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Saskatoon dreamin’: What does a car truly made for all of Canada’s winters look like?

Doug Firby, Special to The Globe and Mail
February 23, 2021

As much as having “world cars” – built on common platforms for markets everywhere – makes economic sense, there is one big drawback: None is designed specifically for the extremes of Canada.

The world car, in other words, will always be a compromise in a country that has logging roads, temperatures that plunge below -30 and pavement so cold in winter that salt can’t touch it. After all, it’s asking a lot of a vehicle equipped with an air conditioner beefy enough for a Phoenix summer to also have a heater brawny enough for a Whitehorse winter.

Let’s get something straight. Installing a bigger battery, heated seats and a plug-in block heater on a car that’s been designed in California is akin to putting a winter coat on a tropical bird; it might be warmer, but it may not fly.

Canada’s winters are not like a scene from the 2017 movie The Snowman, in which the protagonist walks around with his coat unbuttoned and the snow is packing soft. The mythical Norse god of snow seems to take perverse pleasure in the car-killing cruelty of double-digit sub-zero temperatures, salt-defying ice on pavement and gravel that’ll crack a windshield the day you drive your spanking new SUV off the dealer’s lot.

I’m talking about you, Winnipeg. And you too, Saskatoon. And let’s not forget about Ottawa, Quebec City and St. John’s, either.

Automakers’ cold-testing facilities seem to focus on whether the motor will start or whether the doors will freeze shut. What, a besieged Canadian asks, about comfort, convenience and durability?

There is also another important dimension to a truly Canadian car, says Colin Dhillon, chief technical officer at the Automobile Parts Manufacturers’ Association (APMA), and the man behind the all-Canadian, zero-emission Project Arrow concept car.

“Canada has its own culture,” Dhillon says. “We’ve got to make sure the design of the vehicle exudes that.”

The Project Arrow prototype, conceived in 2020 by four Carleton University industrial-design students, was a response to an invitation to universities from the APMA. Devised for Canada’s four seasons, it has an SUV form, with all-wheel drive and autonomous features designed to work in the snow, Dhillon says. But it has more than that. Its broad stance is meant to pay homage to the Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge in the First World War, Dhillon says, and its sharp angles are intended to evoke the rocky Canadian Shield.

One other feature that puts this car at the technological forefront is in how it would use biometric technology to detect whether a driver is unwell. If a driver’s facial expressions, drooping eyelids or other biometrics signal illness, heart attack or impairment, the vehicle would issue an alert first, then call for assistance and ultimately bring the car to a safe stop if needed. This “caregiver” function makes it distinctly Canadian, Dhillon said. “Project Arrow will be the global leader in a vehicle as a caregiver.”

Another type of caregiving was top of mind for an ad hoc panel of Canadian drivers who were asked what they’d like to see in a Canadian car. This was a random sampling of drivers, most of whom commute daily to a variety of jobs. These views come from drivers who have unromantic notions of their cars as a necessary part of modern life. Their notion of caregiving had more to do with comfort and convenience. Here is a sampling of optional equipment that they think should be made standard:

  • Heated steering wheel/heated front seats: These are optional upgrades available on some cars, but the informal drivers’ panel said it should come as standard equipment. There’s a reason auto-parts stores sell seat heaters that plug into your electrical outlet.
  • Heated rear seats: Not surprisingly, this request came from parents of kids who are always jockeying to ride shotgun. It’s not just to get a better view; these passengers are looking for a cozier ride.
    Block heater: You might be able to get by without an engine warmer in the Greater Toronto Area or Vancouver, but don’t expect to get to work on time in Edmonton if you don’t plug your car in overnight.

Besides these, here are some more common-sense features for Canadian winters:

  • Electrically heated windshields: Electric rear-window defrosters have become ubiquitous since they made their debut – according to popular accounts – in the 1953 Lincoln. And yet even today, most windshields have no similar technology. We just sit and burn gas while the engine warms up enough to melt the coating of ice on the windshield. Electric window defoggers are way faster than dashboard air vents. Some industrial vehicles have them – why don’t cars?
  • Stone-resistant windshields: In Canada’s colder climates, it is rare to find a vehicle that doesn’t have cracks and chips from the gravel flying up from the roads. With built-in camera technologies now common, a windshield replacement can easily run into four figures. Cars in colder climates need to come out of the factory with a protective film such as ExoShield, ClearPlex or WinCrest.
  • Back-up-camera washer or wiper: In winter, these handy safety devices can be rendered useless by road salt and debris. Just a handful of higher-end vehicles, like the Toyota Highlander and Cadillac XT6, have little washers that clear the lens off. Our panel wants to see them on every car.
  • More functional car mats: The rubber mats that you pay for in a new car often fail because they can’t contain the large puddles of melted slush that come with winter driving. The salty sludge runs onto the once-pristine carpeting, leaving ugly white stains. The panel called for custom-moulded mats like those made by WeatherTech, Husky or TuxMat to keep that disgusting slurry off the carpeting.
  • Innovative floor coverings: Come to think of it, carpeting is often a bad idea in a daily-use vehicle. Synthetic materials, such as knitted vinyl, can be pleasing to the eye, warm and sound-deadening, and would be much easier to keep clean. We’re not talking about the rubber matting Honda tried in the short-lived Element SUV, but something a bit plusher yet still low-maintenance. Toss the carpets.
  • Forward-facing camera with a recording option: Some off-road four-by-fours come equipped with forward-facing cameras. They’re just as handy for seeing over the hood to that curbside snowbank as they are for dodging rocks on the trail.

Sure, some of these features will add to the sticker price of some cars. But if our panel is at all representative of Canadian drivers, most will happily pay a little extra for these must-haves.

Read the full article here.