The Destination: BC Interior
The Vehicle: 2016 Mazda CX-3
The Challenge: Rally-style driving event
At last year’s Mazda Adventure Rally, we came for the sights and the great driving roads, and somehow ended up in second place, almost without trying. So we figured that this year, with a little bit of effort, we could maybe climb to that top step of the podium. Not even close.
This time around, we even had a little more heads up as to our destination, but with the exact route and challenges (many specific to sights and information found on the routes themselves) shrouded in secrecy until each day of the three-day event, there was little we could do to prepare.
After last year’s surprise of the MX-5 Miata being the car of choice, we were naturally anticipating and hoping for the new 2016 MX-5 that has been impressing the heck out of everyone who drives it. Alas, another driving adventure of the legendary Miata on ribbons of tarmac and gravel through fabulous mountain landscapes was not in the cards. This time, it would be Mazda’s little CX-3 crossover, a car that boasts dynamics completely at odds with its price and segment, a truly joyful little kart that packs just enough space for a weekend trip for a couple. Families will be hard-pressed to fit even the basics in its narrow, shallow cargo hold, but on this little adventure away from the kids, it would do just fine.
Day 1: Vancouver to Whistler
Within minutes of arriving at Vancouver airport, we were handed an envelope with our instructions and keys, and sent off to track down our individual CX-3’s in the multi-level parking lot, starting off this Amazing Race–style adventure. After putting the panic button to good use, off we went, inputting GPS coordinates into the CX-3’s nav system via the touchscreen (available for touch input only when stopped), and following the route guidance that took us across the Burrard St. Bridge into Vancouver, in and out of Stanley Park, out of the city via the Lionsgate Bridge, and up the Sea-to-Sky Highway to the base of the Sea-to-Sky Gondola at Squamish.
Along the way, we were tasked with collecting branded coffee cups from BC’s diverse selection of coffee shops, stopping often to get caffeinated, more caffeinated, and then caffeinated some more. (Wasting coffee is simply against my prinicples.) By the fourth double espresso, my navigator (who happens to be my wife in real life) was ready to get out and walk or at least throw me out the window. One feature that I wished for in the Mazda was on-map icons for certain points of interest – you can search for them, but only go to any single one individually, rather than having them appear on the map whenever you approach one.
After a lunch and research break with a view overlooking Howe Sound and BC’s Coast Mountains, we cruised back down the gondola, floating over the steep climb that those with more time can make in a few hours.
Back in the comfortable, leather-lined seats of the CX-3, we continued up the Sea-to-Sky Highway, stopping for more coffee and quickly finding our way to the night’s accommodations at Whistler’s Sundial Boutique Hotel just in time to catch the end of the Jays game at the hotel bar.
Day 2: Whistler to Kamloops
After a good night’s rest, it was easy to be up early thanks to a favourable time-zone difference, and we received the day’s instructions after a quick breakfast. As we would not be returning to Whistler, we packed up our bags and made use of the small, but tidy trunk, and spread our maps, guidebooks, water bottles and food around the cabin and set off for more adventure a little farther off the beaten path with warnings to take the bear spray if ever we ventured outside the vehicle. Um, what?
While the Sea-to-Sky Highway is a curvy stretch of highway, it’s a well-developed highway that ferried the hordes of visitors and athletes of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics up to Whistler Village for the alpine skiing events, so it’s downright civilized. On day 2, the roads would get fun, first continuing on the 99 up to Pemberton, on past Duffey Lake and into Lillooet, where we had to dig up information at various points around town. I never did find out why they have a bridge named after 23 camels, but that took us onto our next stretch of the 99, pressing the little CX-3’s 146-hp four-cylinder Skyactiv engine for all it was worth as we pressed north, climbing through Edge Hills Provincial Park, evidence of BC’s recent forest fires and dramatic geological formations on display along the banks of the Fraser River.
Also on display was the CX-3’s AWD competence. While its ground clearance severely limits it for anything more adventurous than a rough gravel road, it is right at home on said gravel roads, and we tackled the route with gusto, the AWD system recognizing and reacting slope, surface and traction for superb confidence. Mazda wisely chose the GS trim, with it’s higher-profile 16-inch tires that softened the blows from the rough terrain and smoothed out the washboard surfaces we spent so much time on.
