chinese brand in Guangzhou is Venucia, with quite a few T90 spotted. The Roewe RX5 must also be listed, and I spotted a single new Zotye T700 in Huangge.

Honda Crider, Vezel and CR-V in Guangzhou

Honda nameplates that are popular in Guangzhou, apart from the Vezel, include the Fit, ranking much higher here than the 66th spot it holds nationally in 2017, the Crider (but much less strikingly than two years ago), the Accord, CR-V, Odyssey and the Vezel’s twin, the XR-V.

Nissan Lannia, Haval H6 Coupe, Toyota Levin and GAC Trumpchi GS4 in Huangge.

As far as Nissan is concerned, apart from the Sylphy the Lannia, Murano and Teana have also made their mark in Guangzhou.

Toyota Levin

Logically, the Guangzhou-made Toyota Levin is more popular than the FAW Toyota Corolla, but not by much, both nameplates being extremely successful here. The Camry and Alphard also are.

VW Tiguan in Guangzhou

Volkswagen continues to struggle in Guangzhou, which must hurt their national figures quite significantly, given the Guangdong province is the most populated in the country.

 Maserati Levante on Shamian IslandTwo Porsches in Zhujiang New Town

Similarly to Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou’s car park demonstrates its inhabitants’ wealth: I spotted three consecutive BMW 7 Series in the Zhujiang New Town, as well as numerous Porsches and two Maserati Levante metres from each other on Shamian Island.

A few other particularities of Guangzhou in 2017: the favourite colour is by far white…

A majority of cars have rooftops…

… and bike sharing programs such as oBike have flooded the city.

That’s it for Guangzhou, our next meeting with China will be for the Beijing Auto Show in April 2018. Stay tuned!

Photo Report: Driving a Volvo V90 through the Norwegian fjords – Part 4: Geiranger, Ålesund and the Atlanterhavsveien

Lars in Dalsnibba 

This is Part 4, the final part in our series exploring the Norwegian fjords in a Volvo V90 Cross Country. Check out Part 1: Stockholm to Preikestolen here, Part 2: Stavanger and Bergen here and Part 3: the heart of Fjordland here. We kept the best for last: Geirangerfjord is arguably the most famous fjord in Norway, and it’s well deserved as it is also the most spectacular. Remember to click on any pictures to enlarge them.

Part 4 itinerary, just add two more days back to Stockholm…View down onto the road to Geiranger from the Dalsnibba lookout.

Dalsnibba lookout

But first we take the detour to the Dalsnibba lookout, whose tariff has increased sharply from Nkr85 according to the Lonely Planet published in 2016 to Nkr 130 in September 2017. This lookout, at an altitude of 1.481m, is supposed to give you the most stunning views of Geirangerfjord, unfortunately clouds were in the way when I reached it, but the trip was well worth it as it gave me the opportunity to take some of the most spectacular shots of the car during this trip (as featured at the top of this article) on the way down to the Djupvatnet lake.

Renault Twizy fleet in Geiranger. 

Arriving in the tiny village of Geiranger (population 250), we are greeted by an army of Renault Twizy, apparently used for tourist to roam the streets of this familiar-looking town. After a search on IMDB I figure out why I seem to recognise this place from somewhere: it featured in the Norwegian disaster movie “The Wave” where a landslide triggers a fatal tsunami that engulfs the town. Hopefully not today Geiranger. Unfortunately the town has lost much of its authenticity, a victim of extreme tourism: in the space of a couple of months during the summer season, up to 600,000 visitors and 150 cruise ships “honour” Geiranger of their presence.

Geirangerfjord

Taking a few snaps of the fjord from the town’s harbour, I believe I’ve seen it all and decide to follow my plan which was to take the Ørnesvingen (Eagle’s Way) north of town to reach the Trollstigen Route. After 11 hairpin bends and 7km of spectacularly scenic views, I stop at the lookout and discover that Geirangerfjord is much longer than I thought, and I can see over the bend sun-soaked green cliffs. The last ferry of the day departs in 10 mins from Geiranger harbour: what better way to test the Volvo V90’s Polestar power-boost through winding mountain roads? And this would end up being the most adrenaline-inducing bit of driving of the entire trip: the car sticks to the road amazingly well, surges with fury and brakes with discipline. I can’t fault it even though there were multiple opportunities for skidding. I reach the ferry just as the staff was about to close the door, and can enjoy for a full hour the twisting 20km-long emerald-green waters and towering cliffs of Geirangerfjord on the way to Hellesylt. Awkwardly, Lars had its alarm ring four times during the ride, perhaps because the ferry was rocking a bit.

Awaiting the ferry in SykkylvenÅlesund 

Ålesund car park: Suzuki Ignis, Tesla Model S, Hyundai Ioniq, Tesla Model X, Toyota Yaris.

The second and last ferry of the day departs in Sykkylven, offering me the best sunset of the entire trip, and I reach the Ålesund peninsula at night. Norway’s cod-fishing capital, Ålesund was rebuilt in Jugendstil (Art nouveau) style after a devastating fire in 1904 and was one of my anticipated highlights of the trip. I take a couple of hours the next morning to visit the town, even hitting the lookout for a panoramic view, but can’t help but being a little disappointed: the building are all very consistent but it somehow turns into a rather bland combination in my view. I wasn’t wow’ed. The car park is very similar to the one I saw in Stavanger: Tesla is here in force with both the Model S and X and the BMW i3 and Hyundai Ioniq have already conquered many buyers. I also spotted in Ålesund the third Opel Ampera-e of the trip. Suzuki is very strong in this part of the country with the new Ignis and Swift already established and the S-Cross and Vitara popular.

Labygda   Stordal church Grassy approach in Geiranger Grass-roofed houses: a Scandinavian tradition.

Driving east towards the Trollstigen Route, I pass the sumptuous village of Stordal with its stunning church and many a house with grass roofs. Torvtak, or sod roof, is a Scandinavian tradition that dates back hundreds of years. The weight means the walls of the traditional log houses are compressed (less leaks), the thickness and composition gives an insulating roof (less heat escapes in winter, the house isn’t turned into a sauna in summer) that is wind and waterproof. Usually short grasses and low flowers are used. Sometimes longer grasses are used or wildseed themselves and then a schyte can come in handy (or a couple of goats)…

Innfjorden

Finally it’s the towering bare mountains of Innfjorden jutting towards the sky and piling up around deep, dark and quiet lakes.

