Academic Motorworld: Driving in Canada
Automotive land of harsh climate and common sense
In the summer of 2019, I visited Canada for the first time. To be more precise, I visited Western Canada, the province of Alberta, the city of Edmonton. That trip brought some unique automotive observations (apart from being a very exciting and memorable as such).
The first observation came right away, after leaving the airport. Potholes. The climate, environment, and governmental sluggishness made their impact on how the asphalt looked. A lot of roads, especially by-streets and avenue interlinkages, were covered with webs of cracks, bumps, and craters. This was unexpected for my “European” vision of Canada as a land of “perfect everything.” I bet this kind of webs emerged because of drastic temperature changes which made the snow melt, and then freeze, and then “tear” the asphalt apart. There were so many roads with potholes around that it seemed impossible to repair them in one fell swoop. In a word, even in summer, I felt that the winter was coming.
Then, wandering alongside parking lots, I could not but notice odd wires sticking from under cars’ bonnets. With plugs at their ends. These were very uncommon for my “vanilla” part of Europe. My friends told that these wires connected cars to stationary electric outlets to help them start during frosts or to heat seats-and-cabin fast. These wires fed the so called block heaters. Again, I felt the winter was near.
Then, there were piles of gravel on the asphalt and sidewalks. One more unexpected sightseeing. It appeared that the Edmontonians, as well as many other Western Canadians, rarely clear snow in winter, apart from the main streets. Instead, they use to “decorate” their roads with gravel to increase traction. Imagine, after a snowfall, all roads are covered with gravel. Cars drive over that mixture and tamp it into a rock-solid compound. After another snowfall, a new layer of gravel gets dispersed and cars tamp that stuff again. In the spring, with temperature rise and everything melting, a special machine collects the gravel for future re-use. However, some stones remain; these were which I saw. The winter sent its regards.
Actually, my friends told me a joke. There are only two seasons in Canada: winter and construction. In the snow-less months, dynamic development of infrastructure takes place. But when the snow falls, the life changes to slow-motion. Drivers wait in long turns to put their winter ones on. Some of the drivers abandon their cars on country-roads if these cars stuck in drifts or lose ignition; no viable option exists to pull them out before the spring. There also is no rush anywhere for better traction. Also, during the snowy months, drivers often change cars. What I noticed is that a family usually owns numerous vehicles of different types – for fun and winter. For instance, Minis. I saw these little pocket rockets here and there in summer. These Minis, however, become undrivable during the snowy months in Edmonton. The same as motorbikes. When such a time comes, SUVs and trucks take the lead. Canadian climate makes a difference and introduces diversity (which, however, does not eliminate small vehicles from the winter roads completely).
These and other automotive observations made me think that Canada was and remains the land of challenges, common sense, and respect to others. Sometimes too much respect, as for my European taste (I am not complaining, it is only somewhat unusual).
Imagine, you approach a pedestrian crossing. You see it in the distance, about 15 metres ahead. No lights are regulating the crossing. A car stops in front of the “zebra” and its driver humbly waits till you traverse the street. That is above 10 seconds of waiting. If I were the driver, I would drive through the crossing five times before a pedestrian stepped on it. But no, in my case, the driver watched and waited. That was somewhat odd and, well, sinister; I even started thinking that he deliberately waited to “play a game” – start chasing me after I appear in front of his bonnet.
Then, I wanted to rent a car. Failure. It came as a surprise that the rental agencies will not share their wheels with you unless the spelling of your driver’s license is in English. My one was in Polish; the license had Latin letters, EU’s logos, car symbols, but no English words. That was it. My friend rented the car for himself and, well, drove all the freaking time… above a thousand of kilometres in Alberta, through Hollywood-picturesque prairies and mountains.
At the journey from Edmonton to Calgary, we cruised at 120 km/h. No more, no less, no overtaking. Which is an odd experience, as in Europe, if you want to go faster on an intercity highway, you take the left lane. There was no need to do so in Alberta. All cars lawfully moved with the same speed on all lanes. I was bored observing the rear of the same truck for an hour. One of the “reasons” behind my boredom, according to my friends, was a “mythical” police helicopter hanging high in the sky and monitoring the speed of moving vehicles. If someone drove faster than allowed, these guys from the sky would inform on-land unit and a chase would begin. Apart from this, Canadians often use a “magical” cruise control button fixing the speed at 120 km/h and, well, they do not like breaking the limits.
My observations made it clear: social anthropology matters in explaining things. Automotive culture in Canada reflects a local lifestyle, climate, and values. The cars people drive and buy are “designed” in line to what people need to “survive” and find attractive.
As a European, I often wondered why the blokes in North America like ample proportions. To me, big cars are bulky, heavy, dull to drive, and non-environmentally-friendly. Surely, they have powerful engines, but, well, high clearance and clumsy steering make them good to go only in straight lines. Why won’t Americans opt for something smaller and more engaging? Why not have more fun?
The answer is simple: the European type of fun doesn’t work in North America, and especially in Canada.
