Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 2: Mildura to Broken Hill

A little interlude to our day trip from Mildura to Broken Hill.

This is Part 2 of our adventure to the middle of nowhere Australia with a Haval H9, which we baptised Ivanhoe. See Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura here. After crossing densely populated Victoria from south to north and keeping in touch with the world through a surprisingly perfect phone network, we are now about to get into the unknown and the desert: once Wentworth passed – a mere 50 km north of Mildura – there are absolutely no towns or villages for the following 280 km to Broken Hill! A sudden entrance into the Australian Outback it is indeed. By the time we will have arrived in Broken Hill, Ivanhoe will have already eaten close to 1,000 km of bitumen in two days: can’t get more of a ruthless test-drive start than this.

Part 2 of this adventure Mildura to Broken Hill, or from civilisation to nothingness.

In Mildura I am joined by my two co-drivers for this trip: Bas (Singaporean) and Sergio (Italian), making for quite a cosmopolitan crew with me being French and Ivanhoe being Chinese… This will enable us to give you a multi-national opinion of the Haval H9. I myself am already acquainted with the interior quality of both H8 and H9 SUVs but the guys’ first impression when climbing inside was “Wow. Didn’t expect this from a Chinese car.” It was the fairly consistent feedback of people that had a peek inside the H8 during the last trip, and given the H9 interior is almost identical to the H8 I am expecting more of the same during this trip. The fact is the H9 has leather seats and all the interior commodities you might ask for a large SUV and stepping inside makes you forget its Chinese origins, if that was ever an issue to start with.

Oops…
Smile for the camera! Jacked up Ivanhoe gets its wheel replaced.

Roughly halfway between Mildura and Broken Hill – in other words 150 km from anyone and anything, Ivanhoe’s rear right tyre goes flat, most probably due to the incredible heat the wheels have been subjected to for the past 750 km/465 miles we already swallowed in less than 24 hours. The Haval team said before loaning me the H9 they were testing new softer compound tyres, and these seem to be the wrong choice for the H9, given I had absolutely no tyre issues with the H8 in particularly rough terrain. Not to worry, this will be a good test of the tools that are available (or not) on board to change a tyre. And it turns out, there is quite an extensive toolkit hidden inside the rear door of the H9 that houses everything we need to replace the wheel. The jack requires a bit of Ikea DIY skills and the first car to pass by obviously stops to check on us: that’s the legendary Australian outback care for you. The elderly woman looks at our frazzled faces and the pieces of the jack in our hands. “Have you checked the car manual?” Mmm. Good idea.

Pit stop at Premier Independent Tyres in Broken Hill.

Tyre change in the middle of the desert in blistering heat is a good team bonding exercise and I’m grateful my colleagues Bas and Sergio are happy-go-lucky blokes that make light of any gremlins. We stop at the nearby Coombah Roadhouse – the only one of its kind on the 300 km stretch of road we are traversing – waking the owner in the process, to make sure tyre pressure is ok on all four tyres before resuming our trip to Broken Hill. The owner at Coombah Roadhouse, now well over half awake, inquires about our destination. “Oh you’re off to the Tibooburra New Year’s Eve festival?” Nup, but you have now picked our interest… In Broken Hill, we check in at the impeccable Red Earth Motel (I highly recommend it). The logical next move is to inquire at the nearby Goodyear Autocare for a replacement tyre, but – once again, the outback kindness – they refer us to the specialists in town for the type of tyres we are after: Premier Independent Tyres.

Like new!  Ivanohe being put to the test for the 4×4 of the Year award (notice same license plate)

All the guys at Premier were absolutely perfect. They inspected both the flat tyre and the remaining rear left one, and found extensive wear on the latter, meaning a burst was just waiting to happen to that one too, and also that Ivanhoe had been subject to a pretty gruelling routine before it was handed to me. But by who? None other than 4×4 Magazine Australia – the very magazine that inspired this trip and quite possibly my favourite magazine right now – used this very vehicle for their tests leading to the awarding of the coveted 4×4 of the Year this month. Ivanhoe finished 4th which was a surprise for everyone involved including myself. You can read 4×4 Magazine’s review of the H9 here. So that’s potentially why we’re getting hit by higher-than-normal tyre wear and tear. The tyre doctors’ verdict: replace both rear tyres with all-terrain ones as the H9 is a propulsion and the rear wheels are the ones doing all the heavy work and therefore getting most of the wear and tear. A quick call to Haval to ok the change – the team was super quick and available even though technically on holidays – and Ivanhoe gets a tyre refresh in less time than it took to write this paragraph.

Possibly the best invention of all time: drive-in bottle shop in Broken Hill.

This episode was a very good first test: of the on-board toolkit, of Broken Hill’s ability to replace tyres at 5pm on a Friday before a long weekend and of the Haval team’s reactivity and decisiveness, among many other things. And everyone passed with flying colours. We now have Ivanhoe equipped with all-terrain tyres fitted in Broken Hill, the gateway to outdoor adventures so they know a thing or two about what tyres can withstand anything. The only thing Premier Independent Tyres wasn’t is cheap: the $740 bill for two all-terrain tyres seemed a tad overpriced to me. Time for a beer! Cue what is possibly the best invention of all time: a drive-in bottle shop. First time my fellow co-drivers and myself see such a god-sent thing! The Mulga Hill Tavern was in full swing when we dropped by for a few six-packs. It would appear Broken Hill folks know a thing or two about the good life as well…

Pre-sunset light near the sculpture in Broken Hill

Last time I visited Broken Hill was with Damo the Haval H8 on my way to the Birdsville Track. Back then, I only deemed necessary to spend a couple of hours in town before setting off to Orroroo for the night, just enough to give a visit to the local Royal Flying Doctors base. But I missed the sunset on the Sculpture Symposium and the Living Desert Reserve. While the sculptures themselves are nothing special in my view, the serenity of the surrounding landscape was a perfect introduction to the desert drive on unsealed tracks we are about to embark on.