Trollstigen Route 

One day late, I finally reach the Trollstigen Route (aka the Troll’s Ladder) for a steep descent. It was completed in 1936 after eight years of work and received 700,000 visitors annually. The road slices through surprisingly dark rock cliffs and clouds were adding to the moody atmosphere when I drove down the single lame through 11 steep hairpin bends on a 1:12 gradient. Photo opportunities must be snatched quickly while there are no other cars nearby on the road. Numerous waterfalls, including the thundering 180m-high Stigfossen, echo throughout the amphitheater shaped by the cliff, giving off a sinister, troll crying-like ambiance.

Chevrolet/Ram import dealer in MalmefjordenToyota Proace in OsloFord Ranger on the Atlanterhavsveien

We are now headed north towards the Atlantic Coast, and on the way I spot a rather large car dealership specialised in U.S. imports (Nerland Autosalg in Malmefjorden): I count 15 Chevrolet Silverado and 5 Ram Pickups displayed outside, all from the latest generation. The And I’ll take this opportunity to confirm the sales surge of pickup trucks in 2017 in Norway, especially by the Toyota Hilux (+141.6% over the first eight months of the year) and Ford Ranger (+67.67% 0in August). The VW Amarok is also up a market-beating 32% in 2017. Other heroes, as confirmed by the car Oslo car park, are the new Toyota Proace (+220.7% year-to-date at the time of visit), Peugeot Expert (+183.4%) and Citroen Jumpy (+180.5%).

Atlanterhavsveien

The Atlanterhavsveien, or Atlantic Ocean Road, is a succession of eight bridges connecting 17 islets between Vevang and the island of Averøya. The UK’s Guardian newspaper crowned it the “world’s best road trip” which was one of the reasons why I travelled all the way to here. Well. Don’t rush to your cars just yet, because for starters it’s not much of a road trip: it’s only 8 km long. And it’s not that impressive either. Granted, the weather was very calm when I was there and it probably would be a lot more spectacular during storms. One cool element though is the fact that some of the bridges are angled in a way that looks like they are shooting towards the sky. But that’s about it. I guess it’s the price to pay for having ventured through such spectacular fjord landscape during the past week…

Auto Motor & Sport Sweden is quoting BestSellingCarsBlog figures each month! 

Then it’s the two-day drive back to Sweden and Stockholm. Before then, I realise that Norway is a country of roundabouts, with little to no red lights. It’s a slow country too: the highest speed limit is 90 km/h but only for short times and sanctioned by a toll every time. The general limit is an excruciating 80 km/h. I am told it’s because of the snowy and icy conditions in winter. Then how about different speed limits for summer and winter? In France, the highway speed limit is 130 km/h in sunny weather and 110 km/h in rain… The return to Sweden features a lot more neons and billboards along the highway, a lot more Volvo V90 twins on the road including a Police vehicle, plus the speed limit rises to 120 km/h after Vasteras!

It’s also the opportunity to notice that local best-selling car magazine Auto Motor & Sport has got into the habit of quoting BestSellingCarsBlog figures! A very unexpected surprise that follows-on on last year’s discovery. As I return Lars to the Volvo dealership in the suburbs of Stockholm, its odo has almost doubled, from 3.881 km at the start of this adventure to 7.551 for a total of 3.670 km for this trip and a very reasonable average fuel consumption of 6.5l/km. So. What did Lars do well, and what could he improve?

  • Outstanding road handling at high speed in fjord cliffs’ hairpin bends (the whole point of this drive, right?)
  • Aggressive yet pure and sober exterior design, feels a lot more dynamic than the XC90
  • Luxurious cockpit and incredible sound system by Bowen & Wilkins
  • Very intuitive and practical touch-screen console (the same as the XC90 tested last year), able to monitor all elements at once while zooming on a particular one, pinch and zoom function great to use.
  • More oomph than the XC90 I drove last year: when starting the car, but also when passing at high speed
  • Very comfortable sport seats that stick close to your body at every angle: my usually sensitive back recorded absolutely no pain, whereas the massage function had to be used extensively last year on the XC90
  • Line assist and safety features second to none on the market: as per the XC90 (see last year’s review for more details) this is one of Volvo’s greatest assets and a strong point of difference, and it shows.
  • Headlights are so strong there is no need for high beams most of the time
  • All-in-all the GPS is very reliable with only one road not recognised during the entire trip

  • “Km to refill” indicator is unreliable: it varied greatly and illogically throughout the drive.
  • Cockpit liveability and practicality not as functional as the XC90: big bottles wouldn’t fit on the side doors for example.
  • Adaptative cruise control loses track of the car in front of you in roundabouts and sharp bends, making you dangerously accelerate towards it.
  • Windscreen wipers aren’t always triggered by rain automatically.
  • Each and every time you start the car it invariably and unnecessarily says out loud “Route being calculated”. Gets a little irritating after a while.
  • No sunnies holder above your head.

Sadly, it’s time to return Lars to the Solentunna Volvo dealership after 3.670 km together… 

Stay tuned for our next test drive: a Tesla Model X along the Australian eastern Coast…

Photo Report: Driving a Volvo V90 through the Norwegian fjords – Part 3: The heart of fjord land

Lars on the Gamle Strynefjellsvegen.

This is Part 3 of our exploration of the Norwegian fjords in a Volvo V90 Cross Country. Check out Part 1: Stockholm to Preikestolen here and Part 2: Stavanger and Bergen here. We are now entering truly grandiose fjord country and the next two posts will be full of spectacular scenery, as this is the reason I have decided to travel to this part of the world this year. Lonely Planet is not mistaken when it says about this area that “if could only visit one region in Norway and hope to grasp the essence of the country’s appeal, this would be our choice.”

Lars waking up in Ulvik.Itinerary for Part 3 of the trip
Ulvik landscape 

Having reached Ulvik the night before, I had not had the chance to enjoy the landscape. A short drive from the hotel to the centre of the village is enough to envelop me in the legendary northern european tranquility that characterises the location. The Hardangerfjord is as still as a lake and soon a small ferry breaks the surface, creating slow-moving waves undulating towards the shores. Ulvik is home to only a little more than 1.000 inhabitants. It’s 10am but there is no one around except an elderly man also contemplating the surroundings from a bench near the water. We exchange knowing glances but neither of us wants to disrupt the sacred silence. We smile. It’s one of these moments in life when you can hardly believe the images relayed through your eyes.

