“I fully acknowledge and understand that my participation in the event may result in serious injury and/or death to myself or others.”
It’s not unusual to sign a disclaimer before driving the latest new cars, often pre-production handbuilt models, but this one grabbed my attention unlike any that had gone before it. Still, launch events for cars are stage-managed to perfection, and there’s very little that can go wrong.
I was in Nordkapp, the northernmost tip of continental Europe, standing a sensibly safe distance from a 1,000 foot cliff face that drops away to the freezing Barents Sea. The next land mass is the Arctic ice pack, and that’s not even real land. It’s an unusual location to launch a car, but Mazda is celebrating 30 years of the MX-5 and, to celebrate, has given the current model a bit of a facelift.
Yes, MX-5. I’m not here in a four-wheel drive SUV or a tough pickup truck, but a two-seater soft-top sports car. There have been a few changes made to the car this year, not least slotting a revised 2.0-litre petrol engine under the shapely bonnet. That’s transformed the car, even though there’s only an extra 26hp over previous iterations, and only knocks eight tenths off the 0-62mph time, dropping it to 6.5 seconds. Somehow it feels significantly more zesty, more athletic. More fun.
The steering has been tweaked a little too, and now adjusts to make getting a comfortable driving position easier, while the centre of gravity has been lowered to improve stability. The car only weighs 1,003kg, which is positively waif-like in the modern world of motoring and makes me feel guilty for climbing in and adding significantly to that total.
I set foot in the MX-5 at 6 am, following an alarm call that seemed far too early. The drive ahead of me is 500 or so miles south, through the wilds of Norway, into rugged Finland, and then through tree-covered Sweden, all the way to Lulea. Conditions are predicted to be tough, with sheet ice covering the road and fresh snow laying on top. There are studded tyres on the Mazda, which will hopefully be tough enough to cut through the surface of the ice and find some grip. It’s just about light as I’m ready to leave, with some low grey cloud cover, and the wind is whipping around violently. Obviously, I put the roof down.
Leaving the protection of the harbour town of Honningsvag, it suddenly becomes clear that the weather has been a little worse than expected. The wind intensifies, blowing snow across the road surface at speed, and the edge of the road is a concept marked out by occasional poles stuck in the ground. And then, as quickly as we started, we stop. Parked in the frozen tundra, an avalanche has blocked our way. The only way out.
Four hours later, the road was clear, but time was against us. With bad weather forecast towards the end of the run, I wanted to cover as much ground as possible while there was still light, so it was time to put the hammer down.
The roads, still covered with ice, twisted and climbed around the coast, before crossing over towards Alta. Every corner presented a different level of grip, making driving demanding and requiring undistracted focus, but the MX-5 was beautifully balanced. Slowing for a corner entry was easy, turning in took two attempts as the changing grip levels made themselves known and then, with the traction control systems turned off, the exit of corners would see the back end gently slide out, ice and snow being thrown behind by the tyre studs as the power was put down. And repeat for three hours, revelling in the direct control of the car and the feedback it gives through the steering wheel and seat of the pants, all the time driving through some of the most stunning scenery you’ll ever see.
The wind was still howling, but the sky was clear and, apart from right down at the tarmac, visibility was excellent. Speed rose as confidence increased, the Mazda’s windscreen keeping the seriously sub-zero air out of the cabin. It was comfortable enough to turn the heater down slightly, at least until a certain speed was reached and the airflow started chilling down my hands. A quick stop to put gloves on solved that problem and we were off again, still with the roof down.
A stop at Kautokeino for fuel showed the Mazda was being remarkably frugal; 30mpg might not seem impressive initially, but the temperature was heading south rapidly, and the car was being driven with a foot to the floor.
Topped up, both the car and me, we said goodbye to the stark, rocky, but beautiful scenery of Norway and passed into a short section of Finland. The landscape changed to a deserted flatland, white powder the only thing in sight for miles. The roads were straighter though, so progress became swifter. Only the occasional truck caused an issue, leaving a trail of fine ice particles in their wake that’s near impossible to see through.
Sweden sees the scenery change once more, with trees appearing on the route, and eventually turning into forests. As this happened, the sun started to set and the weather turned for the worse. High speeds, pitch black, low visibility, that starfield effect that snow produces when driving, and knowing we’re a hundred miles from the nearest civilisation is not a time for bravado, so that’s when the roof went up. It’s one less thing to be distracted by and allowed me to remain warm, dry and cosy without the need for a thick coat, hat and gloves. The triple-layer fabric roof keeps out all weathers, seemingly, and makes life a little quieter too.
The weather got worse, and the speeds dropped until, eventually, the last 30 miles presented something resembling normality. The motorway section into Lulea should have been almost relaxing compared to the drive thus far, but the two-lane road was down to one, very narrow lane, with progress hampered by trucks that had slid off the road, blocking part of the path ahead. Scandinavia was going to be demanding right until the very end.
Drifting the MX-5 gently to a stop outside the hotel in Lulea (irresponsible, yes, but fun after ten hours of tension) I sat back and thought about what had just happened, and why Mazda thought this would be a good idea in the first place.
I’ve done similar drives in SUVs in the past, and they’re undoubtedly more practical. But when conditions got bad, the light weight of the MX-5, along with its agility and controllability, meant that I had far more options when things were going awry. Understeering? A bit of throttle and a tug of the wheel gets grip back and sends the rear sideways in a controllable fashion. An elk jumps out in front of you? The MX-5 will stop sharper than a two-tonne truck. Somebody behind out of control? The convertible will scamper away without hesitation. Only the tiny boot and slightly cramped cabin were downsides to the journey.
So what was Mazda’s point? That if you need to cross 500 miles of the frozen Arctic in a hurry and don’t have much luggage, the MX-5 is the best option? Not quite. Mazda wanted to prove just how capable a car the 30-year old roadster is, by putting it in an environment as far removed from its natural habitat as possible. It was, undoubtedly, dangerous and stupid, but I survived and loved every minute. Point proved.