Let me take the Mini as an example. This pocket rocket works well for summer driving in cities. Its nimbleness and responsiveness are handy in jam crawling and overtaking. However, as just you roll the Mini it out of the city, a “disaster” comes. The same nimbleness and responsiveness will make a ride from Edmonton to Winnipeg a nightmare. The legendary sharp handling, low seating position, firm suspension, and tons of feedback through steering wheel will lead to frustration when cruising through prairies. There will be too much of everything happening! A similar feeling appears when you push your RAM 1500 through the curved roads in the Austrian Alps, or the streets of Lucca in Italy. In a word, American cars bring “American fun” which is about travelling in comfort on wide lanes, in straight lines, and for long distances. It is also about accelerating on a whim and surfing over post-winter potholes as if they never existed. Instead, European fun is good predominantly for curvatures and narrowness of European cityscapes and country-roads (which, by the way, are regularly cleared from the snow in winter).
The influence of the US automotive culture is very articulate in Canada. The same as their southern neighbours, the Canadians love big cars: trucks, crossovers, and SUVs. This looks natural because of harsh winter conditions, vast distances between cities, “unlimited” space to make streets wide, and the necessity to carry heavy loads. Also, well, because Americans are good at producing, promoting, and exporting their automotive stuff. In other words, the items supplied on Canadian market shape the customer’s demand.
I had a chance to attend an open-air classic and restomod car meet in Edmonton. Above 90 per cent of all exhibits were US-made with the remaining being British. Honestly, I didn’t expect that kind of American automotive overspill in Canada. Maybe, that was only the Western Canadian flavour, need to check eastern provinces in future.
By the way, eastern provinces. There exist an interesting archipelago, St Pierre and Miquelon, south of the Newfoundland island. This archipelago is under French sovereignty and, well, resembles the EU’s car zoo at the North America shores. You can take a ferry there and “admire” neat packs of the Citroën, Renault, and Peugeot species parked on the streets. At least, my friends told me so.
What I also noticed during my stay in Canada is that the US automotive domination is not cloudless; the Asian manufacturers, specifically South Koreans, assault the market. On my amateur sight, there were more South Korean cars on the streets of Edmonton than I saw in Warsaw or elsewhere in Europe. In particular, Hyundai Kona, an unrivalled crossover and a car of common sense (at least, to me).
If you look at the 2019 sales statistics, there was a 78 per cent increase in Kona sales compared to 2018 in Canada. None of the Kona’s direct competitors – be them Nissan Juke, Mini Countryman, Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, or Subaru Crosstrek – demonstrated similar dynamics. One of the reasons for this is the price; you can get a basic vehicle for around 20,000 CAD. This makes it cheap to run, cheap to insure, and not-that-aching to scratch. The Kona became a breakthrough to Hyundai too. In Canada, in 2019, for every Accent and Sonata, they sold three Konas at a dealership.
Looking at the 2019 Top-5 best-selling crossovers and SUVs in Canada, the most popular is Toyota RAV4 (65,248 sales), then goes Honda CR-V (55,859), Ford Escape (39,503), Nissan Rogue (37,530), and Hyundai Tucson (30,075). Hyundai Kona with its 25,817 sales is placed seventh. However, as for the first half of 2020, Kona moved up to the fifth position and kicked out its “bigger brother” Tucson from there. Timothy Cain from “Driving” magazine calculated that, as for the mid-2020, “nearly 10 per cent of all vehicles sold in Canada are now subcompact crossovers. And more than 15 per cent of all subcompact crossovers sold in Canada are Hyundai Konas”
A thing to highlight here is that, in a given segment, the Asian manufacturers dominated both 2019 and 2020 sales.
When researching Canadian crossovers and SUVs, I also encountered an uncanny publication by Tyler Wade at “Ratehub.ca”. He came up with a sound ranking system to “measure” purchase sensibility of 2019 SUVs. He considered the following factors: the cheapest vehicle to buy, the most fuel-efficient, and the cheapest insurance. To these factors, he applied a point system: 10 points for the first position, 9 points for the second, all the way down to 1 point for the tenths spot. A bonus point was given to to the safest SUVs. Here are his calculations and the points’ breakdown. The Kona is in the lead again!
On a bitter note, as much as I admire the powerful growth of a little Kona in Canada, it is still far from being the most popular car. It has a firm standing in a segment of crossovers and SUVs, but that’s it. The nation-wide statistics reveal that trucks are unrivalled money-magnets. The leader of sales in 2019 was American-made Ford F-Series (145,064 sales), which was followed by American-made RAM Pickup (96,673). The third position belonged to Toyota RAV4 (65,248), fourth to Honda Civic (60,139) and fifth Honda CR-V (55,859).
This said, even the nation-wide statistics demonstrate a growing grip of Asian manufacturers, isn’t it?
Hmmm… A question has just popped up in my head: What will happen to the Canadian market when the Chinese enter it? Because they will do so, sooner or later. Thoughts?
To summarise, as I discovered it, Canada seems to be a land of challenges, common sense, and respect. Its automotive culture and driving habits re-confirm this my impression. However, as I stayed there for only two summer months, more exploration is needed!
Any sponsor here? Anyone to fund my automotive exploratory activities?
This is the call of science!