Icelanders love lifted SUVs as much as Americans do.
If there was an official list of vacation destinations for gearheads, Italy would probably be at the top of it. After that it gets a bit hard to set the order, but you can bet that Germany, the US, Japan, England and Australia would all make it on. One country no one would think to include on the list is Iceland. The tiny island nation isn’t really known for its big car culture, this despite the fact that it is home to Formula Off-Road, a racing series that makes the World Rally Championship seem tame.
I recently spent a week road tripping around Iceland and can confirm that the country has a major love for cars. During my time there I saw a Mustang in a mall parking lot—mid-2000s and with a Florida dealership badge—and a Lancer Evolution driving down the capital city of Reykjavik’s cramped shopping and nightlife street, Laugavegur. Sports cars and go-fast imports are the oddity in Iceland, though. The country’s climate is unforgiving. In the winter its roads (both paved and unpaved) are covered in snow and ice. Iceland does not take kindly to soft sedans. I saw a BMW 3 Series parked on the streets of Reykjavik with its entire front end ripped off and its radiator dangling for all to see. If you want to take on winter and win you’ll need a giant SUV.
The most popular SUV in Iceland appeared to be the Toyota Land Cruiser, although the Japanese have plenty of competition on the island. Our rental car was a three-row Nissan X-Trail. It was a diesel and a manual. Imagine a rental counter in the US offering that combo! I saw plenty of X-Trail rentals on the road. If you see a relatively new SUV in good condition driving around Iceland there’s a good chance a tourist is at the wheel. Popular rental cars include the Dacia Duster, Suzuki Vitara, Toyota Rav4 and Volkswagen Polo. That last car isn’t an SUV but there were so damn many of them that it was worth a mention. Car-spotting of tourists gets old quickly, though. It’s much more fun to check out what the locals are driving.
Icelanders like their SUVs equipped with massive tires and a lift kit. The country’s main road is the 1 and it rings the entire island. It's surprisingly well-kept. I only drove it from Reykjavik to the city of Höfn on the southeast coast (delicious seafood) but aside from normal wear and tear it was in remarkably good condition given the traffic it sees and the extreme cold. That being said not all roads are in such good condition. When the pavement runs out and the snow piles up it’s good to have four-wheel drive and a stupid amount of ground clearance. Tourism is a massive industry in Iceland which is why you see so many vans masquerading as monster trucks. Tourists find them cool and the increased off-road capabilities mean companies can operate all year.
Loving trucks and SUVs seems to go hand-in-hand in the US. In Iceland that’s not the case. I can only remember seeing one truck during my trip, a Ford F-250. (There’s obviously more than one truck on the island.) The high price of gasoline and diesel probably has something to do with the lack of pickups on the road. Filling up the 15.8 gallon tank of my X-Trail with diesel cost $106! Iceland will never be a gearhead travel destination. The country’s main attraction is its bountiful natural beauty. That being said, if you do ever make a trip to see the Northern Lights in action (they're gorgeous) or explore one of the country’s many breathtaking waterfalls just know that the road there won’t be boring whatsoever.