Broken Hill car landscape

Finally let’s get another look at the Broken Hill car landscape. Yes, it did change since July 2016 when I was here last, with a lot more new gen Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger, including a Hilux campervan registered in Queensland (pictured above). The Toyota Land Cruiser pickup continues to rule the roost here, with many examples driving around town. In fact, it is the benchmark against which every vehicle is evaluated. An illustration of this is the questions Dan from Premier Independent Tyres was asking after changing Ivanhoe’s rear tyres. “Had a good look inside while we were working on it, it’s got everything you need in it! Is that a new brand?” Yep it’s by the same guys who also have the Great Wall brand. “Oh yeah I know Great Wall. How much do they go for?” That’s the top-end Luxury spec at AUD$ 49.990. “That’s not bad with such an interior Better than my $70k Land Cruiser ute! Does they come as a double cab?” (pickup) No, Great Wall does the utes, Haval the SUVs. “Ah that’s a pity, I would have been keen for a ute version of this!” Haval team: there is some wriggle room to sell a new Great Wall Steed ute to Dan from Premier Independent Tyres in Broken Hill, just saying.

Next stop: Tibooburra. Stay tuned!

Gauging a Toyota Hilux before taking off to the desert… 

Photo Report: Driving a Haval H9 to the middle of nowhere, Australia – Part 1: Melbourne to Mildura

Our Haval H9 near Wentworth, NSW

After taking a Haval H8 through the legendary Birdsville Track last year, at BSCB we continue to strive to get a deeper understanding of Chinese carmakers and their offerings. Haval, the #1 SUV brand in China, launched in Australia in late 2015 and now offers four nameplates in this country: the H2, H6 Coupe, H8 and H9. Always up for a challenge, Haval was keen to lend us for a week a top-of-the-range H9 equipped with two spare, with no limitations as to where we could take it. In other words, a great opportunity to test the off-road capabilities of the brand’s only full 4WD vehicle and one of the rare such vehicles produced by a Chinese company.

Our target destination is Cameron Corner, aka the middle of nowhere, Australia.

Before we get on our way, there are two things we need to figure out: our destination objective, and a nickname for our Haval H9. Destination-wise, even though we managed to complete the Birdsville Track during our last Australian Outback trip, our aborted excursion towards the Strzelecki Track wet my appetite. A browse of the latest 4×4 Australia Magazine alerted me to a fun fact: you can celebrate New Year’s Eve three times at Cameron Corner, sitting at the intersection of three Australian States: Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. At this time of the year indeed, each State is on a different time zone, with New South Wales half an hour ahead of South Australia, itself half an hour ahead of Queensland.

One year’s worth of rain hit the region we are about to travel to in just a couple days. Above: Uluru.

Cameron Corner it is. Plus we can link westward through to the Strzelecki Track onto Lyndhurst and travel back via the Flinders Ranges, closing a loop I opened during the Birdsville trip. Calling Cameron Corner Store – the only building in Cameron Corner is a hotel-pub – well ahead to book accommodation on the “busy” New Year’s Eve, I inquired whether there was any chance we would get rain and muddy tracks on the way – it’s mandatory unsealed roads to get to Cameron Corner. Fen, the owner of the place, was reassuring: “Naaaah. We never get any rain round here, mate!” One week later, the biggest rains to hit the Australian Red Centre region in twenty years were headline news all across the country, and videos of water cascading down the flanks of the country’s most famous rock, Uluru, were inundating the internet (see above)…

Haval H9: Ivanhoe will be your name. At Coombah Roadhouse NSW.

If the Birdsville Track had been rendered treacherous by recent floods when we crossed it last year, this will once again be a real-life test for the off-road and mud driving capabilities of our Haval H9. Since Damo the Haval H8 we took to Birdsville and back, we have had the privilege to test drive a few vehicles: Esmeralda the Fiat Panda Blu from Sardinia, Fyr – Björn the Volvo XC90 from Nordkapp, Gretchen the Mercedes C-Class Coupe from Spain and Hayao the Toyota RAV4 from Rally Australia. The nickname for our Haval H9 needs to start with an I and be a male one given this is a truck, not a car – and in my native French tongue cars are feminine while trucks are masculine, I just can’t help it. A quick Facebook poll came back with a popular choice: Igor. But this sounded too Russian, not Australian and not adventurous enough. Instead, I have baptised our Haval H9 Ivanhoe. It’s the name of the main character, a knight, in the namesake 1952 MGM movie Ivanhoe, featuring Robert and Elizabeth Taylor, but also a small town in New South Wales, not far from where we will be driving. Adventurous and Australian = perfect match.

Meeting the Haval team in Melbourne, Victoria.

We start this adventure at Haval Australia’s headquarters in Mount Waverley, 23 km east of the Melbourne city centre in Victoria. Unlike last year when I took delivery of Damo the Haval H8 in Sydney, this time I got to meet the team behind Haval’s launch in Australia, namely Yuwen Yanmin and Luna Han, pictured above. The only missing links were Tessa Spanneberg, Digital & Social Media Specialist, and Andrew Ellis, Public Relations and Product Planning Manager for Haval and Great Wall, who was instrumental in organising these two endurance trips. As strange as it sounds, I very rarely get to meet the people who are responsible for these loans in person, as they are usually handled via a third party delivering the cars. So putting faces to names was therefore the best way to start this adventure. My meeting was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that both Yuwen and Luna confessed they’ve been first hour BSCB fans (since 2010!), meaning they knew of the site well before I got in touch to organise the first H8 loan last year. This is the kind of meeting that just warms my heart and makes all the hard work on this site worthwhile.

A storm is brewing… 

Turning the engine on shows 4.075 km on Ivanhoe’s odo. This will climb drastically over the next few days! For Day 1 we are headed towards Mildura, located 534 km north of Melbourne at the border between Victoria and New South Wales. The weather on this first day is suffocatingly humid and incredibly hot, with peaks above 40°C (100°F), and the bitumen was melting under my wheels at various locations during the day. The Melbourne car landscape is for the most part faithful to the Top 100 best-selling cars in Victoria for 2016 we recently published, with a few nameplates more frequent than their ranking should have indicated, such as the current generation Ford Falcon (now discontinued), Toyota Highlander and Maxus G10. Spending a few hours in Melbourne for lunch reminded me of the few pet hates I had developed while living there for five years: the food is surprisingly expensive and depressingly average, the waiting time to get served borders on the hour with everyone nodding happily, and navigating your way through the tram lines and hook-left to right turns (Melburnians will understand) is still driving me insane. Time to leave this city!

Day 1 is Melbourne to Mildura, Day 2 is Mildura to Broken Hill (covered in Part 2).

