Photo Report: Driving through Western Ireland and the Connemara

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

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

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

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

2 x Hyundai Tucson in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017

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

Nissan Qashqai in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017

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

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

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

VW Golf in Roundstone, Ireland – August 2017 

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

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

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

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

Toyota C-HR in Clifden, Ireland – August 2017

Nissan Micra in Ireland – August 2017  

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

Toyota Avensis on Inishmore, Aran Islands – August 2017 

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

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

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

Toyota Hilux on K’Gari Fraser Island

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

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

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

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

Access to the barge to Fraser Island (Inskip Point)

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

Maxtrax recovery tracks

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

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

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

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

Dingos on Fraser Island

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

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

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

Air Fraser Island plane. Picture wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

A happy crew!

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

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

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

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

Fuel consumption is correct given the size of the vehicle

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

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

It’s good bye for now Joey!

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

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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.

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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.

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– 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?

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– 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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fiat-campervan-gibraltar

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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inarijarvi-1The shores of Inariyärvi

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

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sami-shoesSiida Sámi culture museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bjorn-russian-borderBjörn at the Russian border.

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

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

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

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northern-norway-2The road to Vadso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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grense-jakobselv-gps-locationGrense Jakobselv

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

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

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

Vadsø district – 1/1-18/9/16:

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

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

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

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

Kirkenes district – 1/1-18/9/16:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bjorn-nordkapp-1Spectacular sunset over North Cape.

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

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

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

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

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

norwegian-frontierBjörn is now setting its wheels into Norway.

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

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

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

Alta district – 1/1-18/9/16:

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

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

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

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

Hammerfest district – 1/1-18/9/16:

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

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

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nordkapp-road-detailNordkapp arrival detail 

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

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nordkapp

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

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

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

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

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

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

More photos below.

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