We all know the phrase, "finding a needle in a haystack". But what about, "finding a titchy island in the middle of the Atlantic"? That's the first thought that entered my mind when I got the chance to drive the updated Mazda2 on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores.
This tiny string of nine islands — which belong to Portugal — sits almost bang in the middle of the Atlantic, 1000 miles west of Lisbon and 1196 miles south-east of Newfoundland in Canada. So, to say it’s a remote location to test a car is something of an understatement.
With its balmy climate, warmed up by the Gulf Stream, they’re not called the Hawaii of Europe for nothing.
Undaunted by the logistical hurdles, Mazda UK, in its infinite wisdom and never shy of a challenge, elected to transport me to drive the latest incarnation of the Mazda2 around the volcanic idyll that is Sao Miguel, the largest — but in reality, still pretty titchy — island in the Azores.
In truth, our journey to the island’s capital, Ponta Delgada, was a breeze compared to what the cars had to undergo. Ok, the day started with a 3am wake-up call — never brilliant — followed by a 6am departure from Heathrow to Lisbon.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I was finally ready to face breakfast while we twiddled away the next two hours waiting for the flight to the Azores.
Breakfast? How do you fancy a double espresso and a Raisins Snail? Aye, something got lost in translation: for Raisins Snail, read Pain au Raisin … you know, one of those curly pastry things with raisins.
Another two hours later, we finally landed in a rather blustery and wet Ponta Delgada. Glad the pilot successfully programmed his satnav.
The cars meanwhile, endured a rather longer journey. First, they travelled to Lisbon on the back of transporters. Then they were loaded — rather precariously — on to the top deck of a ship for the three-day sail to the Azores.
Mazda’s supermini was the perfect size to master the narrow, ever-twisting roads which meander around and across the island.
Recently updated, and now including two new models, a GT and GT Sport, the slimmed down eight-model range utilises three different outputs from the same 1.5-litre SkyActiv-G petrol engine. The range also now includes G-Vectoring Control as standard.
And while there are 75PS and 115PS versions of the engine, I opted for the best-selling variant in the range, the 90PS. I also snapped up the only new Tech Edition of the Mazda2 in stunning Dynamic Blue Mica.
Limited to just 750 models, the Tech Edition — based on the £14,695 1.5 90ps SE-L Nav — benefits from the addition of 16in alloys, rear parking sensors, privacy glass, climate control, auto lights and rain-sensing wipers. And all for a price premium of just £300 over the SE-L Nav. Bargain, I’d say.
My eight-hour, 375km epic drive followed a figure-of-eight route around and across the island, first heading west, then back diagonally north-west to south-east, up the east coast before meandering back cross-country to Ponta Delgada.
The Azores not only lie on the volcanically tempestuous Mid-Atlantic Ridge, but also have to deal with a further geological complication being that they also straddle the meeting point of three tectonic plates.
No surprise then that the jaw-dropping view is that of the breathtaking Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul lakes which are located in the centre of a massive volcanic crater three miles across.
As if that wasn’t enough, bizarrely, the best view is not from the viewpoint, but from the rooftop of a neglected and abandoned concrete 5-star hotel. Built in the Eighties, with staggering views from its rooms and balconies, it went bust almost before it got started.
Further on the route, I came to Mosteiros, with its amazing black rock beach. Then an exhilarating section of road with never-ending hairpin bends took me to the panoramically-located Lagoa do Fogo perched high in the mountains in the centre of the island, and on to the volcanic spa town of Furnas.
Apparently, our UK-reg cars were the only non-Portuguese registered cars on the island, so as you would expect, they attracted quite a bit of interest.
As for the driving standards? Cars, lorries, and coaches coming round corners towards you on the wrong side of the road was commonplace, as was turning left suddenly without any indicators.
The Azores certainly left an impression. Sao Miguel — known as the Ilha Verde, ‘the Green Island’ — is probably the greenest island you’ll ever encounter in your life, and the sinuous, narrow roads which dissect the island are a joy to drive. In fact, they were the perfect foil for Mazda’s little supermini and made that 3am start worthwhile.
All photographs credited to Dave Smith.