The sun is out, the top is down, and my right foot is flat!
I’m sorry. There aren’t enough passengers, so we can’t do a tour today.” Not the words I wanted to hear after nearly 400 km of driving. Not when the next tour doesn’t happen until the same time tomorrow afternoon and we had planned on spending tomorrow on some of the greatest driving roads in the country. I look at the map, then my watch. Then back to the map. Squinting into the sun I slot the shifter into first gear and drop the clutch. It’s on.
When I found out I would have the new Mazda MX-5 for the weekend, I knew I needed to take it to roads worthy of Mazda’s newest tiny roadster. Around here, that means a trip to the Cabot Trail. It’s 400 km to get there, a day’s driving on some of the best roads and best views in the country in the Cape Breton Highlands, followed by a long 400 km home. If I wanted my wife to come with me on that whirlwind weekend, I needed to find some WIIFM. What’s in it for me? For years, my wife has wanted to go Puffin watching. There are only a few places in the country where you can take a boat trip to go see the brightly striped beaks of the birds up close. Fortunately for me, one of them is at the entrance to the trail.
I figured that we could drive up and take a tour. Then we would spend the night before waking up early to drive the trail. Once that was done, it would be time for the four-hour trip home. It would be a wonderful test of the handling of the Miata, and it would be a wonderful test of how the car worked for long drives with two people and luggage. My plan was relying on three very important things. The first was that the Miata would do well with two people on board for an entire day’s driving. Especially since I’m not exactly small. The second was that the tour would leave as planned at lunchtime on Saturday. The third was that it wouldn’t rain. Rain would ruin the drive, keep the top up, and cancel the tour. But it’s Nova Scotia. It never rains here, right?
We wake up on Saturday morning and the sun is out and bright. It looks like it will stay that way for the next three days. That takes care of my biggest fear. The trunk of the MX-5 is bigger than I expected it to be, so our small suitcase, jackets, cooler, and my camera bag all fit nicely. If you need more space, I have a bit of a tip. With the top up, there is a large space behind the rear seats. We kept jackets, snacks, and drinks back there. You could probably fit a carry on in there if you needed to.
Since both of us are far too pale for eight hours of uninterrupted sunshine, the trip starts with the top up. At highway speeds, the MX-5 is a little noisier than a hard-top coupe, but we can listen to the stereo and have a conversation without yelling. It’s noisy, but it isn’t loud. It’s also not as cramped as we had feared. I’m 6’-3” with a long torso, and my head wasn’t touching the headliner. Width was tight, but comfortable.
After three hours, we arrived in Cape Breton. The speed limit drops and so does the roof. It’s a one-handed operation that I could complete easily from inside the car. From outside the car, it was a bit too much of a bend for me to reach the latch, but still doable. At 100 km/h with the roof down, the wind gusts are low enough that we can still have a normal conversation. There was some buffeting inside, but mostly from my head sticking up above the top of the windshield and spoiling the airflow. If I scooted down, most of it went away.
Highway 105 through Cape Breton whets the appetite for what you’ll experience on the trail. It gently weaves through forests, and winds around Wycocomagh Bay, Nyanza Bay, and then finally on the Bras d’Or lake. It’s a major highway, so it isn’t a challenging drive, but the long, sweeping corners give a taste of the balance and cornering of the MX-5, and the long hills show that the 148 lb-ft from Mazda’s sewing machine smooth 2.0L four is more than enough in a 1,100 kg machine.
It’s around one in the afternoon when we reach the tour, and it doesn’t take long after that for our guide to give us the bad news. We can wait for a few minutes to be sure, but we won’t be taking a tour today. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you a deal. But we can’t run the boat with three people.” That’s fair enough, but since we had planned to do the Cabot Trail Sunday morning, it made sense to wait. By two, we knew for sure there would be no tour today.
I knew that there was no way we could do the Trail Sunday, be at the tour for one, and then get back home. Unless we didn’t mind getting home well after dark. That didn’t sound like a fun day to either of us so I looked at the map. Our hotel for the night was 20 minutes from the start of the tour. The short way. The long way would let us do the trail today. It was 300 km, but Google said it was at least a five-hour drive. We had to be at our bed and breakfast by six. Four hours to cover 300 km of the windiest, twistiest, hilliest roads in the country. In a small, light sports car with a six-speed manual, limited-slip differential, and Brembo brakes. With the sun out and the top down. Challenge accepted.
This is where the Miata shines. On roads where you really have to drive. When loose gravel challenges the limited slip rear-end and you’re looking out at a 100m drop off from the side of the road. When rough pavement exercises the full travel of the Bilstein shocks of the sport package equipped car.
The newest MX-5, the ND to the hardcore car fan, is lighter than the old model. 20 years of technology, safety, emissions, and comfort and it weighs the same as a first-generation model. It’s an amazing achievement, and one Mazda’s engineers should be proud of.
With this weight comes an ease of movement. The wheels are just 17-inches, and are light. That means they move softly over bumps, letting the suspension work. They don’t crash like a bigger, heavier wheel would. It makes for a better ride. It also helps acceleration and braking, with less mass to speed up or slow down. Everything is low in the chassis, giving the car a lower center of gravity and reducing roll. The weight is balanced 50/50 front to rear.
What does all of that mean though? It means that I have never driven a car with better balance or better responsiveness than the MX-5. You can feel every bit of the road through the thick steering wheel. The camber changes, the cracks in the surface, you can even tell if you’re straying too close to the lines. Ease off the gas in a turn and the nose tucks in. Press slightly harder and the nose eases into a wider arc. Press harder on the gas and the rear-end will step out sideways. With a careful foot, it will step out as much or as little as you’d like. The quick steering makes it easy to keep the nose pointed exactly where you want it, no matter how sideways you’ve asked it to be.
I’m making up time. Quickly. The trick isn’t to drive faster, the limits are already high, and park police are lurking. The trick is to not slow down, and the Miata has no problem with that. Not that the brakes aren’t excellent. They engage smoothly, with excellent pedal feel. More importantly, even on the multiple 10 and 15 percent grade downhills they don’t fade or even start to smell hot. By this point I’m even driving some of those downhills more than once. Like I said, I’ve made up some time. Enough time to shoot some photos, enough time for my wife to check out some gift shops, enough time to do some of the best ribbons of pavement twice. Or maybe a third time for good measure.
We’ve been in the car now for ten hours in one day and I’m still doing extra driving. That tells you everything you need to know about the Miata. It delivers an extreme amount of driving enjoyment, but it’s still comfortable enough to spend the day in. The harder I push, the better it gets. But neither of us gets tired.
We arrive at the hotel on time, only to find out that food is almost another hour away. I can’t hide my grin as we get back in the car. What’s another hour or two when I’m having this much fun. The next morning we get a beautiful, calm day to go puffin watching. The stripey-beaked birds are much smaller than I thought they’d be.
2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Trim level: GS with Sport Package
Configuration: front engine/ rear-wheel drive
Engine/transmission: 2.0-litre four cylinder/6-speed manual
Power/torque: 155 hp/148 lb-ft
Fuel (capacity): Premium Unleaded (45L)
Fuel economy ratings: 8.8 L/100km city; 6.9 L/100km hwy
Observed fuel economy: 6.1 L/100km over 1,664 km
Warranties: 3 years/ unlimited km
Competitors: BMW Z4, Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86, Motorcycles