BBC Autos

Other Side of the Road

O, Canada!

  • Northern exposures

    Canada has a unique driving culture, one that extends well beyond the tired old jokes involving dogsleds and parallel parking. Though weather and terrain all but dictate a fondness for all-wheel drive, Canada's driving character is also shaped by a love of a good bargain. Year after year, the cars that sell best in the north are compact relatives of vehicles that top sales charts in the US. Americans choose the Camry, Canadians prefer the Corolla.

    There are other factors as well: two official languages, 7,821km of continent-spanning national highway and heavily taxed fuel all inform the profile. It should not surprise, then, that Canadian drivers have somewhat idiosyncratic tastes.

    Apropos of Canada Day, we survey the singular vehicles of the true north, today likely found – if they are found at all – motoring along with a 12-pack of Timbits and a double-double wedged in the cupholder.

  • Chevrolet Orlando

    The city of Orlando can be found in Florida. The Chevy Orlando cannot.

    A small, seven-seater MPV in the European style, the Orlando is built in Korea by General Motors (GM) alongside the Cruze compact sedan. Most are intended for Asian or European markets, but a few make their way across the Pacific to Canadian dealerships. Americans are likely to catch sight of one in its native habitat: parking lots of discount factory outlets close to the border.

    Though boxy and unremarkable, the Orlando does have some winning traits, among them an optional six-speed manual transmission, as well as excellent cargo capacity. (Photo: General Motors)

  • Lada Niva

    As the Cold War between the US and the USSR simmered and seethed, Canadians were free to actually purchase and own some of the same vehicles found behind the Iron Curtain.

    The best-loved of these was the Lada Niva, also known in higher trim as the Cossack (“Niva” is a Russian word meaning, in fitting Soviet fashion, “crop field”). These moderately powered proto-SUVs were not built to exacting standards, yet as they were intended to handle harsh Russian winters, the Canadian climate was a perfect fit. Nivas were available in Canada for nearly two decades, ceasing sales at the close of the millennium. (Photo: Lada)

  • Acura CSX

    Acura dealers in the US are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to move the ILX compact luxury sedan from their lots. The ILX is based on the Honda Civic, so cross-shoppers seem to either head for the larger, sportier TSX or into the welcoming arms of BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, with their low leasing rates.

    The idea of compact Japanese luxury is not an oxymoron in Canada, especially for Acura. Ever since the venerable old Integra was discontinued, Acura has sold a Canada-only, classed-up version of the proletarian Honda Civic, lined with leather and stuffed with extras called the CSX.

    Compact, fuel-efficient, reliable and reasonably fun to drive, the CSX and its predecessors, the 1.6 and 1.7 EL, sold strongly. Combined with a maintenance schedule that is generally far less onerous than that of the Germans, the Acuras are still common sights on Canadian highways. (Photo: American Honda)

  • Hyundai Pony

    Today’s Hyundai is a world-class manufacturer, building well-appointed family sedans, sporty coupes and, with their Genesis and Equus, credible competitors in the executive saloon segment. Not long ago, though, they just sold on the cheap.

    Upon its Canadian debut in 1983 as a 1984 model, the rear-drive Pony became the proverbial overnight success. Annual sales were projected to peak at around 5,000 units; Canadians would snap up ten times that amount.

    Powered (to use the term in its loosest possible sense) by a 1.4-litre Mitsubishi four-cylinder engine, the hatchback was slow and somewhat unreliable. But it was also less expensive than everything else on dealership row, helping Hyundai establish a foothold in North America. (Photo: Hyundai Motor America)

  • Fargo Pickup

    The close of the Roaring Twenties spelled the dissolution of many small manufacturers, and so it might have gone with the Chicago-based truck builder Fargo. Acquired by Chrysler at the same time as the more well-known Dodge brand, the Fargo nameplate faded from the US as the effects of the Great Depression took hold.

    Chrysler, however, opted to keep the brand around for their export markets, including India, Turkey and Canada. Dealerships in the frozen north were split along the lines Plymouth-Chrysler and Dodge-DeSoto. Without a ready niche in this scenario, Fargo was effectively swallowed, with Dodge pickups and heavy work trucks being simply rebranded as Fargos.

    In fairness, most Fargos were actually built in Windsor, Ontario, and bore some unique styling elements and a globe-shaped badge to distinguish them, albeit subtly, from their Dodge equivalents. The brand would last until 1972. (Photo: Chrysler Group)

  • Manic GT

    In 1968, the young Montrealer Jacques About identified a hole in the marketplace: a proper Canadian sports car. Designed in France and built using parts from Renault, the Manic GT was his emphatically Francophile response.