A roundabout inside a tunnel…Lars about to enter Eidfjord (where the cruise ship is).

Next on the itinerary is Eidfjord. To reach it I must first drive through a marvellous oddity: a roundabout deep inside a tunnel that leads to the monumental Hardanger bridge, the longest tunnel-to-tunnel suspension bridge in the world: it’s a testimony of the effort that has been made in Norway to connect the multitude of fjords and mountains that complicate the area. It feels like I am in Monaco, except in the middle of nowhere. If the lead-up to Eidfjord is spectacular with sheer cliffs on each side of the fjord, the town itself is unfortunately soiled by an immense cruise ship that towers above everything and its hundreds of tourists have invaded every nook and cranny. The one positive effect is the ship’s smoke eerily mixing with the clouds around the fjord’s cliffs. I don’t stay long and push to Øvre Eidfjord, a lot quieter and from where I take an unsealed mountain road to explore the outer confines of the valley. I turn around when the track becomes a little too restrained for the large station wagon that is Lars, my Volvo V90 Cross Country for this trip.

Norwegian cheese and ham Lars in Kinsarvik with the Hardanger bridge in the background.

I retrace my steps to drive past the Hardanger bridge and explore Sørfjorden, an offshoot of Hardangerfjord located in the heart of the fruit tree region called Ullensvang. A deserted boathouse is the perfect spot for a tranquil lunch: given Norway’s high prices my regime is limited to bread, ham and cheese, but not just any cheese: the infamous and delicious Fløtemysost brown cheese… A couple of blokes are laughing their way through fishing on a tiny boat right in the middle of the fjord, and these are the only sounds around. I drive through Kinsarvik and Lofthus, and in between towns, apples are sold on the side of the road in unattended stands that rely on honesty: you slot the indicated price into a box and take the bag of apples with you. It’s now time to drive north through the Hardanger bridge again and towards Voss.

Lars in NaerøyfjordLars in Aurland
Snøvegen

After driving along  whose particularly steep 1200m-high cliffs are a great opportunity to make good use the V90’s panoramic roof, we soon reach Aurland, a village surrounded by greenery peppered with hundreds of bleating sheep, located at one end of the world’s longest road tunnel, the 24.5 km/15 miles-long Laerdalstunnel. But we won’t take that tunnel: instead, we launch into the Snøvegen, officially signed Aurlandsvangen. This 45 km (28 miles) Snow Road, open from June to mid-October, climbs and twists from Aurland at sea level to a 1311m-high plateau. The start of the road is narrow, making crossing vehicles a difficult task. The picturesque location is almost too perfect: sheep with their bells ringing call each other from one field to the next, oblivious to my presence and fighting the surrounding silence. The top of the plateau is a desolate, arid and beautiful swath of wilderness dotted with boulders and bright red lonely wooden houses. The cloudy weather adds even more drama to the menacing stance of this land.

Laerdal

Arriving in Laerdal, it’s time for a sunset ferry ride across Sognefjorden, the world’s second longest fjord (203km/126 miles) and Norway’s deepest (1308m), reaching Fjaerland just after the sun disappears for the night to admire the glacial tongue of Supphellebreen.

SupphellebreenJolstra river

The car park is just 300m from the glacier and I almost expect to hear the ice cracking, so overwhelmingly silent is the place at dusk. Fun/nerd fact: ice blocks from here were used as podiums at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. On my way to the Sandane hotel, in Skei the grey and orange skies completely reflect into the still waters of the Jolstra river. There is no one, not a whisper of wind, and the only sound is the clickety-click of a lone row-boat. Meditation-inducing stillness.

Breim
Stryn Oppstryn

The next day is the first blue sky day of the trip, and it’s great timing as we are about to explore what would end up being the most beautiful area of this entire adventure. We start with Nordfjord and the hair-rising beauty of the fjord’s shores trigger multiple stops and endless photo shoots, in Sandane itself, Breim, then along the shores of Lake Strynevatnet in Stryn and Oppstryn. Spectacular sun rays combined with incredible scenery morph this trip into something close to paradise as we enter the Jostedalsbreen National Park.

Gamle Strynefjellsvegen

The Gamle Strynefjellsvegen (old Stryn mountain road), a winding 27km single track at the time of construction considered a masterpiece of civil engineering, was opened in 1894 and was for over 80 years the main east-to-west route in this part of the country. Again, spectacular vistas await and I touch the first snow of this trip, stopping for a series of pictures near a wooden chalet baptised “Mon Plaisir” (My Pleasure in French). The pleasure is all mine indeed. This plateau is more colourful than the one we explored earlier in this post. Turquoise lakes surrounded by eye-waveringly white snow are overlooked by vast expands of red vegetation (rendered even redder by my sun glasses) peppered with imposing boulders. The air is crisp and the location inducive for a Volvo advertisement. Lars takes a pose multiple times along the plateau.

VW e-Golf on the Gamle StrynefjellsvegenToyota C-HR in Innvik.

Next and for our final post in this series, we reach Geirangerfjord, arguably Norway’s most famous fjord, the coastal town of Ålesund, the Trollstigen Route and the Atlanterhavsveien before finally reviewing Lars our Volvo V90 Cross Country… Stay tuned!

Photo Report: Driving a Volvo V90 through the Norwegian fjords – Part 2: Stavanger and Bergen

Lars in Stord

This is Part 2 of our exploration of the Norwegian fjords in a Volvo V90 Cross Country. Check out Part 1: Stockholm to Preikestolen here. The breathtaking exploration of Preikestolen (aka Pulpit Rock) om Lysefjord has left an imprint on my retina and I’m constantly reliving the seconds where I walked towards the edge of the 600m-high cliff. This vision will stay with me for years and will most likely fuel a lot of dreams (nightmares?).

The itinerary for Part 2 of this trip takes us from Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock) to Ulvik via Stavanger and Bergen.Lars on the Tau-Stavanger ferry

Rather than turn around and take the same route to reach Stavanger, which Lars’ GPS tells me is the fastest, I opt for the 40min Tau-Stavanger ferry and enjoy the sunset on deck.

Über charming Gamle (Old) Stavanger

I originally didn’t plan to stop in Stavanger, and only did so when I found out Preikestolen was nearby. The consensus was this is an oil town, ugly and industrial with no interest. Even the Lonely Planet Norway is borderline passive aggressive with the city: “it can’t compete with Bergen on looks but is far from unlovely”… Turns out this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although relatively big at 125,000 inhabitants, Stavanger gives the feeling of a welcoming, friendly small village and is covered with absolutely stunning whitewashed wooden houses, especially in the Old Town, Gamle Stavanger. I decide to stay two nights.

