The perfect northern automobile.

Another crisp November morn in the Yukon. Through the parts of the windows that haven't frosted over, the day looks bright, cheerful, and at -35°C, utterly uninviting.

Even more forbidding is the notion of driving anywhere on a day like today. I ensure that I remain stranded in my cozy, comfy house by consciously neglecting to plug in the truck's block heater. It will take a good four hours of power and another twenty minutes of squeal-filled idling before that frozen Ford will move.

School days leave me fewer options. The block heater and battery blanket power kicks on at 5am. I run out to turn over the engine a quarter-hour early. The exhaust fumes are thick with uncombusted gasoline -- a litre or two of dollar-per fuel to bring the engine to temperature. The fan belt screams at the effort. Just prior to departure I scrape the frost from the windows, including the inner surfaces on occasion. To leave the driveway, I must convince the transmission that it can overpower the congealed differential and axle bearings. Finally, we're off, bouncing for the first kilometre like the balls in a child's popcorn push toy because of the flat spots frozen into the tires.

No, driving below -30°C is neither a pleasant nor an inexpensive proposition; I estimate a month is taken off the life of the vehicle for every turn of the ignition key.

It would help if car makers designed for this climate. Given the sparse demographics and accelerating global warming, they likely never will. Nevertheless, here's my wishlist for the perfect -- or, failing that, the least-miserable -- northern automobile:

  • Command start. This one's a must. For some twisted reason, my Ranger's security system precludes the installation of this feature. Instead, I have special big boots waiting by the door that I can slip on for each morning's dash to the ignition.
  • All-around jet-powered defrosters. I'm looking for the same effect as window-mounted blow torches.
  • Block heater, battery blanket. Duh.
  • Heated steering wheel. I suspect that heated seats are a bit of a gimmick, but a heated steering wheel would be pure pleasure. It's easier to crank the frozen steering when unencumbered by mittens.
  • Heated tires. I don't think this even exists, but if a Hummer can change its tire pressure dynamically, then I don't see why you couldn't warm the tires with air. Frozen tires can pop right off the rim -- that is one tire change you want to avoid.
  • Studded tires. It may sound like you're driving on crackers, but not even ice tires come close when you have to stop or turn on ice.
  • Low center of gravity. As someone who has rolled off the highway in a high-riding four-by-four, I now see the advantage of a squat body profile.
  • Good ground clearance. Big wheels and bigger fender wheel wells should be enough to keep from getting hung up on snow without making the car top-heavy.
  • Always-on all wheel drive. Four wheel drive means you'll never get stuck in a drift, but it can't be left on all the time. AWD should help with all of those slippery corners at intersections.
  • Heated drivetrain. This doesn't exist either, but the transmission and bearings take a beating when the car first starts to roll. Seems to me that a heating element is cheaper than a tranny replacement.
  • Low-temp catalytic converter. I'm not sure of the chemistry involved, but the exhaust emissions in cold weather are pretty brutal. The last time it dropped below -45°C, my check engine warning light came on for a month; I was convinced that the overly-rich exhaust had poisoned the catalytic converter. That doesn't seem to have been the case, and may not even be possible for all I know, but I think everyone will agree that internal combustion in cold weather is no friend of the environment.

All told, that will add up to a lovely winter driving experience, although one that I probably can't afford. It's time to admit that, so long as you don't mind helmet hair, a snowmobile really is the best commuter vehicle hereabouts.