Mazda 3 2014 Review

24 August 2014
 by 
, CarsGuide

The Denali and Dalton highways of reality TV are stark, beautiful and perilous backdrops for torture-testing a pair of Mazda 3s.

It's not for the traveller who fears open spaces, the prospect of a bear attack or voracious mosquitoes. But Alaska has two roads that rank among the world's 20 best drives - the Denali Highway and the James W. Dalton Highway of Ice Road Truckers tv fame.

The unforgiving yet beautiful terrain is the reward for the risk. The 50th US state, once a far-flung Russian estate, inspires awe in travellers with its wilderness, spectacular vistas and the dancing colours of the aurora borealis.

It's also a prime place to torture-test vehicles, in Carsguide's case a family car, a Mexican-built Mazda3. This one is a GS, equivalent in specification to a Japanese-built Maxx in Australia.

We'll punish the sedan and an accompanying GT hatch (equivalent to a SP25) on the Dalton Highway - more commonly known on the TV show as the Haul Road - and the Denali.

Other than the 'bear spray'' repellent in the glove box, the Mazdas are much like the well-loved Australian examples. The GS has the same 2.0-litre engine (114kW/200Nm) and six-speed automatic transmission though it's priced at $20,895, about $2000 cheaper than Australia.

We cover 1800km on the Denali, which runs east-west, and the Dalton (north-south) in three days in midsummer.

National Geographic rates the 217km-long Denali road among the world's top 10 drives. Less than 40km is sealed. Magnificent scenery means it's not just for the driver.

It takes a 360km drive from the spotless, expansive city of Anchorage to reach the start of the Denali. It's high summer yet traffic is light. But the fauna is active - porcupines, moose, caribou and eagles but no bears.

Denali (the word means 'the people' and refers to the original inhabitants) is the native name of North America's tallest peak, nearby Mt McKinley. At 6168m it's taller from base to apex than Everest (at 4650m) but for statistical reasons, measurements are from sea level. So Everest wins.

When we leave the Denali's graded dirt for the Richardson Highway, the mountains move closer, hugging the valley. The road is a twisting, undulating ribbon of bitumen on which 90km/h is a sensible pace.

We take it north to Alaska's second biggest city, Fairbanks, and on to Joy - an incongruously named shop that sells snacks and certificates verifying the visitor has crossed the Arctic Circle. It is, in fact, 200km up the road.

The Haul Road announces itself as the 'Gateway to the Arctic'' with wide bitumen, spruce trees, lots of rain - and a procession of semi-trailers. Then it turns to a twisting, slippery, part-sealed surface.

Mud sprays from passing trucks and stagnant roadside potholes foster the seasonal plague of mosquitoes.

The Mazda3 struggles on steeper sections but slowing has its perils. The semis behind try to maintain 110km/h to slingshot over the hills - and they don't want to trail a tourist.

Orange water conceals holes that send shudders through the car, conjuring thoughts of broken gear. But the car shrugs them off. Outback drivers will feel at home here.

In winter there are no potholes. Then the road is graded ice, in temperatures that plummet to -45C and lower, and truck traffic hits its peak.

There are large signposts, barbecue areas (yes, in bear country) and toilet blocks where the Arctic Circle crosses the highway. Beyond here, the terrain is what was once regarded as wilderness.

In a collection of houses called Wiseman 110km further on, Berni Hicker, 31, says it's actually easier to drive the frozen Haul Road in winter.

The lowest temperature ever in the US was recorded here: -62C in 1971. 'People either come here and stay because they love it, or hate it and leave. There's nothing in between,'' he says.

Wiseman is as far north as we come. Prudhoe Bay and its oil-industry infrastructure is 380km to the north. Returning tourists say it's the best part of the journey but are frustrated that they can't get access to the bay - the area is under tight security.

We refuel and refresh at Coldfoot Camp, just a few timber buildings and insulated prefabs yet a vital stop. Lines of road-grimed semis slosh through a mud bowl filled with fuel bowsers.

It's still raining and the corrugations on the road appear worse now we're heading south. But the scenery, rolling green hills, is astonishingly beautiful. The bleak sun reflects from the sheets of water on the road and the oil pipeline running parallel to us.

A road bridge crosses the broad Yukon River, a 3200km channel flushed a dusty turquoise. Before it was built, truckers either waited for the river to freeze or were ferried by hovercraft.

Further south, stopping for photos, we discard the 'bear spray'', the must-have aerosol can of pepper repellent with a 10m range.

So far the Mazdas have coped with roads as rough as an outback track and traffic as thick as peak hour. The GS has averaged 6.6L/100km and the GT 7.6L.

This journey finishes in Fairbanks, in time for the town's Midnight Sun Festival. Thousands of people cram into the city for what is touted as the biggest one-day event in Alaska. I politely decline the invitation to the midnight baseball and golf, played in daylight.

DALTON'S DANGERS 

"It's a dangerous road - a lot of accidents have happened here.'' Truck driver Eljay chooses his words carefully. 'There's a lot of problems ... more traffic, motorcycles, bicycles. And more trucks.'' Each year, from May to October, Eljay runs his semi-trailer from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's frozen north coast - that's 800km, three times a week - carting parts for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline project.

He gets the equivalent of 63c per kilometre - big money compared with the 23c for interstate work from his New Mexico home. We chat alongside his Kenworth in an expanse of rich mud, pooled with water from the recent rains in an uncharacteristically cool summer's day alongside the Yukon River. On the unsealed road, churned by trucks, the Mazda3 has become caked with mud and shaken its Mexican-built heart to the core.

Road conditions, inclement weather and the constant flow of semi-trailers can't stem the streams of adventurers - on motorcycles, bicycles, even horses and the ubiquitous motorhomes - that follow the exaggerated television tales of the Dalton Highway.What is rarely recorded is that this part of the world is incredibly beautiful. From rolling hills and open, Jurassic-era valley floors, soaring ice-capped peaks to rushing creeks, it is breathtaking with its contrast of untamed wilderness and tropical lushness. But visitors also face the constant menace of hardship, injury and, sometimes, fatal accidents.

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