Beautiful. That’s what Norway is. This sparsely populated country features vast expanses of breathtaking landscape that are untouched by man, and its northern coastline, hugged by the navy blue water of the Barents Sea, bears witness to colourful Arctic sunrises and vivid displays of the aurora borealis.
No surprise, then, that a section of land to the north of Norway’s mainland, appropriately named Nordkapp (North Cape), is a popular tourist destination, and, pleasingly for us, also marks the end of one of Europe’s most picturesque driving roads, the E69. Is there a better reason to drive 490 miles into the Arctic Circle than this?
Perhaps I should have given the idea a little more thought. Bears, wolves, dense snowfalls and plummeting temperatures are just four of the life-threatening obstacles Autocar snapper Luc Lacey and I could face on our voyage from our starting point in Luleå, Sweden, to Norway’s northern tip.
You might think such a journey would require a rugged, focused, hardcore off-roader, but instead Mazda has provided us with its little CX-3 crossover, boldly claiming that the compact SUV is more than up to the job. All of my pre-trip research suggests most of Scandinavia’s wildlife and weather will either try to eat or freeze me, so you’ll hopefully forgive the fact that I’m a little apprehensive as we head north behind the wheel of a vehicle that, let’s face it, falls into a category of cars generally more concerned with the weekly shop than escaping from packs of wolves.
Maybe I’m wrong to doubt it. Before we set off on our journey, Mazda’s people explained how the CX-3’s four-wheel drive system was more advanced than conventional electronically controlled drivelines. It makes use of a pool of data, they said, not just information from the wheels themselves. The system’s brain examines air temperatures via the car’s external thermometer, rainfall via the automatic wipers and gradient via more sensors, and then continuously alters the amount of torque being sent to each wheel, accounting for steering angle, throttle application and brake pressure. The results, so Mazda says, are seamlessly optimised levels of grip and traction.
That’s all well and good, but I’ve seen in the movies what a bear can do to a car and I don’t fancy facing one in a Ford Fiesta-sized crossover. At least we’ve got a set of proper studded snow tyres and, more important, an emergency supply of sandwiches.
Setting off at 6am, we head due north along the dual carriageway that leads out of Luleå. I’m thankful that the snowploughs have cleared the roads of thick powder, so there’s only a thin layer of compacted snow to contend with. Although we’re driving in conditions that would cripple the UK motorway network in seconds, for the first 100 miles or so the CX-3 feels perfectly comfortable cruising at 70mph. I take the time to assess what’s beneath us.
Despite its raised ride height, the car feels no bigger than a hatchback, and in these early miles it drives like one, too. I love the manual gearbox, which has short, direct throws, and the steering is satisfyingly alert, if lacking in feel. I put the system to good use on multiple occasions, as we’re blown sideways towards the 3ft-high snowbanks when lorries fly by in the other direction at seemingly unbelievable speed, clouds of snow blasting out behind them. Since our car is a UK-registered right-hooker, I’m safe on the opposite side of the cabin. Luc doesn’t look so happy.
Our car is fitted with a 103bhp 1.5-litre Skyactiv diesel engine, which is claimed to be good for 70.6mpg combined. In all honesty, fuel economy is largely irrelevant here, because the slippery, cold conditions mean the car is running in four-wheel drive mode permanently, but it’s still impressive to note that we’re averaging about 47mpg, according to the trip computer. It’s not particularly powerful, but work the engine’s mid-range and there’s enough grunt to make overtaking easy enough – if only the lorry drivers would play ball.
Luc enjoys several more near misses – these Scandinavian lorry drivers clearly know no fear – before we pass a sign that marks the Arctic Circle. By this point I’ve almost completely forgotten about the threat of bloodthirsty wildlife, but I’m a little disappointed by the roads. Luc suggests we power on towards Finland, where things are supposed to get more interesting. I drop a gear and begin to drive like a local.At Swedish lorry driver pace, the Finnish border comes up quickly, so at 10am we cross over onto the E8 near Kolarinsaari to enter Lapland. For the first hour after this, the landscape barely changes, but gradually flat forests give way to open fields and flowing hills of snow, and the sun even starts to burn through the morning’s white cloud.