Happily, Ivanhoe is giving me very good first impressions. It is equipped with the same turbocharged 4-cyl. 2.0L 281 ch engine as he H8 but there is no time lag between pushing the accelerator and the engine revving up, meaning overtaking on the highway is a breeze, as it should have been on the H8. Handling seems more agile and nimble than the H8 despite the increased weight, and braking is as effective. So far so good. The only disappointing element so far is the GPS being overly cautious when calculating the Estimated Time of Arrival at destination: it doesn’t take into account the speed limit but a much lower speed average – perhaps supposed to take into consideration rest times? – resulting in a 9:15pm ETA for most of the afternoon when in actual fact I landed in Mildura at 7:35pm.

Enjoy your cleanliness Ivanhoe, as it won’t last!Just outside Mildura

One very good thing about Victoria: its relatively dense population – compared to the rest of the country – means local phone companies have been working hard at covering the entire state and as a result, at no point did I lose phone network! A nice luxury that I am about to lose completely once we cross into New South Wales: as a reminder, as soon as I left Sydney and the Blue Mountains last year to get to Broken Hill, I had to wave goodbye to any type of consistent phone network for hundreds of kilometres onwards.

Next stop: Broken Hill, NSW. Stay tuned!

We are headed to Broken Hill next.

From North Cape to Gibraltar – Part 8: Cadiz, Seville and Gretchen review

cadiz-3Cadiz

This is the final iteration of our Europe North to South adventure. Check out the previous iterations here: Part 1: Stockholm and Central SwedenPart 2: Kustvägen to FinlandPart 3: The journey to North CapePart 4: To the Russian borderPart 5: Driving through Lapland, FinlandPart 6: Paris to Granada, Andalusia and Part 7: Ronda, Gibraltar and Tarifa.

tarifa-sevilla-with-europe-mapThe itinerary for Part 8 of this series (then Gretchen and I drove back to Paris).

Belying the title of this series, we have pushed past Gibraltar to reach the actual southernmost point in Continental Europe: Tarifa. Now we are headed east to Cadiz, which would end up being the most bewitching city of the entire Spanish section of this trip. Then, a stop to majestic Seville before Gretchen and I head back to Paris, and time for a review.

cadiz-1Cadizcadiz-map-1886A map of Cadiz and its region dating back to 1886.

The work of entanglement Cadiz is guilty of starts way before arriving in town. Located at the very end of a thin isthmus (see map below), reaching Cadiz seems like driving on a never-ending straight line into the sea. When we finally hit the walled old town, it looks like an inaccessible fortress. And this spectacular situation has attracted human settlement for… the longest time in Europe, it turns out. Cadiz is indeed considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe, with historians dating its founding to the arrival of Phoenicians in 800 BC. Although the remnants of that period are long gone, there is a quiet serenity and confidence exuding from this place that has remained unchallenged for millennia.

cadiz-2

cadiz-4-picture-by-hector-cardonaBewitching Cadiz. Above picture by Héctor Cardona.

The streets are narrow but inundated with light. The sounds are omnipresent and otherworldly: the discreet but continuous chant of locusts, mixed with the mocking cawing of seagulls and the helplessly generous laughs of its inhabitants. Time slows down to a standstill in Cadiz, where life is made of eating freshly caught fish, drinking cheap beer and watching the waves crash by. I could definitely get used to it, and what a way to end this adventure that took me to Cape North.

cadiz-car-landscape

skoda-fabia-cadiz

seat-toledo-cadiz

seat-ibiza-cadizCadiz car landscape

Driving between Tarifa and Cadiz I spotted two Renault Koleos, testing in the heat of southern Spain well ahead of their European launch planned for Q2 2016. The Koleos is already on sale in China where it world premiered at the Beijing Auto Show last April. As for the Cadiz car park, it is fiercely Spanish despite the town being so close to Africa. There are lots of every generation of Seat Ibiza, as well as Toledos as private cars  – not taxis – a rarity in every other Spanish town we visited. Skoda is also popular here.

sevilla-picture-by-hector-cardonaPlaza de España, Seville (click to enlarge). Picture Héctor Cardona

Seville is our last stop before heading back to Barcelona, then Paris. Gretchen struggled a bit in the criss-crossing narrow streets of its old centre, and as it was the case in Granada, underground parking takes a particularity agile skill set. These Spanish towns are best visited by foot, and Seville showed its majestic beauty under a scorchingly hot sun. The highlight for me: by a large margin Plaza de España, hugged by buildings with a unique colourset made of red brick and blue tiles. Nowhere else in the world have I seen this architectural mix before, and it makes this Plaza all the more unique. There is so much beauty concentrated in one place that it become dizzying. Or perhaps it was the heat.

renault-zoe-sevillaEco-friendly taxis in Seville gretchen-barcelonaGretchen catching her breath in Barcelona, before the 1.100 km ride to Paris.

I wish I could have lingered for another week and had time to check out such iconic cities as Cordoba or Valencia, but the Mercedes C-Class Coupe loan was for one week. Not that I am complaining! Having been able to explore so many fantastically beautiful sites in so little time has been a blast, and made possible by the zippiness of Gretchen, always up for a quick drive to the next town despite her reluctant and slow-to-start GPS. More on this in the review below.

french-borderLast border crossing of this European North to South adventure…  gretchen-review-1050 hours of driving and 4.553 km later, Gretchen and I are back in Paris.

The last stretch of the trip takes two full days and an almost round 2.000 km (2.031 to be exact), that’s the distance between Seville and Paris via Barcelona where I drop my co-test driver Héctor. I pushed Gretchen to high speeds on the highway but, again, she didn’t seem to notice, with no discernible change in her behaviour from 100 to 170 km/h. Arriving in Paris one minutes before my cutoff time (phew!) after a well-deserved grooming for the Coupe, the odo indicates 4.553 km (2.829 miles) and just under 50h of driving. Average fuel consumption stands at a very respectable 6.1 l/100km or 38.6 mpg for an average speed of 91 km/h or 57 mph. It’s now time to tell you what I think about Gretchen…

gretchen-review-7This is how all seats should be adjusted. gretchen-review-1Gretchen’s gearbox.

gretchen-yes

– Interior comfort is definitely Gretchen’s best asset in my opinion. Driving feels like you are sitting in a comfortable sofa at home watching TV. The seats are electronically adjustable in the way it should have been all along (see picture above). More intuitive is impossible.

– All buttons transpire luxury and sportiness in the cockpit, the touch is smooth and robust. It all works perfectly.

– Automatically adjusting seat belts create a deep feeling of security as soon as you sit down.

– Gearbox is placed where you’d normally have your indicators. After some adaptation, this quickly becomes very intuitive. Unless you drive this as a second or third car.

