Last year I was invited by Mazda to its Ice Academy in the American Rockies to illustrate the advantages provided by the i-ACTIV all-wheel drive system in winter. As it happens, the state of Colorado was at the very same time hit by an unusually severe snowstorm. Conditions were so horrendous that we were almost forced to turn back, for lack of flights out of Denver to Crested Butte.
After battling Mother Nature to reach our destination, we had ahead of us a day of testing on a closed track – the dual purpose of which was to explore specifics of Mazda’s systems, as well as to have ourselves a little fun at the wheel of Mazda’s iconic MX-5.
At the end of the day, a discussion with Mazda Canada’s PR representative Rania Guirguis gave us hope that we could test drive the MX-5 on our own, wintry Canadian roads. She confirmed to us the next day that an MX-5 Sport would in fact be made available to the automotive press in the winter of 2017, to demonstrate that the Japanese roadster could acquit itself well in cold climates.
12 months on, in the middle of February, the fulfillment of that promise was perfectly timed, Quebec having just been hit with the winter’s largest snowfall of the season. I set out to determine just how well the MX-5 could handle winter driving conditions.
In the snow. Lots of snow!
The test drive spanned 10 days between February 7 and 17, 2017, and it was on the 12th that the Greater Montreal Region was hammered by the biggest accumulation of snow of the winter to date. Which meant that secondary roads were bordered by massive snow banks, and, to my non-delight, my little MX-5 had been properly buried after a few passes by the snow plows. Time for the shovel…
Would the Mazda fail this simply test, that of being able to free itself from a huge pile of packed snow? I did actually have to clear out the area in front of the car, as its ground clearance is simply not high enough to overcome any real accumulation of snow. Luckily for my back, that’s pretty much all it took, as I was then able to free the car in just a few seconds from its snowy prison. Deactivating the anti-skid feature meant that the rear wheels worked harder and I was spared any more time and trouble getting myself clear.
At the wheel
Unsurprisingly, just a day after such a significant snowfall, the streets were not yet well-cleared. This meant extreme care was in order, as the MX-5 sits closer to the road than a compact car. Still, thanks to its incredible agility – the steering responds with precision to the lightest touch – the car handled itself well. And this was so despite the car being such a slight, lightweight creature.
One question that needed to be answered was whether the Mazda MX-5’s rear-wheel-drive powertrain would hinder performance during wintertime. Clearly, drivers need to know how to react when the rear wheels lose grip, but with its many driver assist features, the MX-5 is able to keep its occupants on the straight and narrow. What’s more, the traction control is quite loose, which could translate into some brief controlled spinouts.
By pushing the button that show a car skidding (that would be for the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) system), the roadster becomes much, much more prone to oversteering. Because it reduces road grip, it’s preferable not to deactivate this system, but for those few drivers knowledgeable about controlled spinouts, the possibility to do so may be like manna from heaven. Remove the ESC and suddenly the 155 hp of the 4-cylinder engine feel a lot more muscular. In fact, Mazda’s MX-5 is one of those cars that deliver impressive power despite a fairly meek powertrain.
Driver engagement in the driving experience offered by the MX-5 is real and significant – a factor which is becoming ever-rarer these days. In addition to the precise steering, the gear shifter is so ideally placed that you could continue running through the gear changes seemingly in perpetuity. The transmission box, meanwhile, is so easy to “manipulate” that it’s almost disconcerting – especially since the clutch and the tight positioning of the three pedals facilitate heel-and-toe shifting.
Certainly, the tight suspension of the Sport version feels quite rustic when traversing our pothole- and crater-infested roads, but, believe me, there are less comfortable ways to get around in your daily comings and goings. The presence of Brembo brake calipers means braking distances are more than acceptable, although to be sure these are longer on snow and ice. As for the Bridgestone Blizzak tires, they responded well during the few days spent driving on icy roads.
And how about the folding roof? Well, the frigid temperatures made it impossible to go topless for any length of time – there is a limit to what journalists will suffer through after all! In any event, the small size of the interior does confer one notable advantage, in that it takes just a few minutes to heat up the cabin. The presence of heated Recaro seats also proved highly valuable during the period of our road test. On the other hand, the low stance of the Mazda MX-5 does it make it a little difficult to access when there’s snow between the sidewalk and the car. Once inside, legroom is quite sufficient, though the same can’t be said about the headroom.
To the question, “Is the Mazda MX-5 a practical car to drive in the winter?”, I answer yes. Even when confronted with some of the more challenging conditions our winters can throw at us, the car performed, and it remains a well-kept secret in the industry for meeting wintertime driving needs. Ok, ok, I concede that the roadster may not be the most sensible choice in 90% of cases, but for ensuring a permanent smile on the face of its owner, the MX-5 has few equals!