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Canadian Olympic champion Clara Hughes prefers a vehicle built for adventure in the great outdoors

gary matthews The Globe and Mail

She's one of Canada's most decorated Olympic athletes - in fact, she's the only athlete ever to win multiple medals in both the winter and summer games.

And even though cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes called it a career after winning a bronze medal in the 5,000-metre speed skating event at the Vancouver Olympics, her competitive spirit still burns.

When it came time to pick up her new vehicle - a 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS 4WD SUV - from a Sherbrooke, Que., dealership nearly 100 kilometres from her home, Hughes didn't take a taxi, ask for a ride or get the dealer to drive her. She rode her bike.

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"I thought, 'I'll just make it an adventure.' So I got on one of our old mountain bikes and packed a bunch of food into my pockets, a credit card, some money, my Blackberry in case I got completely lost, and a map.

"I picked the route that I thought would be the most beautiful. It took about 4 1/2 hours. I was pretty tired when I got there. Not because it was a long ride for me, but because that was the third bike ride I'd done since February because I've been travelling so much," says Hughes, who has only been home about 12 days since the Olympics. She just returned from Rwanda with Right to Play, an international humanitarian organization close to her heart. Hughes donated $10,000 of her own money to it after winning gold in the 2006 Winter Olympics. This year, she donated her $10,000 medal bonus to a Vancouver inner city school program.

"It was a real adventure. It felt good. I got there on my own power. It was so fun and such a treat to ride places I had never ridden. And then I really appreciated the drive home. I don't know if that influenced my feeling for loving this vehicle - thinking this was the nicest car I've ever driven, but I definitely was in full appreciation of sitting in that car on the way home," she laughs.

"It has the speed, endurance and power of an Olympic athlete. A lot of SUVs have a smaller engine and you don't have a lot of power. This is a V-6 engine so you're able to pass if you need to.

"I don't drive fast. I drive very prudently. But when you live in the country you do come across vehicles you're going to pass because it may be a local or older farmer who is in no rush to get anywhere and is driving 40 km below the speed limit. It definitely has good power to pass and to get up the hills."

Hughes has driven many cars over the years. "I've had so many car sponsorships as a cyclist with Saturn, Mazda, Volkswagen, Subaru. I've had the luxury of driving vehicles off the lot and not having to foot the bill and then to give them back. It's a neat experience to try out different vehicles."

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But Mitsubishi takes the cake for its charitable contributions - the SUV isn't part of a sponsorship deal; she bought it with her own money. "Mitsubishi is a company I love because they've raised so much money for Right to Play.

"The Outlander drives so well especially on the roads around here, which are very terrible. I'm really psyched to have it and I can't wait to drive it in the wintertime."

But she won't be driving it for a few months. She's in the midst of a two-month kayak trip on the Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories with husband Peter Guzman. "I'm a little sad I'm not able to put a bunch of miles on my spanking-new vehicle.

"At the same time, I'll have a lot of time for that in the fall," she says, although she have an hectic schedule - back-to-back speaking engagements, an induction in Canada's Walk of Fame and in the Olympic Hall of Fame in Calgary.

The Outlander suits her active lifestyle. "I like the amount of space in the back and the seats flatten right down. Peter and I do so much outdoor activity - kayaking, cycling and camping. We car camp a lot. There's so much space for us; that is really important," says the 37-year-old, who was made an officer of the Order of Canada in April.

"I'm big on safety in vehicles as well. I like the number of airbags. I've had a few pretty bad car accidents in my life so that's a major plus for me."

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"I have a perfect driving record except for getting hit by a drunk driver two years ago, which didn't affect my record, but affected his.

"That's why I wanted a good, solid, safe vehicle. I was in a rental car and the whole front end was ripped off. It was terrifying. I was lucky to walk away from it. That was a big part of getting a vehicle that had a good airbag system because that was way too close for comfort.

"Driving I think is the most dangerous thing. People underestimate how dangerous it is. People are always saying it's so dangerous riding your bike, but it's not as dangerous as driving."

Hughes still owns her first car - a 1995 Toyota T100 truck she bought in 1997 while living in California. "I have a friend who has made fun of me for the last 10 years because I still have my first vehicle. It's a basic vehicle. I called it Old Faithful because it's always there.

"When he found out we were getting this car, he was like, 'Are you finally going to put that truck to sleep?' " She laughs. "But I think we're still going to keep it."

There is no other vehicle on her wish list, either. "I could buy any vehicle - well, maybe not any vehicle. I know some cost a lot of money.

"But I'd never get a sports car or high-end Mercedes or BMW. That's just not who I am. I feel like I have everything I could have dreamed of in a vehicle. I have no vehicle envy for anyone."

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About the Author

Petrina Gentile is an award-winning automotive journalist - one of the few women who cover cars in Canada. Her life revolves around wheels. She has been writing for the Drive section since 2004. Besides auto reviews, she also interviews celebrities like Norman Jewison, Patrick Dempsey, Rick Hansen, Dean McDermott, Russell Peters, and Ron MacLean for her My Car column. More

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