– Exterior looks are undeniably sexy, racy and Gretchen knows it. You will get noticed holding her by the hand. People will wow, admire, stare and some will even dare to ask about her. I’m still talking about the Mercedes.

– Road performances are solid, responsive and reliable, albeit there’s a lack of je ne sais quoi, a bit of spice, a hunger that I could never find.

gretchen-review-2Mercedes: what’s with the fragile screen on the dashboard?

gretchen-no

– This has become my pet hate in all Mercedes, but: what’s with the awkwardly positioned touch screen? It looks like it’s constantly about to break off the dashboard. Perhaps more annoyingly: it’s not a touch screen! Commands are way down in between the two seats, meaning dangerous long time spend coordinating your eyes with your hands as you monitor it. And the screen navigation between GPS, music and other items is convoluted, making you come back to a main menu each time. In other words, it’s close to impossible to use the screen while driving. While this may have been on purpose and for security objectives, it defeats the very objective of having a screen on board. Mercedes: please fix.

– This is not a practical car, it’s a frivolous one. Granted, it was never meant to be, but driving long distances every day for 8 days makes this even more glaring. There is no space for sunglasses, coffees or water bottles near the front seats, the USB cable doesn’t fit properly, etc. For over 60.000 € I was frankly expecting a lot more effort to make this ride an utterly pleasurable one. Think of it this way: this is a car you buy when you already have three, to take over the weekend and drive to your beach residence. Not to drive from Paris to Cadiz and back. So there. But still.

– Other gremlins include the GPS taking ages to get on with it: you practically have time to cross an entire mid-sized city for it to realise what you are doing. Also: all alert sounds are rather aggressive compared to the Volvo XC90 I drove in Sweden. Oops, I promised I wouldn’t make any comparisons…Too late.

– – – – –

This concludes our European North to South Series, I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Stay tuned for another adventure, this time back at home in Australia…

From North Cape to Gibraltar – Part 7: Ronda, Gibraltar and Tarifa

gretchen-ronda-8Gretchen in Ronda 

This is Part 7 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series. Check out the previous iterations here: Part 1: Stockholm and Central SwedenPart 2: Kustvägen to FinlandPart 3: The journey to North CapePart 4: To the Russian borderPart 5: Driving through Lapland, Finland and Part 6: Paris to Granada, Andalusia.

When I planned this trip, I was pretty sure Gibraltar was the southernmost point you can reach in continental Europe. Turns out it isn’t – as it was the case with North Cape which isn’t exactly the northernmost point. In fact, this title goes to Tarifa, which is actually – and fascinatingly – located south of two African capital cities: Tunis and Algiers (see map below). At BSCB we love linking extremes, so we couldn’t deprive Gretchen our Mercedes C-Class Coupe from the pleasure of reaching the actual northernmost point in continental Europe. We will therefore not end this adventure just yet in Gibraltar, instead we will continue on to Tarifa, then Cadiz, then Sevilla.

tarifa-algiers-tunisTarifa Southern location vs. Algiers and Tunisgranada-tarifaThe itinerary for Part 7 of our European series (Click to enlarge).1982-seat-ronda1982 Seat Ronda

Leaving Granada, our first stop is Ronda, but not before testing the Mercedes C-Class Coupe in the winding countryside roads. As expected, Mercedes does not disappoint. The car sticks to the road, the weight is where it’s supposed to be, everything is in place but there is no grain of folly, no rebelliousness. Gretchen sure does look sexy, but she’s a bit uptight. We need more highways to unleash her potential. Reading this paragraph some of you (of a certain age like me) would have been rattling your brain about this Ronda name. Wasn’t it the name of a car? Yes it was, albeit a forgettable one. Seat called the Ronda a Fiat Ritmo rebadge on sale from 1982 to 1989 – see illustration above.

ronda-1
ronda-4Ronda

Gretchen (or rather, her GPS) was desperately trying to smooth us into driving to Málaga… (“What’s that Ronda town you want to get me to? she said. “Let’s go to the beach! Let’s swim, let’s enjoy the end of summer!” – it was end September when we endeavoured this trip) – Not today Gretchen, not today. We have milestones to hit. Turns out Gretchen’s GPS has a mind of its own sometimes. Ronda is located 100km west of said Málaga and houses 35,000 souls, much more in the heat of summer but now that school had started again, the crowds had gone. The town of Ronda is simply spectacular. It sits on top of a canyon, towering over 120m (390 ft)-high cliffs and overlooking the El Tajo gorge. The views from one side of the canyon to the other are stunning, as well as those giving onto the surrounding countryside but most impressive is the town seen from below down the gorge, as pictured in the opening photo of this article. The town itself has a quaint, relaxed and friendly demeanour that is starting to become the emblem of southern Spain to us.

gretchen-ronda-5Gretchen posing in front of the Hotel El Horcajo near Ronda.

ronda-3Puente Nuevo in Ronda

One of the most spectacular features of Ronda is its largest bridge, the Puente Nuevo, translated as New Bridge, even though it has been in place since 1793 after 42 years of hard labour that cost the life of no less than fifty workers. You will notice on the picture above a single window right above the central arch. There is actually a chamber there, and it was used as a prison, notably during the 1936-1939 civil war. The uniqueness of Ronda’s situation and its very peculiar character attracted American artists such as Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. According to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “Nothing is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city.” It does indeed have a startling effect as well as a savage touch.

gretchen-ronda-2

land-rover-defender-rondaLand Rover Defender in Ronda

As you can see Gretchen is particularly enjoying posing near the Hotel El Horcajo, a few km away from Ronda. This is an authentic, emblematic, traditional Spanish farm restored into a hotel, complete with white-washed walls, low-rise buildings and sparkling orange tiles with fierce vegetation surrounding it. Unashamedly rustic and rough around the edges, it’s the true Spain that you see in the tourist guides, albeit a little overpriced. Be prepared for no internet connection (shock! horror!) but a true break from it all. The cars in Ronda? More robust, more strained and more proud than where I’ve been to in Spain so far, such as the many Land Rovers in town.

gretchen-gibraltar-1

gretchen-gibraltar-2

gretchen-gibraltar-5Gretchen in Gibraltar

Time for a change of scenery as we are now headed to Gibraltar, the famous British Overseas Territory. And what a change it is. If Ronda represents the symbolic Spain that everyone is yearning for, Gibraltar is (according to the Lonely Planet, particularly on point with this description) a town full of “creaky seaside hotels with 1970s furnishings”. Gibraltar is like a concrete attack on the beautiful rock it is sitting on. Despite being unattractive, it plays hard to get: its border is the most guarded one between to European Union countries (soon to be a non-EU border). Passports are required to cross, something that I haven’t experienced elsewhere in Europe in decades. The name Gibraltar is a Spanish adaptation of the Arabic Jabal Ṭāriq (جبل طارق), meaning the mountain of Tariq. Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim governor of Tangier, landed at Gibraltar in 711 to launch the Islamic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.

gibraltar-airport-2

gibraltar-airport-1The road crosses the Gibraltar Airport runway.