A selection of cars in Stavanger: BMW i3, Mitsubishi Outlander, Tesla Model S, Renault Zoe, Peugeot 3008, VW Caddy, Kia Soul, Nissan Leaf and VW e-Up.

The cars of Stavanger

Although I knew that Oslo would be littered with eco-friendly cars, I was yet to find out whether regional Norwegian towns had also succumbed to the frenzy. If anything, there are way more eco-friendly cars here as a percentage of the total car park than I saw in the capital Oslo. The BMW i3 and Nissan Leaf are clear favourites, with the Kia Soul EV and Renault Zoe also making a mark. Tesla is here in force with both the Model S and X.

Lars in Stord, between Stavanger and Bergen

There is a direct way from Stavanger to Bergen: the E39 which only has one ferry route within it. The itinerary is one of the most picturesque so far in the trip, especially around Stord where bright red or white boathouses embellish the shore, as pictured above and at the top of this article.

Awaiting the ferry to Bergen

There are no less than six lanes in the waiting bay for the ferry to Bergen, by far the largest in the trip so far. The E39 highway ferry is different from the ones I have taken before in the way that you must get out of your car during the ride. There are indeed two categories of ferry you get to take in this part of the world: the official, get-out-of-your-vehicle ones where there is most likely a pay station to go through before you can onboard, and the relaxed stay-in, drive-through ferries where staff comes to you to charge your credit card at the window. In the latter ones, it’s a little weird to step out of your vehicle as there are no passenger decks as such and you unmistakably draw confused looks from fellow drivers… A very entertaining experience in both cases.

Unesco World Heritage site Bryggen in Bergen

Reversely to Stavanger, I arrived in Bergen with high expectations. Described as an “utterly beguiling city” and the capital of Norway during the 12th and 13th centuries, this was supposed to be my trip’s culminating point in terms of city architecture. And like in Stavanger, my perception ended up being 100% the opposite of my expectations. I found Bergen oppressive, too modern and impersonal. The Bryggen area seemed to me very limited and Disnelyland-like. I had much preferred isolated bright red wooden houses in the countryside than this overrated harbour quay. Harsh? Perhaps. But I have never been a city person. What didn’t help was the fact that at the time I visited, Bergen was gearing up to the UCI Road World Championships of Cycling (16-24 September) with many streets blocked off rendering city centre driving virtually impossible. The Bergen car landscape is heavily skewed towards Light Commercial Vehicles with the VW Transporter and Caddy champions as per the national sales charts.

Lars in Steinstø, on the way from Bergen to Ulvik.

I had not planned to stay overnight in Bergen and had already reserved a room in a hotel in Ulvik, a good 200km east, so only a couple of hours after arriving in town, I was departing already. I did not regret it as the drive along the Hardanger fjord was spectacular, and getting more so as the sun was setting. But the real core of fjord country is yet to be displayed in front of my eyes, and this will be covered in Part 3 of this Photo Report. Stay tuned!

 

Photo Report: Driving a Volvo V90 through the Norwegian fjords – Part 1: Stockholm to Preikestolen

Lars posing in front of the Heddal Stave Church in southern Norway. 

Following up on last year’s test drive of a Volvo XC90 to North Cape, Volvo Sweden was so kind as to loan me a second car this year to explore the south-western coast of Norway and all its spectacular fjords. At the same time last year, the entire Volvo V90 fleet was monopolised by the Swedish press but this time Volvo has voluntarily made available one of the highest-spec V90 there is: a crystal white V90 Cross Country D5 AWD with a Polestar performance optimisation pack (available since last December) and the incredible audio system Volvo Premium Sound by Bowers & Wilkins that I already enjoyed on the XC90 last year. All-in-all, this generously equipped V90 will set you back the equivalent of 69.900€ in Sweden (US$81.400), a fair bit more than the XC90 D4 Inscription we drove last year (61.400€ or US$65.000).

Our itinerary for this first iteration of the test drive. 

One year ago the transition from the decades-long leadership of the now-discontinued Volvo V70 in the Swedish car sales to the unknown (Volvo V90? V60? XC60? VW Golf? Passat?) had just started. 2016 saw a Volkswagen top the annual Swedish sales charts (the Golf) for the first time in 54 years – since 1962, the last year of reign of the VW Beetle. 2017 is a different story altogether with Volvo reclaiming the top spot: up until June the Volvo S/V90 was in pole position and looked like it would be the natural heir of the V70 atop Swedish charts. But July and August saw the Volvo XC60 shoot up to the top and snap the YTD lead.

Looking a little nervous atop Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock)…

Both the bus ride from the airport to the city centre of Stockholm and the Uber ride to the Sollentuna Uppland Motor Volvo dealership however gave me a glimpse of a rather disconcerting car landscape: absolutely no new generation XC60 in sight, which didn’t make sense after two consecutive months of sales domination (I started driving the V90 on September 11). The explanation was given to me by Nils from local publication ViBilagare who shared exclusive data by version that showed the XC60’s first place was due to the previous generation – still produced in Sweden – having its higher spec variants sold at discounted prices. By the time I was back in Stockholm ten days later the situation had not changed but Nils let me know that by early October the new gen XC60 had started to make itself noticed in the capital.

Lars posing next to one of his “ancestors”, the Volvo 850.

By now, the XC60 nameplate, combining both new and previous generations, seems to have accumulated enough sales to remain in the lead all the way to the end of the year for its first annual win, but the S/V90 could pull a last minute surprise, and should reclaim the lead in 2018 once the stock of previous gen XC60 has been fully sold. In any case, in the V90 we are looking at an extremely successful nameplate at home despite its discouragingly high price tag. It is now time to baptise our car. After Ivanhoe the Haval H9, Joey the Toyota Hilux and Kaitlin the Peugeot 208, we need a Swedish name starting in L, a male name as this is a station wagon, therefore a truck which has a masculine gender in my native tongue, French. The choice was easy: Lars.

Lars in Sandaholm, Sweden, near the Norwegian border.

