Why Iceland is wrong about the MX-5

You don't see sports cars in Iceland. We go on an open-top mission to prove that's unjust

“What are you doing here?” As I fill up ahead of an 828-mile road trip, an onlooking taxi driver is struggling to comprehend the car before him. And it’s hard to blame him. I’m told Mazda has sold just two current-generation MX-5s in Iceland, and now one sits in his gaze, wearing British numberplates.

Words: Stephen Dobie

Photography: Dave Smith

OK, so it’s not a large country, particularly in population terms. But two? When a car is as cheap and cheerful as this, it feels borderline criminal. It wouldn’t take long to research the reasons why sales are so low, of course. Iceland’s bleak and challenging topography has bred its own niche of SUVs-cum-monster trucks, the polar opposite of a low-slung roadster.

And as our Dacia-driving friend has proved, merely parking an MX-5 – roof down, of course – in urban Reykjavik attracts no shortage of bewildered onlookers. Asking them why they don’t buy MX-5s (and ergo sports cars) would be too easy, though. Instead, we’re going to climb in and attempt to prove it’s all cobblers. Namely, by lapping the country’s Route 1 ring road, taking in as much of this fine island’s scenery and as many of its tourist-pleasing spots as we can on the way.

Oh, and in two days, the car is needed elsewhere. So we need to cover at least 400 miles a day, rendering tourist stop-offs barely more than drive-bys. I immediately decide the roof’s not going up, allowing a close to 360-degree look at the views, whatever weather Iceland wants to fling my way. Given its lonely positioning in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, that’s usually every type of climate you care to name.

You may have clocked the rather gaudy nature of the MX-5 we’re using. It’s an Icon special edition, one of 600 that will make their way to the UK. Superficially, it has some questionable chequers down the side and red spoilers, the front of which I’ll have to be mindful of later on. More importantly, there are heated leather seats as part of the makeover, too, which should help take the edge off any adverse conditions.

Day one takes us clockwise from Reykjavik, in the south west, to Egilsstadir, in the east. The first couple of hundred miles pass through scenery that’s at once bleak and beautiful, and a bit like the North Yorkshire Moors if they’d been scaled up on a photocopier.

Despite the hectic schedule, it’s impossible to resist scrambling up a manageable little volcano by the side of the road. Steadfastly refusing to raise the Five’s roof, I trust in Iceland’s low crime rate and leave it open for the hike. The tourists disgorging from a nearby coach give me the same ‘is he off his trolley?’ look as the man back in the petrol station. I sense that’s going to happen a lot.

The Icon only comes with the MX-5’s punier 1.5-litre engine, all 129bhp and 111lb ft of it. You can buy 1.0 Fiestas that outmuscle it, but with the wee roadster weighing barely a tonne, its on-paper stats are outgunned by how energetic it actually feels.

Wide and open as they are, Iceland’s roads are governed by a disproportionately strict 55mph limit – the breaking of which commands gargantuan fines – so the power going to its rear wheels feels entirely ample anyway. A clumsy prod of throttle in a full-blooded performance car could put you straight in jail if the police can’t extract enough krona from your bank account. The MX-5 is perennially comfortable with its modest performance, and on these roads, its driver ought to be equally content.

The scenery starts looming really large, and moves from a grown-up Yorkshire to an upscaled western Scotland, with mountains and volcanoes looming very large above us. The road itself stays remarkably well cared for – skirting around the northern edge of Iceland, I can’t imagine winters here are mild – and puts the potholed mess the UK endures every February to shame.

Mind you, there are bumps where the road is following Iceland’s tumultuous surface, and the softly sprung MX-5 occasionally bounces like Tigger. Rather than scorn its lack of body control, I smile. It’s an involving car at low speeds, which allows you to have fun in an entirely carefree manner. Hotshoes won’t be satisfied, but they won’t be buying a 1.5-litre convertible.

The final couple of hours towards our overnight stop cram in the scenery of three worlds, never mind UK regions. There’s Godafoss waterwall, carving its way dramatically through dark, foreboding rock. It’s almost law to stop here for a photograph. Then follows a trip through thermal town, the steaming springs of Hverir. The smell of sulphur pours into the MX-5’s cabin likes it’s from a jug of whisked-up egg, and having already been smothered by the pong, it’s worth lingering just a little longer for more photography.