This very unique situation of a UK enclave of just 6.7 km2 (2.6 sq mi) at the (almost) southernmost point in Spain and only a few km away from Africa has given birth to a lot of fun facts I couldn’t resist listing…

– Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, which means “the Rock” (its nickname) has been British longer than the United States has been American.

– Spain has been relatively consistently claiming sovereignty over Gibraltar ever since it ceded it to Britain over 300 years ago.

– In a sovereignty referendum in 1967, Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly to remain under British rule, resulting in Spain closing the border with Gibraltar and severing all communication links.

– The border remained closed for 15 years and was only partially reopened in 1982, then fully in 1985.

– Air links with Spain were reestablished only 10 years ago in December 2006.

– True to its British sovereignty, there are regular flights to the mainland (London, Birmingham and Manchester) but flights to other countries including Spain and Morocco were abandoned for lack of passengers.

– There is a ferry link with Tangier in Morocco, and the ferry to Algeciras in Spain was reopened in December 2006.

– Gibraltar did not vote for a Brexit in June 2016: 95.9% voted to remain in the European Union and only 4.1% to leave.

– The currency of Gibraltar is the Gibraltar pound: Coins in circulation follow British denominations but have separate designs. But in practice everyone accepts euros in Gibraltar.

– Gibraltar airport intersects Winston Churchill Avenue, the main north-south street, requiring movable barricades to close when aircraft land or depart (see pictures above).

– There are no rivers, streams, or large bodies of water on The Rock. As such, Gibraltar’s water supply comes entirely from desalination, and is delivered from huge underground reservoirs excavated under the actual Rock. Just like a James Bond movie…

land-rover-defender-pu-gibraltar

fiat-campervan-gibraltar

ford-ecosport-gibraltar

gibraltar-license-plate-detail

nissan-qashqai-gibraltar

ssangyong-tivoli-gibraltarGibraltar car landscape

Situated at the very tip of Spain, I had assumed that the car landscape in Gibraltar wouldn’t bother conforming itself with the UK one, so far and with such a convoluted access to the mainland. Wrong again. Driving into Gibraltar is like crossing Europe to reach the UK in a matter of minutes. Even though – to keep consistency with the Spanish mainland – all cars drive on the right, the most successful models are a replica of the UK sales charts: Ford Fiesta, Focus, Nissan Qashqai: they’re all here. Oldies include the famed Land Rover, a presence that is a lot more logical here than in Ronda. Gibraltarians are in a hurry and experts road rage: it’s really just like an express flight to London. Gretchen had enough, and we did too. Time to get back to Spain.

arabic-signOn the way to Tarifa: signs in Arabic scriptdacia-sandero-tarifaDacia Sandero in Tarifa’s Old Town – the aptly named Plazuela del Viento…

But Tarifa, our next stop, is not really Spain anymore. It was given its name after the attack of Tarif ibn Malik in 710, that’s a year before Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Gibraltar, gave it its name and went on to invade the entire Iberian Peninsula. This is it: located at exactly 36 degrees latitude, Tarifa is the southernmost point of Continental Europe, even situated south of Tunis and Algiers. And there is a definite African flavour in town, with one of its main features being a ferry port for Tangier (40 minutes) and Ceuta (1 hour) complete with Moroccan-plated cars waiting to return home, and numerous signposts in Arabic script. Strong Atlantic winds means the climate is not as scorchingly hot as the rest of Andalusia in summer, but it also gives the town a different personality.

renault-kadjar-tarifa

1973-international-pickup-tarifaThe cars of Tarifa

Tarifa is an appetiser for Morocco, a road trip BSCB might try and attempt in the near future with a Dacia, the most popular carmaker there. In fact, Dacias are – logically – more common in Tarifa than in the Spanish cities we’ve visited so far. Tiny, with no beach front, the walled old town is a remnant of an epoch long gone, with its fortress and tiny pedestrian streets lined with white-washed houses. We are still in Spain, but this could easily be Chefchaouen or Essaouira and you can, in fact, clearly see the African coast from the town’s dominant point in Castillo de Guzman. I couldn’t end this Report without a fun fact on Tarifa: the town is sometimes credited with being the origin of the word “tariff” (your computer will even try and autocorrect it!). Why? Simply because the town invented the concept. Tarifa was indeed the first port in history to charge merchants for the use of its docks…

Our next and final stops are Cadiz and Seville, with a review of Gretchen. Stay tuned!

From North Cape to Gibraltar – Part 6: Paris to Granada, Andalusia

granada-alhambra-4Palacio del Partal in Alhambra, Granada.

This is Part 6 of our North Cape to Gibraltar series. We have now completed the Scandinavian section of this adventure, and you can check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central SwedenPart 2: Kustvägen to FinlandPart 3: The journey to North CapePart 4: To the Russian border and Part 5: Driving through Lapland, Finland. For this section of the trip, we “cheat” a little and take the plane from Stockholm to Paris. This way we can take possession of our Mercedes C-Class coupe and drive off to Spain aiming for Granada in Andalusia, with a first stop in Barcelona, some 1.040 km south. The C-Class coupe, along with the convertible both launched in the first half of 2016 two years after the new generation sedan and station wagon, have been instrumental in giving C-Class sales a second wind in most major European markets. In Italy, C-Class sales are up 4%, they are up 9% in the UK and post double-digit gains both in France (+13%) and Spain (+11%), particularly strong results that influenced the itinerary of this trip. I do want to test drive the C-Class in regions where it has strong momentum indeed.

gretchen-1Our Mercedes C220d Coupe for the week.

