IT TAKES A LOCAL TO SNAP ME OUT OF MY blissful ignorance. Partly because the thrashing of a Nissan Patrol’s 44-inch tyres is difficult to ignore when it’s occurring at eye level, but mostly for the look its occupants give as they pass. Incredulity would cover it, but pity is an appropriate surrogate. Either way, the drawn-out passing manoeuvre and perplexed looks are enough to remind me that what I’m doing isn’t, by Icelandic standards, normal. Driving certain cars endows one with something approximating celebrity.The Nissan GT-R, even after all these years, still has the presence to make people stop, stare and whip out a camera phone. Italian supercars do too, and while you can slide by crowds unnoticed in a Porsche 911, doing the same thing without attracting admiring glances in a Mercedes-AMG GT or a BMW i8 is nigh on impassible.
The Mazda MX-5 doesn’t quite pull off this feat in the UK, but in Iceland, with the roof down, you’d struggle to draw more attention if you were Bjork. Mazda’s roadster is not a familiar car on the Nordic island: Reykjavik’s lone Mazda dealer has sold just two.
Not two this month, or this year – two in total. From worldwide sales of over a million since 1989- Given the city receives around 40 more rainy days than London every year and 400 hours’less sunshine (and it’s among the milder areas on the island), this is perhaps not surprising. As I stroll around the world’s northernmost capital on a crisp evening, I spot a bright yellow third-generation Toyota MR2 parked outside an apartment block, and briefly wonder whether I’ve stumbled across the residence of the village idiot.
Keen to discover more villages that might be missing theirs, I set off to the north on the first leg of a journey that few will ever attempt in as mall Japanese convertible: Iceland’s Route 1 ‘Hringvegur’ ring-road. The highway, equivalent to a British A-road in most places and still surfaced with gravelin a couple of sections, winds its way around the entire country over the course of 1332 kilometres.
It cuts through mountains and volcanic regions, hugs fjords and rocky outcrops, and skims a narrow path between the Atlantic coastline and the tongue like glaciers that rasp their way down from the island’s highlands before calving off great chunks of ancient ice at the coast. Leaving the cosy confines of Reykjavik’s Hotel Borg and instantly dropping the roof isn’t quite as uncomfortable as I’d expected. It’s mid-September and surprisingly mild, and while Atlantic gusts swirl their way around the cabin, the sun is putting up a good fight, highlighting patches of the green, mountainous terrain that surrounds the city.
The MX-5 is not a fast car-certainly not in 1.5-litre guise, as here. On paper it only loses a second to the 2-litre model to 100km/h but from the moment I pull out into traffic in Reykjavik, the half-litre deficit is immediately apparent. As the road starts to climb and twist, it’s clear you need to work the four-cylinder unit hard, though like the larger motor there’s an inertia-free feeling to the way it responds to throttle inputs and a sense of mechanical integrity about it that melts any fears you may have about spending long periods in the higher reaches of the rev range.
“When I itch, I must scratch,’ the Icelandic say. It’s equivalent to our more familiar ‘if the shoe fits…’, and it’s somewhat relevant here because in Iceland the 1.5’s outright lack of pace isn’t frustrating so much as appropriate. The national speed limit is just 90km/h and drops to 80km/h on gravel. There’s no get-out-of-jail-free card for tourists, either.
Which is unfortunate, as big speeds can land you in a cell until the justice system can find a judge to preside over your case. 130hp? Er, that should be fine, thanks. Anyway, one of the great joys of convertible driving is being able to supplant actual speed with the sensations of it, and the latest MX-5 nails the required balance.
It lets enough of a breeze into the cockpit to let you know you’re motoring along, but even as the temperature drops it remains refined enough to make roof-down its default state. Like the engine, the car’s heating system feels faintly over-engineered; the temperature knob is never twirled into its final third and daren’t venture beyond one illuminated segment on the heated seats for fear of being rendered infertile. I’ve brought a hat and gloves along but for most of the trip they will go unused, as the former gently cooks my head and the latter’s woollen construction is not conducive to gripping the leather-rimmed steering wheel.