We’ll be taking Lars on an adventure through to southwestern Norway and its spectacular fjords. But first we need to head west and leave Sweden for Norway, bound for its capital Oslo. As it has been the case during most of my last test-drives (see USA Coast to Coast 2014, USA North to South 2015, Europe North Cape to Tarifa 2016 and both Australian Outback Haval H8 and Australian Outback Haval H9), I find myself most comfortable in nature, far from the craziness of big cities. We therefore won’t spend much time in Stockholm nor Oslo, just enough to grab some topline elements about their respective car landscapes.

Charging stations in Sandaholm, Sweden. 

First we hit Sandaholm, near a tranquil lake and close to the Norwegian border. Here I get a first taste of Norway in the shape of two electric car charging stations, a striking novelty compared to everything I have seen before in other parts of Europe. One is for Tesla vehicles and the other one for “other electric vehicles”, but both are provided for by Tesla. Navigating the network of charging stations, at its most developed in southern Norway, is a habit many car drivers aren’t accustomed to, including myself. Shortly I will have the opportunity to test drive a Tesla Model X over the course of two days and will be able to test the Australian charging network myself.

Lars in Oslo

The Swedish part of this trip was the opportunity to review the local car landscape. The V90 has already established itself, with no less than three spotted in the first 5 minutes of travel. The Audi A6 station wagon and Skoda Superb station wagon are also frequent, but none as much as the VW Passat station wagon. Similarly, both the Kia Cee’d and Toyota Avensis seem to only be successful in its station wagon variant. As such, a survey of 267 cars passed by on the highway showed that 109 or a whopping 40.8% were station wagon, making Sweden the world’s station wagon paradise. Two additional successful nameplates are the Kia Niro and Ford Edge.

Cross the border into Norway, and the car landscape changes drastically. The flow of V90 abruptly drops, and different successful models appear such as the Mazda CX-5, Suzuki S-Cross and Skoda Octavia station wagon. The VW Golf is most successful here as a hatchback, and not the Alltrack station wagon popular in Sweden. And of course a flow of green cars invades the streets: the Kia Soul EV, Toyota Prius, BMW i3, Renault Zoe and Norway’s most striking point of difference: a constant flow of Tesla Model S and X everywhere you go. Green cars can drive on bus lanes in Oslo, conveniently avoiding the traffic jams. A final note for this first day of driving: the frequency of new generation Toyota Hilux, whose sales have leaped up drastically this year as we’ll see in a further update.

Norwegian breakfast

I have visited Oslo before (in 1993 and 2000) and drive around for half an hour before a quick stroll on the harbour, enough to verify the ubiquitousness of electric charging stations. I’m headed to the General Hotel, a previous military camp refurbished as a hotel situated in Hønefoss, 60km north-east of Oslo. The breakfast buffet includes smoked pepper mackerel and chicken live pate. Now it’s official: I’m in Scandinavia! The first stop of the day is to the Heddal Stave Church (as featured in the leading photo of this article), Norway’s largest and most beautiful church of this kind, originally built in 1242. A stave church is a medieval wooden Christian church building once common in north-western Europe. The name derives from the buildings’ structure of post and lintel construction, a type of timber framing where the load-bearing ore-pine posts are called stafr in Old Norse (stav in modern Norwegian). Originally much more widespread, most of the surviving stave churches are in Norway, this according to Wikipedia.

Lars in Grimstad, Norway Lars and a Tesla Model S in Grimstad Lars in Risør, NorwayRisør

After Heddal we reach the Norwegian Riviera, a “string of pristine coastal villages of whitewashed timber”, according to the Lonely Planet. Now that summer holidays are over, these quaint little villages are very quiet indeed, and although I was very much looking forward to visiting them, Risør, Grimstad and Lillesand all did appear very uptight to me, exclusive havens of sophisticated houses with little warmth and sense of welcoming.

Søgne, Norway
Lars in Østebø on the Flekkerfjord road
RoligheteLars in Rogaland on the Flekkerfjord to Ergensund coastal road.

After a night near Kristiansand we are headed towards the Flekkerfield to Ergensund coastal road Rv44. It’s a very scenic succession of barren boulders and lakes, peppered with tiny villages of white or red timber houses, rendered even more dramatic by the menacing weather that day. It’s now that my real adventure in Norway starts, with this mysterious drive into a land that seems cut-off from time and space.


Near Lindesnes I came across a collection of three vintage Scania and Volvo buses, a great opportunity for a Photo Souvenir or three.

First ferry of the trip for Lars, in Sandness.

Then it’s onto the first ferry ride of this trip in Sandness, to reach the parking lot for Preikestolen, in English the Pulpit Rock. 90 minutes of a pretty strenuous walk under the rain and I reach the incredible 604m-tall cliff, pictured further up in this article and below. This is an experience I will never forget. The gloomy weather – but dry at the summit – gives an ominous feel to every move you make, and walking all the way up to the edge with no fences of any kind is making my heart uncontrollably race. Some people were happily sitting on the edge with their legs balancing above the void, but that’s not for me and just watching them gave me stomach cramps. If you ever got the chance to visit the top of the defunct World Trade Centre in New York City, imagine a similarly steep cliff 1.5 times higher and being able to walk as close to the edge as you wish. The stuff of nightmares as far as I am concerned, but also strangely and strongly attractive. The view from the top onto Lysefjord is simply unforgettable. I highly recommend Preikestolen, a place like no other in the world.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Norwegian series hitting Stavanger…

Preikestolen 

Photo Report: Driving through Western Ireland and the Connemara

Irish green Renault Kadjar + Fluence near the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland – August 2017

I was lucky enough to be able to drive through part of the western coast of Ireland for five days in mid-August, and as is always the case when actually finding oneself in the actual country, I learnt details that don’t blatantly appear in the monthly sales charts – the objective of such explorations. During that quick week, we drove from Dublin to Galway, Clifden, Letterfrack, the Conemarra National Park, Westport then further south to the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands, then back to Dublin. All-in-all, we had perhaps 1.5 day of sun, the rest being drenched in typical Irish rain… Not to worry, the car parc was still there to be observed in detail.

Kaitlin, our rental Peugeot 208 in Clifden, Ireland – August 2017   Our Ireland itinerary

Our vehicle for this Irish adventure was a rental Irish red Peugeot 208, with its odo indicating 22.435 miles at pickup – impossible for the life of me to return this to kilometres – and 23.137 at drop-off, or 702 miles / 1.130 km in five days. After Ivanhoe the Haval H8 and Joey the Toyota Hilux, our 208 was baptised Kaitlin, a name we tried to pick in accordance to our surroundings. Kaitlin was easy to drive – I had anticipated a bit of headache due to the right-hand drive manual nature of the car, but all went well. Nothing amazing, nothing horrendous, but the car distinctly lacked oomph when accelerating. A pushy experience all-in-all.