I have to admit the allure of the car is so damn sexy. Its silhouette is racy, aggressive and polished, looking like a true sportscar and not the poor attempt at a coupe version that Mercedes tried to impose on us with the previous generation of the nameplate. The model I will be driving is a C220d Coupé priced at 66.050€ including a variety of optional equipment such as diamond white paint, 9-speed auto, memory electric seats, driver assist pack, 360 degree cameras and 3D-Surround Burmeister sound. We are a notch above the 61.400€ invoice for the Volvo XC90 we just drove to North Cape, despite a slightly lesser level of sophistication. One excellent detail from the start: as you put your seatbelt on, it automatically adjusts to perfectly fit your body. It skids down from there unfortunately and my immediate impressions aren’t positive: the central console screen isn’t actually a touch screen and needs to be controlled by a rotary shift coupled with unintuitive left and right click functions all the way down between the two front seats. This has the very unsafe consequence of forcing you to look both at the screen and the rotary shift while driving, actually looking at the road becomes an expensive add-on.

gretchen-interiorDisappointing: the touch screen isn’t one. 

All sound alerts, piano-like in the Volvo, are more aggressive in the Mercedes, bordering on annoying. Hopefully, these impressions won’t last for too long and the Mercedes will wow me when in motion. But first we need a name for it. We already had 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 Hawaii earlier this year, Damo the Haval H8 in our Australian Outback adventure, Esmeralda the Sardinian Fiat Panda and Fyr-Björn our Nordkapp Volvo XC90. This Mercedes needs a female name starting in G, as this is a passenger car. In French, my native language, a car is feminine and a truck is masculine, and therein lies the rationale behind all our name choices at BSCB. Being from German origin, the C Coupe’s name imposed itself relatively evidently: Gretchen (think Gretchen Mol). We’re ready to go, Gretchen.

a86-ouest-tunnel-paris-picture-courtesy-see-beThe A86 Ouest Duplex tunnel in Paris. Picture see.be

Not quite ready yet as it turns out. In order to avoid constantly changing currencies when I travelled to Sweden and Norway (both outside the Euro zone), I became pretty much cash-less and operated on card only over the past week. France seems to have difficulties catching up with the present though: the very first highway toll can’t be paid with my Australian Mastercard whereas all tolls in Scandinavia were automatically and painlessly deducted from Volvo’s press budget. This means I have to be evacuated from the highway! On paper a simple manoeuvre but with staff completely uninterested in actually opening the proper gates to make this happen, it took a few repeated requests to get out. All this with the purpose of finding an ATM in the nearest town, withdrawing cash and coming back: 45 minutes lost. It was worth it though, because Gretchen had directed me to the A86 Ouest Duplex tunnel. Opened in 2011, this tunnel has a double deck configuration allowing 2 x 2 lanes on two separate levels while only requiring one bore. At 10 km long, this is the longest road tunnel entirely located in France (longer ones cross borders). Its striking feature is its very low ceiling at 2.55m in order to fit two levels, with circulation prohibited for vehicles over 2 metres high as well as motorbikes, as a driver standing on the footrests would breach the height limitation. It is the first piece of French road infrastructure that is prohibited for motorbikes. We’re now – finally – out of Paris.

paris-granadaGretchen has already clocked up 1.900km in two days.

Driving through France – unlike eating cheese and drinking wine – cannot be done with excess: highways are infested with speed cameras keeping you on your toes and, incidentally, drastically reducing the death toll on French roads over the past decade. A very good thing indeed. It’s almost midnight when I cross the border to Spain and there is heavy police presence on the French side. Despite making all imaginable efforts not to attract any of the police officers’ attention (I may even have whistled a little bit), I get stopped. It’s within the realm of possibles that I may have broken the speed limit ever so slightly over the past couple of hours… “Where are you going?” To Barcelona. “From where?” Paris. [a pretty extraordinary car trip by European standards now that a plethora of budget airlines can get you there in an hour and for a fraction of the cost] But he’s not batting an eyelid. “Is this your car?” Nope, it’s a loan from Mercedes. I’m getting ready to step out of the car with hands on my head and have to explain the test drive configuration, showing contracts, etc. Instead: “They must love you!” I’m sorry? “Mercedes must love you! To loan you a car like this! Wow! Enjoy the trip!” Just like that. Well yes actually, I believe Mercedes loves Best Selling Cars Blog. Why wouldn’t they?

barcelona-gruaA nasty surprise the morning after my arrival in Barcelona…

I arrive in Barcelona past 1 am and to my great surprise there is a heart-warmingly free parking spot right opposite the front door of my accommodation. I can even make eye contact with Gretchen from the balcony of the bedroom. In the morning though, Gretchen isn’t parked here anymore. I actually rub my eyes and open them again like in the movies as I can’t process this nightmarish vision. But no. Gretchen has gone. Instead, an orange sticker lies on the floor indicating she was taken by a tow truck as it is prohibited to park there after 8am… A 160 € online payment later and I am back at the wheels of the Mercedes again. After this minor hiccup, we are back on schedule for Day 2: on our way to Granada. This time my friend Héctor is coming along as potential relief test driver – just in case 9.000 km in less than two weeks prove just a tad too much – but also for a second opinion on the car and to prevent me from veering off too easily into a Volvo-Mercedes comparison after one week spent driving Björn to North Cape and back.

toroOne of the many iconic toros de Osbourne we encountered through southern Spain. 

You haven’t fully visited Spain until you’ve seen one of the iconic Osborne bulls (Toros de Osborne) on the side of the highway. These 14-metre high black silhouetted images have become one of the most recognised symbols of this country and are even embedded in the Spanish flag like a coat of arms in sporting events. Where are all these toros coming from? They were in fact billboards by the Osborne sherry company to advertise their Brandy de Jerez. They were headed towards deletion when a 1994 European Union law prohibited all roadside alcoholic advertising, but public attachment was so strong it was decided the bulls would stay as long as they were unbranded. However, their iconic national significance also means the toros have disappeared in regions with strong independentist movements such as Catalonia.

granada-1

granada-alhambra-5-hector-cardonaThe view on Granada’s old town from the Alhambra. Picture Héctor Cardona

The 860km drive gets us from a Mediterranean landscape progressively into a desert environment. Palm trees slowly appear but surely take over, the houses get more white-washed, the grass disappears to give way to earth and rocks. In effect we are transitioning from continental Europe to Africa and it is happening right before our eyes. Speed limits are only rarely enforced in Spain so we may or may not have pushed Gretchen to 160 km/h, but she didn’t seem to notice at all. A relatively new launch, she does get lots of curious and appreciative looks pretty much everywhere we stop – not just by French police officers – and I’m pretty sure quite a few sneaky mobile phone pictures were taken when we weren’t watching. We can definitely sense the envy the car is generating, arguably something the Volvo XC90 did not exude in the least. We’ve checked: Mercedes is sexy in Spain.