The further I stray from Reykjavik, the less it seems like Iceland is inhabited at all. With everyone travelling at roughly the same pace on the gently flowing roads, it’s rare to encounter any cars in your own lane, and oncoming traffic seems to comprise mainly gaily-coloured camper vans or the near-ubiquitous rental Suzuki Vitara S full of starry-eyed tourists. The scenery is changing but I can’t shake the familiarity – verdant mountains redolent of those in the Scottish Highlands give way to views of the arid yet occasionally chilled landscapes between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada.
Roughly halfway along the north coast and around 370 kilometres into the trip, America fades back into Scotland as the road descends into Akureyri, an important fishing port and the island’s second-largest city. A tight schedule means a stop isn’t possible, but the brightly painted buildings provide a brief flash of colour in my peripheral vision before I cross the Eyjafjorbur (‘Island fjord’), hang on to the Mazda’s lower gears, and climb back towards the centre of the island. There’s a rasp to the exhaust and blips of the floor-hinged throttle pedal are accompanied by a chuff of induction noise.
Like with the original MX-5, you know it’s been cynically tuned to sound like a sports car of yore, but it feels so much more genuine than the piped-in noises you’ll find elsewhere and more satisfying as a result. The shift action itself is predictably slick, too, though the constant engineered-in vibration of the gear lever seems a rose-tint too far.
The shifter in the first-generation MX-5 doesn’t shimmy in the same way but feels even oilier, more mechanical to slot. The scenery wants for little, but so far Route 1 isn’t exactly taxing for a low-slung sports car You feel the country’s topography leaves little figurative room for a road-builder’s creativity. Wide, flat valleys carved by glaciers draw simple paths between towns and villages.
There’s little incentive to send a road winding up a mountainside and cascading down the opposite face, as those who laid spaghetti through the Alps or aforementioned Rockies seem to have done. The straights are long, the curves gentle. The surface is perfect, too, resilient to poor weather but untroubled by the hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands, of cars that pass over it each day. Where landscapes haven’t been carved by ice they’ve been formed by ancient lava flows, leaving vast, flat volcanic plains and Arctic tundra.
Lakes, too, and as Hringvegur curls around Myvatn (‘Lake of Midges’, whose winged inhabitants have mercifully disappeared by the autumn, leaving the roadster’s nose unspeckled) the road finally breaks into some tighter turns. It’s still possible to maintain the country’s speed limit but the corners encourage you to build some load through the MX-5’s chassis. In 1.5-litre form you get 16-inch wheels (an inch smaller than those on the 2-litre), no limited-slip differential and no uprated Bilstein dampers.
The combination makes the car even more prone to roll than evo’s 2-litre long-termer – wiggling the steering to and fro rocks the car around its roll axis like the springs are made from trifle – but where the more powerful model can feel disjointed and rides firmly despite ample body roll, the softer car seems a little more fluid. Reykjahlio lies to t he north-east of Myvatn and marks the gateway to the eerie, active-volcanic landscape south of the Krafla Caldera (a huge geological cauldron). Plumes of steam rise from deep geothermal wells, whose sulphuric smell instantly pervades the Mazda’s cabin.
Yellowstone Park, the similar prehistoric terrain of which I visited a few years ago, is where my thoughts land this time. A hardy few explore the thin trails that lead through bubbling pits of boiling mud. For the first time, there’s a tangible sense of the island’s churning geologyin action. Krafla and a series of other volcanoes that cut through Iceland from its northern to its southern coast are the ever-present reminder that Iceland is being torn asunder, stretched between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Few places I’ve ever visited match the isolation of Iceland’s northeastern plains.
America’s deserts come closest, but the roads that slice through them are pockmarked by civilisation. In Iceland, you feel like the only living being for miles around. The roads often track arrow straight, with no obstacles to disrupt their path towards the horizon. At 90km/h, you get plenty of time alone with your thoughts. I mostly mull on whether the person who implemented that speed limit had ever left the confines of Reykjavik.
As night rolls in, and with around 650kilometres covered, I reach Egilsstaoir, the country’s largest easterly town. Parking up, I finally pull up the roof. This, just like the process of stowing it, is the work of one arm. People have long claimed this possible of MX-5s but the current car is the first that doesn’t require you to have a ball-joint mid-spine to comfortably reach back from the driver’s seat.