    With a 1.3-litre engine producing a very modest 105 horsepower in the uppermost trim levels, the Manic GT did little to honour its name. Dynamically, its greatest asset was its low weight; there were just 640kg to get moving, owing to extensive use of fibreglass, and with a rear- drive, rear-engine layout, the little Quebecois coupe handled with alacrity.

    Fewer than 200 were built, with the Manic falling victim not so much to a lack of demand as to the indifference of a French supplier beset by striking workers. Parts simply failed to arrive, and Manic shuttered its doors in 1971. (Photo: Les Automobiles Manic)

  • Mercedes-Benz B-Class

    As far as Mercedes-Benz USA is concerned, the alphabet begins with “C”. While the new, entry-level CLA sedan is bound to sell well, nothing smaller is planned.

    Canadians, on the other hand, have long had access to a small European city car with an enormous Mercedes badge up front. That podlike conveyance is the B-class, newly updated for 2014.

    With 208hp from a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, the B-Class is a sprightly little thing and can often be seen flitting about Vancouver and Toronto, in search of the elusive free parking space. (Photo: Daimler)

  • Acadian Beaumont

    Initially conceived as a cheap compact for Canadian Pontiac dealers to sell, Acadians were essentially re-branded Chevrolets. Curiously, despite General Motors' long history of Canadian-based manufacturing, these Canada-only machines were all built across the border in the US.

    Perhaps the most sought-after is the 1966 Beaumont Sport Deluxe, a big-block muscle car in the American mould. Equipped with the same thundering 6.5-litre V8 engine as its more well-known cousin, the Chevelle SS, the Beaumont 396SD was reserved in appearance only. (GM Heritage Center)

  • Buick LaCrosse/Allure

    Canada's national sport is not, as one might expect, hockey. Rather, a version of lacrosse has been the official sport of the nation since its founding.

    As such, Buick's decision to name its mid-size luxury sedan “LaCrosse” should have caused Canadians to clasp the big Buick to their bosoms, correct? Unfortunately, “la crosse” also happens to be Quebecois street slang for either swindling or something even ruder. Suffice it to say, someone driving a LaCrosse through Quebec may have received taunting about keeping both hands on the wheel.

    Consequently, the Canada-only nameplate Allure was born, a LaCrosse in all but badging. GM eventually decided that buyers could withstand whatever mockery may come their way, and changed the name back. (General Motors)

  • Conquest Knight XV

    Canadians are generally perceived as polite, friendly and retiring. This six-metre, 6,000kg juggernaut honours none of those qualities.

    Looking like a HumVee's mothership, the Conquest Knight XV is a brutish SUV riding on a modified Ford F-550 SuperDuty platform. It comes with either a gasoline or diesel engine, both producing around 300hp, though the diesel makes far more torque at 660lb-ft. The Knight XV is also bulletproof – not from a reliability standpoint, but a ballistic one.

    Based in Toronto, Conquest Motors produces very few such vehicles, though with a price tag that can top CAD$600,000, the market for the Knight XV is nothing if not self-selecting. (Photo: Conquest Vehicles)

  • Frontenac

    The settlement of New France flourished on the banks of the St Lawrence River, established by the explorer Jacques Cartier and defended by men like Louis de Buade de Frontenac.

    This former governor of Canada's first French-speaking colonies was a master tactician, and so in 1960, Ford decided to sell a compact car bearing his name. One imagines he might have preferred a statue.

    Unlike the GM Acadians, the Falcon-based Frontenac was actually built in Canada in 1960, the single year it was sold. Just under 10,000 would leave the plant in Oakville, Ontario, every one with a maple leaf insignia proudly emblazoned on grille, flanks and hubcaps. (Photo: Ford Motor)

  • Bricklin SV-1

    Conceived by the millionaire who brought Subaru to America and designed by a man who contributed much to the shape of the original Batmobile, one might think the SV-1, built in New Brunswick, would be destined for success. It was not.

    Though comparable in performance to entry-level Corvettes of its day (this being the mid-1970s, when an oil crisis pushed power to historical lows) the Bricklin SV-1 suffered from various assembly issues. Not least among its problems was company founder Malcolm Brickin's inexperience with the manufacturing side of the automotive industry.

    The fewer than 3,000 Bricklins that made it onto the road were unique in their blending of safety-consciousness and sporting intent. Along with an integrated roll cage, the SV-1 is the only production car to have had retractable bumpers and power-operated gull-wing doors – the latter feature not even found on the $200,000 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. (Photo: RM Auctions)