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Snow, Ice and Sports cars
Trying to drive 860km through the Arctic with the roof down? Madness, surely?
It all started to get a bit dicey with about 200km left to run.
We had been wildly lucky with the weather up to that point. Oh sure, there was more than enough snow around to cause a total shutdown at home; enough ice to have every motorway in the land closed and every office empty save for those brave enough to venture out in cleated shoes. But the Arctic skies were clear and blue, and in spite of a temperature gauge plumbing the sub-20-degrees depths, the little Mazda MX-5 kept going, and we kept the roof down.
650km into the journey, it all started to go a bit wrong. By then, we had already driven up through northern Sweden and Finland, through the home of the Sami people in the incorrectly-named Lapland. It was beginning to feel rather like that ‘Going On A Sleigh Ride’ film that BBC4 shows around Christmas. In Britain, weather such as this causes chaos and misery, even death. Here in the frozen north, it’s just called Tuesday, and our Mazda was ploughing on happily, its studded winter tyres biting deep into the long stretches of ice and snow on the road. And – despite the images in this article showing a similar car to ours – we kept our roof down.
Why were we here? Well, it’s the 30th birthday of the MX-5, and so Mazda decided that it would give its million-selling sports car a present with real icing — a trip to the Nordkapp, or North Cape. A frozen outpost on the northernmost tip of Norway (well, frozen in winter — actually in the summer it gets very balmy and throngs of tourists flock here on cruise ships, it’s like a Scandi Amity Island) it’s the most remote part of Europe you can get to by car. Standing on the tip of the Kapp, looking out at the pitiless sea, a thousand feet below, there’s nothing but water and ice between you and the North Pole, and out there is were the terrible battles of the World War Two Arctic convoys were fought. And we’ve just driven here in a two-seat sports car, and we kept the roof down.
Helpfully for the purposes of newsworthiness, Mazda has updated the MX-5 a little for 2019, and this was our first chance to get behind the wheel. And best of all, that wheel now adjusts for reach as well as height, so the little cockpit becomes much more useable for those of us still carrying, ahem, winter blubber. There’s an engine update too, liberating more power from this range-topping 2.0-litre SkyActiv-G petrol engine, now with 184hp. That aside, this MX-5 was standard in its entirety. The only modification Mazda made for the journey was to fit heavy-duty winter tyres, dotted with rows of steel studs. Incidentally, those tyres came fitted to optional BBS alloy wheels, which really should be standard — they cost an extra £800 but are worth every aesthetic penny, as is the rich, deep, ‘Soul Red Crystal’ paint job.
Enough of the technical newness, and the birthday celebrations, though. A road trip such as this, epic in both length and temperature, should be driven simply because it is there. So, equipped with gloves, hefty parka, and a truly ridiculous hat with ear flaps, off we set.
Our starting point was Lulea, a large town in northern Sweden, where the local industries are a mix of the traditional (iron-mining and steel processing — there’s a lot of raw Volvo in the ground around here) and the modern (a gigantic Facebook server farm). From here, we would strike north-by-north-west (albeit less well dressed than Cary Grant) and cross Sweden and Finland, before heading up the north-west coast of Norway, all the way to the Nordkapp. 860km from door to door, give or take. And we would keep the roof down, wouldn’t we?
Well, yes, certainly at first. Actually, it was pretty easy to do so. The Arctic weather was bothering the thermometer, but not anything else and the skies were big, broad, and blue. The studded tyres gave us more grip than we needed on both deep snow and thick ice, and so the MX-5 was a doddle to drive even in these conditions. In fact, more than a doddle — a joy. There are those of the opinion that rear-wheel drive cars are in the chocolate teapot category once there’s snow on the ground, but it just ain’t so. Once you’ve got the proper tyres on, you can pretty much just keep going.
There are limitations though. A detour to a frozen-solid lake showed that while the MX-5’s traction and stability systems could easily cope, we could not if they were switched off. All would be well until just a millimetre too much throttle was applied, and then the roadster would gently but inexorably spin and embed itself in the nearest snow bank. That’s fine though — even with all the electronic nannies switched on, on roads like this, you’re allowed enough slip and slide to still feel like a rally hero, even if it’s actually the algorithms and electrons doing most of the Colin McRae work. Even so, the MX-5’s chassis remains at a peak of perfection — is there really any point in spending thousands more on a German-built sports car? They’re not any more fun than this…
Up and across the Arctic Circle we sped, happy with our hatted heads in the breeze and with the MX-5’s heated seats toasting our bums. Roadside stops for donuts and hot-dogs (hey, it was cold out) were met with incredulous stares from locals, some of whom were genuinely aghast at the idea of driving around in winter with no roof. Their hasts became even more agged when we told them where we were going. “The North Cape? In that?” Yup, and we kept the roof down.
As we headed north from the town of Alta, with its majestic fjord, the weather changed. The blue was gone, replaced by sulking black clouds, and sudden deluges of snow. Even when the snow wasn’t actually falling, the wind and the other cars around were whipping it into the air, and both visibility and grip were fading fast. We saw one car in our convoy actually turn back to try and escape a sudden blizzard, but seeing as other cars — locals included — were still headed cape-wards, we kept going. And we kept the roof down.
Our reward was a sudden clearing. Exiting the long, seemingly endless tunnel, lined with living rock, that connects the final island of the cape to the mainland, the darkening sky emptied of snow and cloud, and the stars began to twinkle through. The final miles to the cape itself were slippery and treacherous, but the Mazda and its magic tyres kept us between the marker poles and finally, we’d made it. More than 500-miles, through the Arctic, to Europe’s most distant point, with nothing between us and the Pole but sea and ice.
Our MX-5 was seemingly unfazed. It had chugged along happily all day, never missing a single beat, and only feeling wobbly or unstable when our own hamfisted efforts overcame engineering and electronic common sense. It had ventured to a place where, you’d assume, you’d need a massive 4×4 to reach and more importantly from which to return, and it had done it with minimal ground clearance and rear-wheel drive.
And yes, we really did keep the roof down. All the way.
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