Toyota Five Continents Drive, Europe: Winter Week 2

Having started the second half of the Five Continents Drive winter adventure in Denmark last week, the team is now winding its way back to Scandinavia and the promise of snowy conditions via the Baltic states.

Day 5: Hamburg, Germany, to Berlin, Germany

Distance: 303km
Accumulated total: 14,528km

Disengaging our land anchors, the Five Continents Drive team left the scenic port of Hamburg and set off for Berlin. Leading the convoy was Mirai, our hydrogen-powered car, and its challenge was to reach the capital without refuelling.

Torrential rain on the autobahn provided a stern test for the humble windscreen wipers and the water evacuation properties of our tyres. But we were all in agreement that it also highlighted how invaluable the Blind Spot Monitor is as a driving assistant on multi-lane carriageways. Despite the conditions, cars were still whizzing past us at a phenomenal rate, suddenly appearing from the plumes of spray like they were part of a magic trick. Yet with this system activated these fast-approaching cars were often ‘seen’ before being spotted in our mirrors, therefore providing an additional level of safety that was much appreciated.

The storm finally subsided and we were welcomed into Berlin by a beautiful rainbow. Just as there is a stark difference between driving in rainy and dry weather, a similar contrast was felt between autobahn and city driving. The lanes became narrower and the density of vehicles increased, making it feel far more dangerous despite the slower pace. Here, the sheer bulk of the Land Cruiser put it at a disadvantage compared to the nimble Yaris Hybrid. However, the team arrived at the hotel unscathed, and rather appropriately within sight of the Berlin’s ornate Victory Column monument.

Assembled outside the briefing room, everybody wondered whether the Mirai had been able to make the journey without refuelling. Of course it had! Driver Jean-Christoph Mathot recounted the experience, explaining that at the start the Mirai displayed an indicated range of 385km. During the course of the day he tried to drive as normally as possible and sustaining 130kph on the autobahn. But he admitted some concern over the cold weather and high speeds, wondering if this would substantially reduce the claimed range.

After having driven 289km, Jean-Christoph was delighted to discover that there was still 75km of range left – only a seven percent difference between the car’s estimated range and its actual range. With that success, the possibilities of a hydrogen-fuelled future are enthusiastically discussed over dinner.

Day 6: Berlin, Germany, to Poznań, Poland

Distance: 276km
Accumulated total: 14,804km

Another wet and drizzly morning saw us set off for Poland, where it had been arranged for us to visit one of the country’s most accomplished Toyota dealers.

However, not long after crossing the Oder river we heard the words “Proace, puncture” uttered without any form of emotion over the radio. The reason for the Proace team’s calmness was that they had been able to pull into a service station to effect a repair, rather than take their chances at the roadside. So after a bottle of tyre sealant was deployed and the tyre pumped back up, the group was able to get going again and maintain our tight schedule.

A warm welcome was given by the Bońkowscy dealership in Poznań, and we were given an informative presentation on the national automotive market, the dealership’s own achievements, and the focus on customer service provided by the team there. Apparently, Bońkowscy has sold over 1,500 new Toyota vehicles this year, a large proportion of which have been hybrid models. In fact, dealer manager Dominika Bońkowska was proud to inform us that these sales equated to 30% of all Toyota hybrid models sold in the entire country!

Among the Five Continents Drive team, Artur Przewozniczuk from Toyota Motor Poland felt the visit to be particularly enlightening. By listening to the voice of the customer and carrying out a Genchi Genbutsu visit to understand their circumstances, it indicated a variety of areas that he felt Toyota could improve upon. As Artur eloquently put it: “There’s only so much an Excel spreadsheet can tell you from a desk.”

Day 7: Poznań, Poland, to Bialystok, Poland

Distance: 504km
Accumulated total: 15,308km

The ‘hump day’ of week two offered further peaks by delivering the longest driving distance and earliest start of the tour so far. So with a spoonful of breakfast in our bellies, bleary eyes and the burnt orange of streetlights for illumination, we set off across Poznań’s cobbled streets and tram lines to head east toward the A2.

The speed limit on Polish highways is 120km/h (75mph) and usually consists of just two carriageways. We therefore found ourselves caught between heavy goods vehicles and slipstreaming speed demons, forced into accelerating and decelerating to weave in and out of slow- and fast-moving traffic. Our wishes for more lanes wasn’t heard, so much of the day was spent testing each driver’s reactions and each car’s responsiveness to the pedals.

Darkness set in from around 15:00 and brought with it a change in road conditions near Wyszkow. The S8 highway, an express road still under construction, diverted us from the broad and smooth dual-carriageway to a narrow, single carriageway with no clear road lines to assist forward vision. Driver focus suddenly became extremely important, as direction changes came thick and fast, often without prior warning. To the consternation of our Lane Keep Assist system, the convoy was forced to constantly switch between lanes, straddle lanes, dodge bollards and drive on the hard shoulder.

Tired and in need of an overnight recharge, the team members finally arrived at the hotel and quickly disappeared into the comfort of their beds.

Day 8: Bialystok, Poland, to Kaunas, Lithuania

Distance: 278km
Accumulated total: 15,578km

Returning to a more regular schedule, the plan for day eight was to reach Lithuania. After crossing the border we encountered a significant change in road conditions. Gone were the polished highways of Poland; these roads were like a worn patchwork quilt, offering many textures and plenty of potholes. While not as restful to drive on, at least it provided the team with plenty of feedback about how successfully each vehicle was able to isolate its passengers from the road.

Following the Baltic equivalent of a bento box for lunch, we headed towards the vast natural beauty of the Veisieju Regional Park. There we stumbled upon an incredible corset-like viewing platform made from wood and steel. Standing 15 metres tall, it offered beautiful, panoramic views of the surrounding lakes and forests.

With the landscape now fully appreciated, the destination of Kaunas was programmed into the satellite navigation systems. But not directly; this route took us through country roads, steep ascents, numerous blind spots and oncoming traffic in a single lane! Though challenging, it provided a welcome, adrenaline-pumping change to hours spent on the highway yesterday.

Day 9: Kaunas, Lithuania, to Riga, Latvia

Distance: 296km
Accumulated total: 15,882km

Morning light revealed that our staging area in Kaunas was overlooked by the impressive church of St. Michael the Archangel. But as always, time was tight and there was no time for sightseeing. Our mission for the day was to visit the award-winning Wess Motors dealership in Latvia.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we were greeted by the familiar face of Kaupo Õllek, who had joined the Five Continents Drive team for part of the summer stint from Barcelona to Ljubljana. Together with Elīna Gertmane from Wess, Kaupo delivered an informative presentation about the automotive market within the Baltic states and the dealership itself.

An additional reason for visiting Wess Motors was to properly equip the cars for the next leg of the route through the vast winter expanses of Scandinavia. Each vehicle was therefore brought into the workshop to be fitted with studded winter tyres and given yet another full check over. From the looks of it, the sound of whirring impact wrenches was like music to the ears of the team’s engineers.

Having bid farewell to our new friends at Wess, the convoy continued towards the hotel in Riga, where a custom illuminated sign guided us to the car park. This evening marked the departure point for vice captain Jean-Christoph Mathot, who stated his deep appreciation for the fact that team had worked successfully as a unit and had remained incident-free. He also wished that each member would “keep safety first toward Tommi Mäkinen’s place.”

Read more: Toyota Five Continents Drive, Europe – Winter Week 1

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