2 x Hyundai Tucson in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017

There were a lot of sales peculiarities I had been wanting to verify in Ireland, the main one being the sudden as much as implacable success of the Hyundai Tucson, #1 in the country in 2016 and so far in 2017. If in Dublin its domination was far from obvious, as soon as we hit the countryside it was a proper avalanche of Tucson that unfolded on the tiny roads and city streets. Seeing two or even three Tucsons parked next to each other was a frequent occurrence. However I noticed a lot of Tucsons with “Europcar” stickers on the back window, prompting me to wonder whether this smashing success has in fact a lot to do with rentals. Hyundai Ireland hasn’t responded to my inquiry on the matter. My estimation is around 1/3 of Tucsons I saw were rentals.

Nissan Qashqai in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017

Another nameplate I could spot at every street corner in Ireland is the Nissan Qashqai. Although it never ranked #1 here in the annual sales charts – #3 in 2012, #2 in 2013, #2 in 2014 and #3 in 2015 – when travelling to this part of Ireland it does look like this is the car that has dominated the Irish sales charts for the past five years. The Ford Focus, #1 from 2001 to 2012 except in 2010, is certainly present but not to the extent its domination would have let us to believe. The VW Golf for example, #1 from 2013 to 2015, makes itself noticed a lot more but is still below the Qashqai.

Renault Kadjar in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017
Renault Megane Sedan and 2 x Nissan Qashqai near the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland – August 2017

One vehicle I saw a lot more than I expected in Ireland is the Renault Kadjar, a lot more frequent than at home in France. It ranked #13 in 2016 and is #20 so far in 2017, so the only explanation I can find for this overwhelming presence is, here too, success with rental companies. Although the Renault brand has been popular for a long time in Ireland. There is a very strong heritage of Renault Fluence here, and its successor, the Renault Megane Sedan, has kick-started its career with a bang.

VW Golf in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017 

Hyundai i30 in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017Hyundai i40 near the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland – August 2017Seat Toledo in Clifden, Ireland – August 2017

Which leads me to one very particular observation about the Irish car park: this country is still very fond of the sedans that are struggling to sell at all all over the rest of Western Europe: on top of the Megane Sedan – not even available in France, very popular sedans in Ireland include the Toyota Avensis (a very strong heritage of this nameplate), Corolla, Hyundai i40, Seat Toledo and VW Passat. Remaining on Hyundai for an instant, the all-new i30 is already well represented all around the area we traversed, adding to the success of the Tucson.

Skoda Octavia and Fabia near the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland – August 2017 Skoda Citigo in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017 

In terms of brands, the main striking observation is the success of Skoda, seemingly far more represented than its 6th place in 2017 would suggest. The Skoda Octavia (#5 so far in 2017) is everywhere, as is the Fabia, in Dublin a large number of taxis are the Skoda Superb and the Skoda Citigo is the most frequent of the three VW-Group minibars, more so than the VW Up or Seat Mii. Interestingly, I did not see many older Skodas, which would either indicate that this success is recent, or that the cars don’t survive long. The other brand that surprised me is Dacia. The facelifted Sandero ranked 11th in July and it shows: they are in every village, and the Duster is also very frequent.

Toyota C-HR in Clifden, Ireland – August 2017

Nissan Micra in Ireland – August 2017  

Among recent launches, the Toyota C-HR is present, as well as the new Nissan Micra and, to a much lesser extent, the Peugeot 3008. The Suzuki Vitara and Kia Sorento also appeared surprisingly frequently.

Toyota Avensis on Inishmore, Aran Islands – August 2017 

Away on Inishmore, one of the three Aran Islands that you cannot reach by car, only locals are allowed their cars and the Aran car park is like a travel through time with older generations of Toyota Avensis, VW Passat, Opel Vectra and Skoda Octavia. Only a handful of cars sported the 2013 and beyond bi-annual license plate system.

I hope you enjoyed this quick insight into the Irish car park, please feel free to ask me anything in the comments section.

Photo Report: Driving a Toyota Hilux on K’gari Fraser Island, Australia

Toyota Hilux on K’Gari Fraser Island

As of 2015, the Toyota Hilux was the best-selling vehicle in an estimated 42 countries in the world, by far the most crowned nameplate on the planet. Stay tuned for an update article coming soon featuring H1 2017 sales. In 2016, the Hilux became the first commercial vehicle to top the Australian annual sales charts, and it is in the lead again so far in 2017. It was high time for BSCB to test-drive this worldwide best-seller, and Toyota Australia kindly loaned us a Hilux Double Cab TD SR5 4×4 2.8L for one week. We decided to take it to spectacular Fraser Island, or K’gari in local Butchulla Aboriginal language (pronounced “Gurri”) which means paradise. But first to find a name for our Hilux. The last loaner we had was a Haval H9 we nicknamed Ivanhoe, so this one needs to start in J. The search quickly narrowed down to Joey, meaning a baby kangaroo, apt for this agile and shining new Hilux.

It all started in Sydney…Fraser Island location in AustraliaFraser Island map

We took hold of the Hilux at Toyota’s Sydney headquarters, and from here to Fraser Island it’s a 15h, 1.250km-long trip traversing countryside New South Wales and Queensland. The return voyage ended up adding 2.639 km to Joey’s odo, all done in four days. K’Gari Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world at 1.840 km2. Yep, that means there isn’t a single rock on the island! It is located 250 km north of Brisbane on the Australian east coast, has a length of 120 km (75 mi) for a width of around 24 km (15 mi). It houses over 100 freshwater lakes that are some of the cleanest in the world. Joey couldn’t resist a splash in one of the freshwater rivers running down into the ocean:

K’Gari Fraser Island has been inhabited by humans for at least 5.000 years and is the home of roughly 200 inhabitants today. It was formerly known as the Great Sandy Island in the late 18th and early 19th century and owes its current name to Eliza Fraser who created what may well be one of the first instances of what we call today “fake news”… Eliza Fraser was the wife of Captain James Fraser, master of the Stirling Castle that struck a reef north of the island in 1836. They landed with the crew on a longboat, then attempting to trek south. Eliza claimed she was captured by the Badtjala people who she wrongly accused of being cannibals. Many other survivors of the same shipwreck later disputed her claims. However, Fraser’s fictional report of her ill-treatment on the island eventually led to the massacre and dispossession of the island’s tribe. The 1976 film “Eliza Fraser” sustained the legend and was at the time the most expensive Australian film ever made.