The final challenge of the day was a blind route challenge, where we were given route directions based on visual landmarks, and sent on our way to get lost or get lucky. Here the CX-3’s small dimensions and tight turning circle proved helpful as we were constantly checking out alternate routes and then returning to our intended path. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. Although we couldn’t use the route guidance, the accurate mapping and labels of the Mazda’s nav system helped us find our route (if not some of the points-scoring landmarks) while staying on pace with our allotted times – nowhere near so urgent as the pace of the Targa Newfoundland Rally, but still requiring consistently sticking to limits with only enough cushion for a couple of diversions and photos.
At the end of a long-day of driving, only the occasional break to stretch and even eating lunch on the go, my back felt fine, so the seats proved they are up to coddling even my delicate back. Although we rarely used the radio, the infotainment controls are ergonomically sound, although some menus aren’t quite as intuitive as I’d like (setting up radio presets and switching between them is a bit convoluted via the main screen).
On the plus side of the ledger, the CX-3's six-speed automatic transmission worked flawlessly, making quick, smooth shifts at every step, and when engaged in the vehicle's sport mode, was eager to downshift when trying to make good time through BC's twisty road system.
As fun as the day was, we soon found the end of our route leading us to the South Thompson Inn with a view of the peaceful South Thompson River and the Jays game on in the bar.
Day 3: Kamloops to Logan Lake, Ashcroft, Merrit
Day 3 would be our final day of driving, with a busy morning, a relaxing lunch, then one final chance at some bonus points before the winners would be announced at the evening’s dinner.
We set out from the South Thompson Inn, crossing back through Kamloops and turning south along Lac Le Jeune Road running parallel to Highway 5, with a few more twists and turns to satisfy the drivers. It seems that everywhere we turned, there was a road designed for roadsters, and to a certain degree, the CX-3 almost felt like one. While the skimpy ground clearance limits its use off road, it benefits handling, with quick steering that is eager to tuck the front wheels into the myriad curves BC’s highways and byways threw at us.
Instrumental to completing our challenges, many of which were spotting roadside attractions and signs, the CX-3 has fair forward visibility, although its side and rearward visibility is compromised by swoopy windows and a design flourish aft of the rear doors offering only a vestigial window for reversing. Even in such a small car, the backup camera seemed almost essential for ease of parking, and would have allowed me to easily back into the bucket of the massive earth mover we visited at the Logan Lake Visitor Centre, where you can go right up into the heavy machinery’s cab and act out your childhood excavator fantasies. I’m not saying we lost points because I was too busy playing with the loader controls making machinery noises, but, well, sometimes you have to grab life by the defunct industrial equipment’s controls.
Moving on, just past Logan lake we entered BC’s mining country, which is both a devastatingly sad scar on the face of our delicate planet and a testament to man’s ingenuity, drive and offering its own unnatural beauty, like a stepped pyramid carved into the mountainside. This operation at Teck Highland Valley Copper is one of the largest open-pit mining operations in the world, and the largest open pit copper mine in Canada, and the mine also produces molybdenum, a key metal in high-strength steel alloys.
From there we continued on to the town of Ashcroft, stopping along the way to recreate a scene from Atom Egoyan’s award-winning drama, The Sweet Hereafter, whose plot is so tragic I could never bring myself to watch it. Later we would also find the location in Merrit featured in the Smallville TV series, all the while trying to spot ranches, identify some mystery pictures of derelict cars and enjoy the scenery of the rolling hills and pastoral scenes.
After lunch in Quilchena, we had our easiest challenge of the event, matching up photos to the names of the lakes along the route back to Kamloops, then one last stretch of gravel road shenanigans before checking back in at the South Thompson Inn.
Another long day in the CX-3, arriving as fresh as a daisy just in time to catch the Jays game, before our dinner and winner’s gala. While there was no trophy for the Yarkonys this year, we cracked the top five and had a chance to see a side of BC we’ve never seen before.
On the other hand, we are well and familiar with the CX-3, in the midst of conducting a long-term test for Autos.ca, which has shown us its everyday livability, playfulness and limitations. This trip again highlighted its dynamic and long-distance prowess, proving once again that it is a car built for the city, that can still run in the mountains and the roads of the open wild.