Home/Features/Features/Mazda MX-5: Arctic Drive

Mazda MX-5: Arctic Drive

Think the UK's best-selling sports car is just for the summer months? Think again...

By Dafydd Wood / Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Gulf of Bothnia extends 450 miles north from the Baltic Sea, separating Sweden and Finland with 45,000sq mi of frigid water. On its north-western shore sits Lulea, a thriving city benefiting from traditional employers like the steel industry and air force, as well as more recent arrivals such as Facebook's first data centre outside the US, a 900,000sq ft behemoth powered by renewable energy. It's here that the final leg of our flight from Heathrow touches down, completing a five hour journey which has transported us over 1,300 miles. Progress will be somewhat slower from now on.

When tasked with driving 500 miles into the Arctic Circle, right to the northernmost point in mainland Europe, there are several vehicles which immediately come to mind. A Toyota Land Cruiser with enormous snow tyres. Or a Land Rover Discovery festooned with winches and light bars. Hell, an SUV of any description would likely do the trick, so long as it was wearing appropriate boots.

What doesn't pop into your head, is the Mazda MX-5. The diminutive roadster may have been a beloved mainstay of the UK market for almost 30 years now, but there's a time and place for its fun-loving charm, isn't there? Well, no, says Mazda - it reckons that the car's solid construction, decent power-to-weight ratio and inherent handling balance make it the perfect tool for the job of getting from Lulea to where the continent stops.

This facelifted iteration of the ND generation is, in fairness, the best MX-5 to date. Its 2.0-litre engine produces 26hp more than previously, for a total of 184hp, an output which is delivered at a joyful 7,000rpm - 1000rpm higher than in the outgoing motor. The redline comes 500rpm later than that, giving the 1,030kg car an effervescence which it previously sorely missed. The extra power also knocks eight tenths off the 0-62 time, reducing it to a far more respectable 6.5 seconds, with a top speed of 136mph.

All of that, along with little tweaks like increased steering wheel adjustability and a lower centre of gravity, has allowed the latest incarnation of MX-5 to finally live up to the potential which has seemed obvious since its launch in 2015. Whether it will aid the car in delivering us, unscathed, to the extremities of continental Europe, is another thing altogether.

There's only one way to find out, I tell myself while climbing into a stock example of the two-seat convertible, the only concession to the conditions being a set of studded tyres. First up is a trip to a nearby ice road, which in winter spans a frozen inlet of the Gulf, for us to get to grips with the car's handling in similar conditions to those we'll be facing on the drive north.

First impressions are good. The tyres lend the car far more traction than I have any right to expect, and while grip is hardly ubiquitous, especially in the lower gears, it isn't until a false sense of security - and the inevitable deactivation of the traction control - finally results in an about-face entry into the nearest snow bank. The limits of both driver and car now firmly understood, we return to the hotel for an early night ahead of a 6:00am departure the following morning.

With the sun hanging low in the sky, casting a pale light over the fresh snow, we depart. Lulea is just 62 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and on well ploughed dual-carriageways it doesn't take long to reach the famous boundary. From here a relatively straightforward run to the Finnish border follows, with the scenery turning beautiful and desolate in equal measure.

Despite a roadside warning that a car hits one of the 600,000 elk found in this part of the world a barely believably 15 times a day, we don't see a single one on the entire journey. An Arctic Fox makes a brief but memorable appearance, though, and there are Reindeer aplenty. Other than that, however, wildlife is understandably scarce.

It isn't until we cross into Norway with around five and a half hours of journey time left that the going begins to feel properly challenging. The roads get twistier and, with just one lane in either direction, the clouds of white-out powder thrown up by - thankfully infrequent - passing lorries are temporarily blinding. It's an issue compounded further by gaining on a car in front of you; having double, then triple checked the road ahead through one of the long, open corners, the only option is to move out, commit and get through the opaque cloud as quickly as possible.

As we get further north the roads become icier and the weather starts to close in. It's here that the traction control really earns its money. Easy to take the technology for granted when all it appears to be doing is nannying you along on a dry road; here, with purchase genuinely perilous at every turn, its value is incalculable. Against all the odds, and with visibility worsening, the MX-5 remains pointing in the right direction.

The enormous tunnels hewn from Norwegian rock offer periodic relief, and emerging from the other side of the final one on the road north, the skies suddenly clear and we complete the last leg of our journey unimpeded. Having begun in Lulea 10 hours earlier, a city closer to London than it is to the North Pole, we now find ourselves in the small fishing settlement of Honnigsvag, just 1,300 miles from the centre of the Northern Hemisphere.

One final, half hour drive sees us arrive at Nordkapp, the most northerly point in continental Europe reachable by car. Only the polar bear-laden island of Svalbard lies ahead of us, and the ice cap - although the most impressive sight of all is the car. Obviously the journey doesn't rank as the most treacherous ever undertaken, but the MX-5's accomplishment is less about its completion and more about the unwavering competence displayed throughout.

The balance, power and communicativeness that make it such a joy on UK roads were not diminished by the conditions. Even in temperatures of -20 and below, we found ourselves dropping the fabric roof, cranking up the heated seats and enjoying the passing scenery in the same way one might during an autumn drive through the Cotswolds. And whenever the tyres threatened to let go, you knew immediately - something which certainly cannot be said for a Land Cruiser or Discovery - and were on hand to catch it ahead of the traction control.

Above everything else, going 500 miles in this part of the world serves to remind you that motoring - even in 2019 - can be an unadulterated joy. Easy to forget in an era of smart motorways, speed cameras and traffic jams, but there are still plenty of places where it's possible to enjoy a car in the purest sense - and not just brand-new sophisticated ones either. The only question is the best one it's possible to ask: where do you want to go?

Find your next car