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A little ray of sunshine


The outside temperature hits 35C and you're squashed inside a tiny capsule 10 degrees or more hotter than that.

With your knees almost around your ears, you concentrate on the unchanging road in front of you, alone and with nothing for company but a steering wheel, some pedals, a tube supplying much-needed water and radio contact with teammates following behind in the support van.

As I hit the Darwin heat last weekend, there was no imagining necessary, as I was there to see and take part in the World Solar Challenge.

And while I'd like to lay claim to having experienced this hard work first hand, I was in fact watching from the comfort of an airconditioned Smart Fortwo equipped with cruise control.

While 38 teams from 19 countries around the world sweated it out in the biennial event, driving from Darwin to Adelaide in a solar car in seven days, my role was in the Greenfleet Class of the challenge.

This part of the event involves cars showing off “practical technologies for tomorrow”. There were entrants from car manufacturers such as Smart, Saab, Audi, Peugeot and Hyundai, as well as different companies from around the world. Bio-ethanol, hybrid and small engines like the Fortwo were among the competitors for the 3000km event.

Having driven the new Fortwo, not yet on sale in Australia, in the chaotic Spanish traffic for the international launch earlier this year, it was time to put the old one to the test in some different circumstances.

And as I flew the flag for team Smart last Sunday in what's often considered an unusual-looking car, the Fortwo's unique nature was overshadowed by the solar creations from schools, universities and corporations from around the world.

However, the squashed-looking car still drew some giggles from the locals as we headed off for the first leg, the 300km drive to Katherine. One of our competitors even commented that we'd managed to “leave half our car behind”. And it was a celebrity send-off as we pulled out our Queen-style wave as children and adults alike lined the roads, some with good luck signs, others even setting up their picnic chairs out of town to ensure a glimpse of some of the wacky creations.

Caught up in the excitement of it all, the toy car-like horn of the Smart was given a good work out, bringing a smile to many faces. The peculiar solar vehicles slowed us down a bit as we headed for the Stuart Highway, the reliance on the sun's rays not quite as fast as the power available from the 700CC turbocharged engine underneath the Smart bonnet.

While speed limits now reach 130km/h in the Northern Territory, I managed to maintain a constant speed of just over 100km/h, keeping the challenge of fuel efficiency in the forefront of my mind. This meant employing other techniques such as minimising hard braking and not letting the revs rise too much.

You couldn't help but feel a little guilty as you passed the futuristic cars, watching the drivers do their shifts of up to five hours at a time in what is ultimately a sauna on wheels.

But NSW's sole entry, a team of 12 students from the University of NSW, assured me it really wasn't that bad.

Team leader Yael Augarten, who is doing her PhD in solar-cell research, says she'd prefer to drive a solar car than a sports car any day.

“I love it. It's actually quite relaxing. We haven't been going that fast, sitting about 60-70km/h,” she says.

“It's like driving a sports car with the airconditioning off, but there is a vent that lets in a nice breeze.”

However, with temperatures inside the shell reaching as high as 50C during the week, I think it will take a little more convincing before any sportscar owners opt for a trade-in.

And from where I was sitting, the Fortwo seemed to be the more comfortable and better option.

Smart competed in this event two years ago, and while this section isn't supposed to be competitive, it did walk away with the best fuel consumption — about 3.2 litres per 100km.

Smart spokesman Zac Loo says the event shows the Fortwo isn't just a city car, and can be driven across the country as easily as any other vehicle.

And during our trek, the Fortwo showed it could hold its own on the long highways. What seemed like a daunting task of passing those high-speed road trains, was actually a lot easier than expected.

Images of the Smart being lifted off the road by the sheer force of four-trailer road-trains using the outback highways was quickly dispelled.

Despite being less than an eighth the size of the beasts, the Fortwo stayed comfortably on the road. However, when they passed, the strong rush of wind in their wake did leave the car wobbling slightly.

We arrived at Katherine with half a tank of fuel left, averaging around 4.5 litres per 100km, not bad considering we had the airconditioning working overtime. The combined claimed consumption for the Fortwo sits at 4.8litres per 100km.

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