Norway, as magnificent as it is, should be uninhabitable. An incredible coastline full of vertical sided fjords, epic mountain ranges, entirely unpredictable weather, brutal but beautiful waterfalls, rockslides and melting glaciers litter the landscape of a country that is two thirds larger than the British mainland.
Somehow the Norwegians have tamed the land, with the meagre population spread out across the country connected by a combination of the most spectacular bridges, roads carved out of the mountains, and motorway sections that are taken by boat. I’m here in the facelifted Mazda CX-3, intent on working my way north along some of the most incredible driving roads in the world, putting the small but sporty SUV through its paces.
There’s a four-wheel drive option for the CX-3, and a choice of petrol or diesel engines, but for this run I’m in the front-wheel drive 2.0-litre petrol. It’s 5am, and the town of Stavanger is silent as I plot a route north to Trondheim, taking the long way round to enjoy more of the country than the motorway might provide. Rolling hills give way to mountain passes, interrupted by high bridges over plunging cliff faces, the view through the windscreen turning almost prehistoric but with modern engineering for contrast.
That includes the Laerdal Tunnel. Excavated from solid granite, the tunnel is more than 15 miles long, the lighting that strobes through the sunroof broken up by three large caverns lit in bold blue and yellow lights designed to simulate sunrise. Other stops include multiple ferries; each journey might only be 20 minutes or so, but a brief nap keeps energy levels up. Frequent petrol stations also help, with each selling hot dogs made from unidentifiable meat. There’s enough of them to conclude it must be a Norwegian culinary delight, but I’m not so sure.
There are frequent stops to gaze at nature’s beauty, but it’s Geiranger where there’s collective silence. Deep blue lakes, steep valley sides, mountains, a cruise ship, all under a blue sky. It’s picture postcard stuff, but for driving the nearby Trollstigen holds more appeal. A collection of 11 hairpin bends climb steeply up the fjord side, giving the road the name that translates roughly to Troll’s Ladder. Waterfalls crash alongside, the road surface damp despite the good weather, so the Mazda has its work cut out, especially given the more, er, enthusiastic driving that confidence in the car is encouraging.
Traversing across the country towards the coast, the Rv64 turns into the more dispassionately named Atlantic Ocean Road. Despite its humble title, the road features on virtually every ‘Best Driving Roads in the World’ feature thanks mostly to the landmark bridge that curves across the tumultuous Atlantic. Having now driven it, it’s not the ultimate road you might expect, but it looks incredible and the cafe at one end offers up views and pastries with an equal degree of excellence.
From here it’s more of the same. It’s odd to become so accustomed to the beauty outside, but every corner offers another spectacular view, another waterfall, another mountain, and I’ve got to get to Trondheim. North of Kristiansund the road roughly follows the coastline, staying mostly low and flat, allowing speeds to increase - although not too much, thanks to Norway’s low limits and financially crippling speeding fines.
The CX-3 that’s handled so much without even a flicker of reluctance relaxes into a sensible family car now the demands are lower. It’s quite, surprisingly so, and undoubtedly comfortable. After 1,100km of motoring over two days, there wasn’t a hint of tiredness or any aching muscles, while the high equipment levels would keep me entertained if there wasn't something much more interesting outside. It’s not quite a sportscar, although the G-Vectoring system employed on the front wheels does its best to offer sports-like handling, but the revised CX-3 is as close to a hot hatch as any SUV has any right to be.
The industrial city of Trondheim welcomes us, it’s regeneration into a service-led destination obvious. Over a drink in the bar - at £12 for a pint of beer! - we collectively relax and realise just what we have all accomplished, and what Mazda has managed too. I fly home, leaving the CX-3 for the next group to drive south in, wishing I could stay and explore more of the country. I’d even choose the same car.