granada-alhambra-2

granada-alhambra-3Granada – Alhambra details

Parking in the old town of Granada is – as expected – a nightmare with the spots in car park buildings so cramped they require many ingenious twists and turns to slot in. Gretchen’s rear-view camera is of immense help in the sweat-inducing sport of parking a car in Granada. The desert surroundings, the fierce allure of the population and the mix of Arabic and Iberian architecture give Granada an other-worldly atmosphere. Indeed, deriving its name from Garnata al Jahud, the hill on which the Alhambra is built, the town was the last stronghold of the Moors in Western Europe and a Muslim emirate from 711 to 1492. Its Alhambra, from the Arabic al-qala’a al-hamra (the Red Castle), is the pinnacle of intricately detailed Moorish architecture complete with palaces, fortified towers, patios, fountains and endless gardens. Despite the hordes of tourists, it’s the little details such as the ones pictured above that naturally lead the imagination to capture the sounds, scents and tensions of a time long gone. Granada locals declare “El que no ha visto Graná, no ha visto ná.” (who hasn’t seen Granada, has seen nothing). And it’s fair to say that for once, local pride hugs reality.

dacia-logan-mcv-granada
renault-twizy-granada

toyota-hilux-granada Dacia Logan MCV Taxi, Renault Twizy and Toyota Hilux in Granada

What about the cars in Granada? There are not many able to navigate the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, but among them I was very surprised to see a continuous flow of Dacia Logan MCV taxis. Why so much surprise you may ask? Simply because Dacia as a company has a “no fleet” policy as their retail prices are already incredibly restrained. It would appear that some Granada taxi companies still saw the benefit in buying fleets of Logan MCV over another model, even bulk-priced – the Seat Toledo is another popular taxi choice here. As it was already the case in Park Güell, Barcelona when I visited two years ago, the diminutive and electric Renault Twizy is used by the Red Cross inside the Alhambra.

This concludes the first part of the Spanish section of this European North to South adventure. Next, we drive to the cliff-hanging village of Ronda on our way to Gibraltar. But as the misleading title of this series doesn’t reveal, we will then drive even further south to Tarifa, then Cadiz, then Seville. Stay tuned!

gretchen-2

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.

grense-jakobselv-stockholm-map

welcome-to-finland

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.

inarijarvi-4

inarijarvi-3

inarijarvi-2
work-is-for-people-who-dont-fish

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).

sami-museum-1

sami-flag

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.

reindeer-herds-on-road

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.

bjorn-santa-claus-village

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!

toyota-auris-lapland-2

toyota-auris-lapland-1

toyota-proace-lapland

kia-ceed-lapland

honda-civic-tourer-finland

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.

swedish-border

bjorn-hoga-kustenbron

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.

bjorn-great

  • 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.

bjorn-improve

  • 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.
bjorn-northern-norway-1

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.

northern-norway-1

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.

bjorn-hagglunds-bandvagn-2016-norway-2016

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.

russian-border-point-3

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.

grense-jakobselv-1

grense-jakobselv-2

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

peugeot-expert-vestre-jakobselv

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.

reindeer-sign

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

bjorn-nordkapp-5

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.

nordkapp-road

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.

This content is for members only.
Log In Register

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…

From North Cape to Gibraltar – Part 1: Stockholm and Central Sweden

bjorn-tallberg-2BSCB is off to Sweden! 

At BSCB we love linking extremes. After going from New York to Los Angeles via the legendary Route 66 in a Ram 1500 in 2014 and linking Northern Alaska to the Mexican border in a Ram 2500 in 2015 (helped by a boat and a few planes), we now move over to Europe.

europe-map-north-cape-gibraltarFrom one European extreme to the other…

This year we will be linking North Cape, the northernmost point in continental Europe, to Gibraltar, its southernmost point. Our itinerary won’t be conventional as we will start from Stockholm and head north to North Cape before tracing back south all the way to Gibraltar with the help of one flight. To help us with this task we’ll have two cars relay each other: first a Volvo XC90, then a Mercedes C-Class Coupe. The start of this trip is in Stockholm where we take delivery of our XC90…

stockholm-1First stop: Stockholm.

After four days spent in out-of-control rip-off kingdom Malta, the sudden surge of surrounding honesty and fairness is heart-warming. Yes, things are working the way they are supposed to in Sweden, and most of the time that means fast and efficiently. There is a Volvo V70 taxi exhibited inside the arrival hall at Arlanda Airport with the city centre fare displayed in large figures on the windscreen. Why isn’t every airport like this? The Arlanda Express train swallows the 45km separating the airport to the town centre in a mere 15 mins and I manage to fit a couple of hours walking on the cobblestone streets of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town. I’m now in Swedish mode: relaxed, quiet and smiling. I’m ready to drive.

stockholm-2Souvenir shop in Gamla Stan, Stockholm. It’s Dalahäst galore!

The Swedish new car market is currently undergoing a once-in-two-decades transformation. After 19 consecutive years of Volvo V70 domination, the Swedish manufacturer has decided to discontinue the nameplate and replace it with a more sophisticated – and expensive – V90. Will the Swedish consumer follow and upgrade their V70 to a V90, or will they switch to Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes or BMW? The first signs are the latter is happening, with Volvo combining V70, S90 and V90 sales in a attempt to hold onto the models pole position. Instead, the VW Golf has now been the best-selling nameplate in Sweden for four consecutive months at end-October. Not to worry though, Volvo remains by far the most popular brand at home, helped by renewed interest towards the smaller V60 – the best-selling model in Stockholm based on my observations – and record sales by the XC60 despite a renewal scheduled for 2017.

upplands-motor-stockholmSollentuna Upplands Motor: this is where it all started.

To try and gage interest in the new model across the country, I had planned to drive the V90. However at the time (third week of September), all V90 pressers were monopolised by the Swedish media. Instead, we will attempt to reach Nordkapp (Norwegian for Cape North) in a XC90 SUV, the brand’s flagship. Not that I’m complaining! We have a XC90 D4 Inscription priced at 600.000 skr (US$65.000 or 61.400€), loaned by the Sollentuna Uppland Motor dealership. To my surprise, this Volvo dealership is shared with Renault (and Dacia), in a setup that I will see replicated across the entire country, sometimes with Ford added into the mix. Jonas hands the key to the XC90, explains a few things like the almost-hidden button to open the glovebox and I give full thumbs up to the centre console pinch to zoom touch-screen working exactly like an iPad. I’m already impressed.

bjorn-dala-horse-avestaBjörn posing near the world’s largest Dalahäst in Avesta.