Access to the barge to Fraser Island (Inskip Point)

As we had booked accomodation in Happy Valley, about half-way up the eastern coast of the island (see map above), we decided to enter Fraser Island from the south, taking the barge from Rainbow beach and Inskip Point. We thought it would be a small yet proper harbour with, well, a sealed street leading to it. None of this in this part of Australia! To reach the barge we first had to cross a pretty deep sand field. My co-driver David and I have no prior experience of sand driving – one of the reasons we wanted to take the Hilux here – so we had just previously lowered the pressure of our tyres slightly, thinking it would be enough with the help of the low range 4WD gear. How naive were we.

Maxtrax recovery tracks

Only a few metres and we got bogged down. After watching us for a few minutes trying to extricate ourselves and just as we were starting to think that Fraser Island would remain unreachable for this trip, two good samaritans (as only they come by in Australia) got us out of here with a pair of bright orange Maxtrax recovery tracks such as the one pictured above. A must-buy for any trip where you are planning to drive in the sand. They also had a valve that automatically lowered our tyres to 100kpa (or 15 psi). Perfect. We were now set.

It turns out, getting bogged down in Inskip Point is at the same time so frequent and so surprising that there is a Facebook Page dedicated to it! Yessir! It’s called “I got bogged at Inskip Point”, has almost 100.000 followers  and features numerous videos of cars getting… well, bogged down. We are now part of an exclusive club!

Joey and the barge to Fraser Island in Inskip Point
Joey on the barge towards Hook Point on Fraser Island

We are the only vehicle on the southern barge to Fraser, with a German backpacker giving us our ticket. Payment is by credit card with the captain perched atop a steep ladder and our National Park entrance fee is only available to purchase online. Thankfully the beaches on Fraser have very good wifi access (!). Upon landing on Hook Point is the real test of our sand driving and the lowered pressure are working a treat: it’s like we’re flying above the sand… Off we go on the exactly named 75 mile Beach. The entire eastern coast of the island is indeed a “beach track” open to vehicles. Only 4WDs are allowed on the island however.

Dingos on Fraser Island

Fraser Island invariably triggers one reaction among Australians: “don’t feed the dingos!” Dingos are a type of free-ranging dogs native to Australia. They are the largest terrestrial predator in Australia and have a prominent role in Aboriginal culture. Dingoes of Fraser Island, estimated to be around 180 to 220, are considered some of the last remaining pure dingoes in the country. As a result and to prevent cross-breeding, dogs are now allowed on the island. Since the 2001 killing of a boy by several dingoes on the island, strict measures have been taken regimenting human interaction with the animals (see card above). You can be heavily fined for feeding dingoes or even leaving food and rubbish out which may attract them.

GPS on the beach40 km/h speed limit sign along the 75 mile Beach

The 75 mile Beach is in effect a sort of sand highway, so much so that speed limit signs have been installed on the side of the beach! As far as I was concerned this was a first for me. It’s rather simple: where freshwater rivulets or rivers cross the beach towards the ocean creating creases, the speed limit goes down to 40 km/h. Otherwise it’s 80 km/h. Seems like a pretty high speed for driving on the sand but, as we’ll explain further down, high(ish) speed on sand isn’t actually a bad thing, rather much needed help. Another peculiarity of the 75 mile Beach “highway” is that the southern part of it towards Hook Point which is where the barge lands isn’t passable at high tide. To add fun to the game, the tides actually vary greatly from day to day, so we ended up being glued to the Fraser Island tide webpage for a good part of our stay on the island and opted to drive when the tide was going down rather than up, “just in case”…

Air Fraser Island plane. Picture wikipedia

One of the other “dangers” of driving on this part of the island is that it also serves as a landing strip for Air Fraser Island planes – these are not seaplanes – which offer touristic overviews of the Island. During my first trip to the island back in 2003, one of these planes landed just next to us and it was a mighty unforgettable sight. We did not have that luck this time but did see a couple of planes take off further along the beach. So in a word, when driving on the 75 mile Beach, you have to pay attention above more so than right or left…

Joey posing next to the shipwreck of the S.S. Maheno

An iconic sight of Fraser Island is the shipwreck of the S.S. Maheno, also located along the east coast of the island. It became beached in 1935 while being towed to Osaka to be broken up. But it doesn’t stop there… During the Second World War, the S.S. Maheno wreck served as target bombing practice for the Royal Australian Air Force. Today, almost three and a half storeys are buried under the sand. Speaking of which, now onto sand driving…

Sand driving on the way back to the bargeOne of Fraser Island inland sand tracks. And yes this is a two-way track! 

Driving on sand turned out to be much easier than expected once our tyre pressure was significantly lowered. That is, if you follow one simple rule: don’t drive slow! Completely counter-intuitive, driving kind of fast on sand is key to avoid getting bogged down. This explains why the speed limit is as high as 80 km/h on some parts of the 75 Mile Beach. On average, driving at around 40 km/h constantly will do the trick. To me, it felt like driving on semi-solid mud, to my co-driver David who also flies planes, the way the car follows the sand tracks and ruts more than obeying your steering reminded him of how a plane feels in windy conditions. A scary part though was driving on one of the inland sand tracks that didn’t allow space for more than one vehicle even though it was a two-way track!

Here’s Joey driving through the last bit of sand we had for him, after arriving back to Inskip Point, before a (very quick) review of the vehicle below. This time we didn’t get bogged in Iskip Point! Too bad for their Facebook Page…

A happy crew!

Sand driving ability: this is why we came to Fraser Island and we weren’t disappointed, once a few basics were applied on our side. Nothing can stop the Hilux outside the beaten tracks and this test drive proved it again.

Interior comfort is top notch, the pickup feels robust to drive yet is very manoeuvrable.

2.8L TD Engine has all the grunt that is needed for this type of trip, be it on sand or on asphalt.

Commands are all very intuitive apart from one (see below)…

Fuel consumption is correct given the size of the vehicle

The main and surprising source of grunts was the GPS: disconcerting at best, frustrating at worst, it’s convoluted to operate, and thus dangerous because requiring complete attention on the screen. Names of hotels cannot be picked up unless you are “near”, the GPS continues to calculate the route once arrived at destination… The list goes on.