This gradual change in landscape continues right the way through Finland, but it’s not until we pass a sign saying ‘Finnmark’ that we realise we’re now in Norway. Conveniently, it’s from this point onwards that the roads start to get really interesting, as the landscape puts up more of a fight and the icy asphalt starts to twist and curve through the hills.
The early start meant I had been feeling tired all morning, but it’s amazing how an exciting stretch of road can wake you up. Now, still heading north but farther into Norway, I’m faced with more corners and undulations than before and, rather surprisingly, the CX-3 feels right at home.
Up to this point, the Mazda’s ride hasn’t felt particularly firm, but it’s soon clear that the chassis is more than capable of dealing with fairly swift direction changes. A few times I even instinctively start to apply a handful of opposite lock as I sense the body beginning to rotate, but my efforts are unnecessary because I quickly learn it’s the soft winter tyres flexing rather than any form of actual slip. I soon start to trust it, and as the sun begins to burn through to expose more blue sky, I find myself having a heck of a lot of fun.
Norway isn’t short of natural beauty, and through tired eyes I find myself dazed by the sun’s rays peering over the top of snow-covered mountains. An ice waterfall grabs our attention, but then I realise I’m doing about 65mph and we’re fast approaching a sharp turn with next to no run-off and a drop into an ice-covered lake on the other side. I brake hard and clench my cheeks…
Fortunately, we don’t smash through the snow banks and into the lake, largely thanks to the Mazda’s electronic stability control system, which is capable enough to keep even a day-dreaming driver in control on icy surfaces. It’s impressive stuff, but it certainly wakes me up. I turn the climate control down to keep me more alert.
Three hours later we make it to our goal, the E69. Straight away the road becomes seriously technical, and our diesel CX-3 feels perfectly comfortable sprinting from corner to corner. Working the gearbox to keep the engine in its gruff but torque-filled sweet spot is a joy.
By now the sun has passed its highest point and is heading down towards the western horizon. This creates a gorgeous golden glow, which illuminates the clouds with a glorious pinkish purple colour and bathes distant mountains in yellow light. Luc wants to stop for pictures, but we won’t make it to our destination before sunset if we do. It’s gutting knowing that we won’t be able to capture this stunning moment, but we need to reach Nordkapp before the sun goes down. The view there, we’re told, is extraordinary.
As if to rub more salt into the wounds, the next section of road latches onto the coastline of the Barents Sea, its freezing waters splashing to within feet of the road’s edge. We can see Nordkapp on the sat-nav now, so it helps me to keep focused on reaching it before the light fades, but I still find myself peering out of the side window, trying to soak up the view.
To reach Nordkapp, we cross a section of sea that separates the mainland from the island of Magerøya, which sits a couple of miles away. It’s reachable through a long section of tunnel that ducks under the water, and when you exit on the other side, the elevated land of Nordkapp can just about be seen in the distance.
It becomes a race against time to reach the top before the sun, which is now skimming the horizon, completely sets. Mazda has arranged for us to meet a snowplough at the bottom of the cliff the Nordkapp sits on, and we manage to find it with minutes to spare. This part of the drive is slow, as we ascend the snow-covered road in dim light, but a few minutes in the whole exhausting drive suddenly become worth it. There is Nordkapp. The Mazda has made it.
Ahead of us is nothing but sea and, eventually, the North Pole. We’re so far north that we’re closer to the Pole than we are to London, and there’s no doubting it when the bone-chilling wind penetrates the Mazda’s cabin as we open the doors.
The sunset holds on just about long enough for Luc to get the shot, and although we don’t catch a glimpse of the northern lights, I’m immensely proud of the Mazda. Against all odds, it’s got us here without complaint, just in the nick of time.
I laugh. The car you see on these pages will most likely end up with a buyer that’ll barely venture out of suburbia and, like most crossovers, will probably end up ferrying kids to school and carrying the weekly shop. But, as our voyage has shown, this crossover can do so much more than that. And for that reason, I’ll always respect the Mazda CX-3, even the ones on the school run.