After Esmeralda the Sardinian Fiat Panda, we now need to baptise our Volvo XC90. With a male name as this is an SUV, therefore a truck which has a masculine gender in my native tongue, French. I never can’t quite get myself to call trucks with female names… Looking up typical Swedish male names serves me with rather uninspiring fares such as Fyr (most sincere apologies to all the Fyrs in the BSCB readership). I know what you’re all thinking, we all want to call this Volvo Björn, don’t we? Ok. Just this time I will make an exception: Fyr can have a middle name also. Please give a warm welcome to Fyr – Björn, we’re about to see a lot of your country together, and beyond…

stockholm-gnarp-with-reference-mapDay 1 takes us from Stockholm to Gnarp

We get out of the Volvo dealership with 6.035 km on Björn’s odometer – a figure that’s about to surge over the next week. Our first destination is the idyllic Siljan Lake, the picture-perfect region of everything quintessentially Swedish. Stepping out of Stockholm, I instantly realise this trip won’t be a fast one. Speed limits even in rural areas are almost uniformly 80km/h, 60 or 50km/h when traversing towns, and speed radars every km or so are here to ensure you stick to the rules. That’s the other side of the Swedish medal: for everything to work efficiently, everyone has to abide by the rules.

bjorn-leksand In Leksand

These first few km are also the opportunity to test Volvo’s line-assist system, and the very first time the car corrects your direction feels like driving in a slight rut: you can sense the car redressing gently towards the centre of the road. A slightly creepy feeling at first, that promptly transforms into a smart aid. More on this in the next iterations of this Series. A mere 140km into our day, we enter the Dalarna region for a mandatory selfie stop of Björn in front of the world’s largest Dala Horse (aka Dalahäst) in Avesta. Absolutely stunning and iconic to Sweden, these carved wooden horses painted in bright colours and decorated with folk-art flowers go back centuries ago, and (normally) range from 3 to 50cm high.

bjorn-tallbergIn Tällberg 

Lake Siljan was formed 360 million years ago by Europe’s largest meteor impact, whose force was equivalent to 500 million atomic bombs. How times have changed: today, the lake is impossibly quiet, with small, quaint and picturesque villages spreading along its shores. Tällberg in particular, population 200, got my vote with its sprinkle gingerbread-like houses over green pastures, most of them painted with the traditional Falu Red colour typical of the region.

rattvikOn Scandinavia’s longest wooden pier in Rättvik.

This is Sweden’s heartland, and the place most Swedes want to come to on holiday for Summer. Lucky us! Rättvik boasts Scandinavia’s longest wooden pier: the 628m Långbryggan stretching into a mirror-like Lake Siljan, however, memories from my previous (and only) trip to Sweden as a teenager conjure images of tiny, sleepy harbours along the Baltic Sea. One of the aims of this trip is to recapture that pure, serene feeling. Time to drive to the sea…

hudiksvallHudiksvall’s Möljenbjorn-hudiksvallBjörn admiring the sunset in quiet Hudiksvall. 

For this we must first cross east through endless forests on a two-lane road filled with slow trucks and cross a multitude of small villages that force our speed down. Never mind, the scenery is so calming and inspiring that it’s all forgiven, Sweden. Although way too big for my liking (pop. 15.015), Hudiksvall has a harbour that ticks more than a few boxes: its red wooden fishermen’s storehouses (Möljen) date back to the early 19th century and ignite in a burst of flaming red at sunset. We set camp further north in Gnarp after a 653 km journey, enough to get a very good first impression of the Swedish countryside car landscape. Hudiksvall is where I saw the very first V90 “in its element” (meaning outside of a Volvo dealership) of this trip – there was none in Stockholm surprisingly. A few more observations follow below.

station-wagons-rattvikIt’s a kombi’s world! 

First things first and it’s impossible to step away from this observation: the roads of Sweden are saturated with station wagons – Kombis in Swedish. This shouldn’t really be a surprise when the Volvo V70 – itself only available as a wagon – has been the best-seller here for 19 consecutive years while the V60 – also a wagon only – has ranked inside the Top five best-sellers ever since its launch in 2010. Yet local association Bil Sweden doesn’t provide any kombi sales splits for nameplates that are available in both sedan and kombi variants (we are currently in touch with them to try and extract this detail for you). And this trend isn’t recent: a quick survey of 300 passenger cars on the highway today gave a smashing 52% station wagon ratio.

vw-passat-alltrack-loruddenThe VW Passat may already be the overall best-selling nameplate in countryside Sweden.

Driving through Sweden confirms that most best-selling nameplates here are high in the sales charts mainly thanks to strong kombi sales. One kombi in particular stands out from the crowd head and shoulders: the VW Passat Alltrack 4WD variant. It’s a constant flow of the new generation of the model crisscrossing the country, by far the most frequent nameplate I’ve encountered on this part of the trip. Numerous VW Golf Variant are also to be spotted, including the all-new Alltrack model, already well spread despite being on sale for just a few months when I visited. This variant is the key to the Golf’s overall domination of the Swedish charts for the past four months. Let’s also single out the Toyota Auris (#7 so far in 2016), Kia Cee’d (#8), Skoda Octavia (#10), Audi A4 (#11), A6 (#12), BMW 5 Series (#14), 3 Series (#17), Mercedes E-Class (#22), Opel Astra (#24) and Peugeot 308 (#28), all almost exclusively sold as kombis.

ram-1500-hudiksvallRam 1500 in Hudiksvall

The Swedish countryside also reserves a few surprises: in the same way they were also popular in another nordic country – Iceland – full-size American pickup trucks aren’t rare here, led by the Ram 1500, Toyota Tundra and Ford F-Series. Sold as Light Commercial Vehicles, they had escaped the scrutiny of BSCB’s sales charts so far.

volvo-144-1972-rattvik1972 Volvo 144 in Rättvik

Finally, if you were hoping the Swedish countryside would be a goldmine of vintage Volvos and Saabs in pristine condition in the same vein as what we just saw in Malta, prepare to be bitterly disappointed. Old vehicles are very rare even in remote countryside and rural areas, although I did manage to snap the above Volvo 144, still valiant at almost 45 years of age…

Next we drive further north on the stunning Kustvägen Bothnian Coast road to reach Finland. Stay tuned!

Search