A pet hate of mine: for this type of price (AU$ 59.459 driveaway), you’d expect not just the driver seat to be electric but the passenger one as well. It is manual. Feels a tad cheap.

It’s good bye for now Joey!

Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 7: Flinders Ranges, back to Sydney and full review

Ivanhoe in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia. 

This is Part 7, the final part of our adventure to the middle of nowhere Australia with a Haval H9, which we baptised Ivanhoe. See Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura herePart 2: Mildura to Broken Hill herePart 3: Broken Hill to Tibooburra here, Part 4: Tibooburra to Cameron Corner herePart 5: In Cameron Corner here and Part 6: On the Strzelecki Track here.

What we have put Ivanhoe through: 4.000km to the middle of nowhere, Australia. 

Breakfast at Hawker’s servo…

Arrived at Hawker at dark, I still manage to spot a few 2WD vehicles, the first ones since we left Broken Hill a few days ago… As it did last time I emerged from the Birdsville Track, it always prompts a double-take: “how the heck has this type of vehicle possibly arrived here?” And then it all comes back to me that we have returned to “civilisation” with mostly sealed roads around us.

Flinders Ranges from afar… 

Hawker is the main jumping board to explore the iconic Flinders Ranges located just north of town. It used to be a thriving railway town between 1880 and 1956, located on the famous Ghan line, but that came to an abrupt stop when the route was moved west during a line upgrade. Today, Hawker, population 229, lives from tourism, sheep and cattle, but the stocking rate, one sheep per three to four hectares, is incredibly low due to the arid climate.

There is not much indeed in Hawker, but the Lonely Planet describes its petrol station as “the most helpful in the world” and it’s true! They are right on the mark for any weather forecast that could affect the road conditions in the region. But as is often the case in the Australian Outback, the most reliable source of information about road conditions is drivers themselves as the rangers cannot cover the entirety of the unsealed tracks 24/7. This way, a couple of bikers inquired how the Strzelecki Track was west of Cameron Corner as they were planning to head that way. One of them, incidentally, recognised our vehicle as a Haval. We recommended prudence on the way back if they were to return via Broken Hill due to the flooding we encountered a couple of days prior. Animals of the Flinders Ranges: Kangaroos, a wallaby, shingle-back lizard and… quolls?

Off we drive to the Flinders Ranges National Park. The last time I visited the Park, in 2003, it was under a constant torrent of rain so I have only scattered memories of the place. Under a stunningly blue sky (this is the second day of the year hence full Summer in Australia), we encounter a few local animals, either though road signs or in real life like a herd of shy grey wallabies hopping along us on the way. Now I can see a few of you with wide open eyes in front of the “Quolls” sign. Never heard of them? Quolls are are carnivorous marsupials native to mainland Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania. They sport white spots, eat smaller mammals, small birds, lizards and insects and are mostly active at night. They were “discovered” by Captain Cook in 1770 who adopted the Aboriginal name for the animals, although the language used is that of the Guugu Yimithirr people who live very far, in northern Queensland. An enigma right here…

Stokes Hill lookout 

After visiting the Wilpena station in the Flinders Ranges National Park, we head north to check the Stokes Hill lookout then backtrack to turn left to the Bunyeroo and Brachina Gorges. The landscape gets redder as we make our way through the gorges and we are allowed to stay a little longer in the Bunyeroo Gorge courtesy to our second puncture of the trip, this time the front left wheel. We sort it out in less time than is needed to write these lines (the truth) as we are eager to explore the Ranges further.

Brachina and Bunyeroo Gorges in Flinders Ranges National Park. 

A few stops to snap the H9 in action (see the lead picture in this article) and we are back on the sealed road to Hawker. After a refill we are now headed to Mildura where we will spend our first night in the past four with an internet connection! Then it’s an uneventful all-day highway trip back to Sydney under a summer rain that managed to clean almost all the mud from the outside of the car. We started the trip in Melbourne with 4.076 km at the odo, and one week later we arrive in Sydney in one piece, this time the odo indicating… 8.043km. We doubled Ivanohe’s age for a 3.967km-trip. Fuel consumption over the entire trip is 13.6L/km (veering towards thirsty). And this ends another great adventure at the wheel of China’s #1 SUV brand, Haval. Make sure you read the full review of the Haval H9 below.

Meeting road trains on the way back to Sydney. Arrived!Upon return to Haval Sydney: “What trip to Cameron Corner?”

Four wheel driving ability. As it was the case for the H8, the Intelligent AWD system automatically engages at the right time and we drove through tougher, more slippery and deeper muddy terrain than the H8 without a problem. Great adherence and controllable vehicle in adverse conditions.

Drive on sealed roads is smooth with no acceleration lag (there was one on the H8).

Interior quality with leather seats is optimal, back air con is good but back seats may be a little too steep, we couldn’t move them due to our equipment in the boot. Rooftop is a great addition to the enjoyment of driving the car.

As for the H8, High speed driving integrity, both on bitumen (160km/h-100mph) and rocky track (100km/h-80mph) where these speeds were attained with no behaviour change.

Exterior design is, here too, rather timeless. Was compared to Toyota Land Cruiser and Nissan X-Trail during the trip. Appears robust and solid.

Some fun bonuses like the brand name projected on the floor in red letters from rear view mirrors and on the step in white letters (see picture below).

The car’s main weakness on this outback trip is its underbody cover made of plastic and fixed with screws that loosen up and fail during water passings. Not easily fixable in the middle of the desert and as a result we had to let the cover tear itself from the car and lose it. The entire underbody protection needs to be strengthened.

Two punctures and overheating tyres on the Strzelecki track mean to us that the perfect tyre combination remains to be found on the H9.

As for the H8, Premium Unleaded petrol mandate adds 20 to 50 AU cents per litre and makes Australian outback trips logistically challenging due to the rarity of this petrol in remote stations. We needed to permanently carry two 20L jerrycans of fuel to be able to reach our destinations.

The centre console touchscreen is prone to sun glare which makes it impossible to read. Some info should be transferred onto the driver’s control panel (see picture below).

As for the H8, the sat nav vastly overestimates the time required to reach destination by applying speeds that are a lot lower than the speed limit, and is not incorporating unsealed roads in its route calculations.

User manual is required to operate the jack – not as straight-forward as expected.

Headlamps wash died on us on the Strzelecki Track.

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