Since its introduction in 1989, the Mazda MX-5 has undergone scores of evolutions and even a name change, but retained its fun soul and positioning as the sports car for the rest of us. Two winters ago, it came out of the garage to declare itself as the sports car for all seasons. Who knew?
Mazda was hosting a driving event at the ceiling of Colorado to demonstrate their i-Activ all-wheel drive in truly snowy conditions. As a fun addition, a fleet of MX-5s was provided for drifting recreation on a racetrack of snow-covered ice.
No, MX-5s are NOT all-wheel, only rear-wheel drive. Let us pause and consider.
How appropriate this Mazda Ice Academy was hosted in the American West: driving a rear-wheel-drive sports car in snow is akin to gun ownership. It’s sporting fun, but if you don’t acknowledge a few basic laws of physics, things end in tears fast. Still, this was someone else’s gun, supervised by pros, and on their property.
So picture the fun! We drifted through turns; built confidence then drifted on straights; then occasionally lost control and spun into snow banks! The takeaway lesson, fun as the ride was? Don’t try this at home. Best keep your fun locked safely in the garage during winter.
So imagine my surprise when a last-second request to test an MX-5 for a week this past December was granted. Maybe the MX-5 truly was the automo-toy for all seasons?
I could pick up a 2017 MX-5 RF GS the next (wintry) day.
Luckily, this tester was the new-for-2017 retractable fastback — that’s the RF in this article’s title — which, yes, means convertible. It’s an upgrade to the still-available soft-top (which unless your rotator cuff is buggered, was hardly any cross to bear). Less luckily, this was one snowy December, so I only tested that new feature twice. Both times very briefly; the second was an accident.
However, the snow we experienced in our homely corner of Canada, though regular, wasn’t deep that week. Instead, there were constant dustings of white thrills available to the responsible fun owner. Perfect for a machine with a maximum ground clearance of fewer than 15 centimetres.
Meaning? Proximity to the ground enhances thrills. Ever noticed how much fun a go-kart is despite topping out at speeds you can beat on your bicycle? If the measure of joy were simply about speed and not the relative sensation of speed, nobody would hate United Airlines whose vehicles cruise at 900km/h. Which meanders to the next point.
Dollar for a smile, it’s hard to beat the low-to-the-snowy-ground MX-5.
This tester was upgraded with the $4,400 Sport Package, which though welcome was not necessary. You can still order the highly recommended 6-speed manual transmission without the sport package (but — we salute this — cannot get an automatic with it).
It was powered by 2-litre 4-cylinder engine which achieves 155hp@6,000rpm and torques out 148lb-ft@4,600. That may not sound like a lot but the MX-5 weighs just 1,114kg and let’s not forget how close to the ground you are. Indeed, if you agree that driving pleasure is more down to agility than speed, this is a lightweight champion that floats like a butterfly.
Speaking of agility, the rack-and-pinion power-assisted steering delivers feedback to the driver like a Vulcan mind meld, lightening assistance with speed. So parallel parking isn’t a 20-minute workout but highway driving is firm and rapier sharp. The impossible-to-say-three-time-fast Brembo front brakes promote superb control, though the loud red painted callipers on all four wheels stick out. Picture a gummy teenager’s braces in an embarrassing yearbook photo or an angry baboon’s tochus. Why do people think that’s cool?
Anyway, the braking complements the steering, promoting superb driver control — even when the driver’s flirting with the edges thereof. So, speaking of mind-melding, corners with a dusting of snow provide as close a demonstration of Jinba Ittai as you’re likely to find. This old Japanese expression, which Mazda uses to describe its philosophy of driver control, poetically translates to “horse and rider as one.”
Switch off the nanny controls to give that horse wings. Is this what a bird feels like?
Mazda MX-5 RF GS MSRP: $38,800
Sport Package: $4,600
Freight & PDE: $1,795
As driven: $45,195
Steven Bochenek, is a twice-decorated AJAC Journalist of the Year, runner-up (always the bridesmaid, never the bride).