The marvellous thing about Route 1 is that many glorious sights and sounds (and not so glorious smells) lie right at its side

When a bunch of Japanese tourists swarm the MX-5, though, I realise we’ve stopped for quite a lot longer. You can spend weeks in Iceland, painstakingly exploring its ever-varying scenery. But the marvellous thing about Route 1 is that many glorious sights and sounds (and not so glorious smells) lie right at its side, perfect for a quick photo stop, or simply admiring from the car. For which there’s plenty of time at Iceland’s tortuously low speed limit.

After leaving the Mars-like thermal springs, we head onto what appears to be the set from the Moon landings, if you’re a conspiracy theorist. The road climbs, falls and meanders over grey, lava-beaten land. Being so light on torque, the MX-5 requires attentive use of its six manual gears if you’re not to be met by gravity before the top of each hill.

But it’s a welcome opportunity to enjoy its super-precise little gearchange, and welcome work in a drive that is otherwise far from taxing at legal pace. The biggest challenge is resisting a run towards its 127mph top speed on the long, long roads that take us towards the east coast. Between that thought and the next car we see, there could have been several attempts.

As day one closes, the MX-5 has done nothing to convince me sports cars deserve the cold shoulder in Iceland, no matter how inadequate they look alongside the balloon-tyred 4x4s so popular here. With the heating cranked up and my best coat on, it’s been completely pleasant inside, and fuel has been used at an entirely acceptable rate. Grip or composure have never been issues, and with its turbo-free little engine, we’ve even been able to find the upper reaches of a couple of gears without offending anyone. It’s been a lot of fun.

But not as fun as the beginning of day two. Mere minutes after we emerge from the hotel, the tarmac makes way for bare, unforgiving gravel. Obtusely, this coincides with the twistiest, trickiest bit of road on Route 1, as hairpins wend their way up and down volcanic landscape with little in the way of barriers to separate you from the dangerously enthralling vistas.

It must perplex and frighten the tourists in the rental Suzuki Jimnys no end, and seem utterly illogical that the only short stretch of Iceland’s ring road that’s not impeccably surfaced happens to be laid out like a special stage. But in a dinky little rear-drive roadster, without a scary abundance of overbearing torque? It’s predictably hilarious. The pinging of gravel and stones around its wheelarches is the only sign something’s not right; everything underfoot feels wonderfully natural.

Our whistle-stop tour takes us from Rally Iceland to the southern edge of the ring. The salty smell of the sea is on the tip of my nose a couple of miles before the drama of the Atlantic rolls into view, and what follows is a slightly life-affirming drive.

Tarmac has returned (and some safety margin with it), as the road calmly snakes around a hillside with the sea to my left, and Jurassic-looking hills to my right. It’s just brilliant, with the opportunity to use a number of the MX-5’s gears and a satisfying amount of its performance, all with just the windscreen surround as a blind-spot on the otherworldly surroundings.

Iceland keeps making you gasp, especially when you’re cramming its frequent scenery changes into a sustained journey. Next around the corner is the icebergs of Jokulsarlon, complete with seals swimming playfully around them. The lagoon that stages them is one of the melty by-products of Vatnajokull, an enormous glacier that sits upon an active volcanic crater.

There are numerous rock-strewn tracks that lead right up to its surface, but our schedule – and fear of forever discarding that, um, fetching chin spoiler – mean we stick to observing its icy fingers protruding through the rock face from the road. It really is hard to keep looking straight ahead.

A quick confession, though. A sudden rain storm – mercifully, the only one of the entire trip – forces a 15-minute period with the roof up. The rumour that ‘if you drive fast enough, you won’t get wet’ proves utter fallacy when Icelandic clouds are concerned. But with the manual roof folding so quickly and easily, you only need a dextrous co-driver to carry out some unwisely high-speed folding. No electronic 31mph limiter forcing you to slow right down here.

I want to avoid hyperbole, but with the roof folded back, the drive continues to climb my list of all-time favourites. You don’t always need an enjoyable car and jaw-dropping scenery to make a good road trip, but when those two combine, it’s probably going to be really good.

The final few hours toward Reykjavik are tinged with melancholy. I could just keep on going. Alright, so the MX-5 is just big enough for two adult humans, and the passenger footwell quickly becomes a pool of possessions, even with just a few days worth of kit on board.

Away from Iceland’s studious speed control, it is undoubtedly not a quick car, either. But that merely gives you all the excuse to rev its happy little 1.5-litre engine with all you can muster. It demonstrates that limpet-like grip and hunkered-down suspension don’t have to be staples of a performance car.

And it proves wholeheartedly that sports cars are not out of their depth here, and that the sighting of an MX-5 should be a common occurrence, and not something that drags excitable tourists away from sulphuric springs. Iceland is a country I couldn’t recommend higher. But please, go by open-top tour…

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