We've driven 828 miles in two days around Icelandic. Here's what we learned
Jim Holder
15 September 2016

Over the past 36 hours I spent about 20 of them in a Mazda MX-5 Icon, the latest special edition of the sports car, and first to be applied to the lesser powered 1.5-litre engined variant.

The point of this extended journey was to get a close look at this fourth iteration of the Icon special edition - think jazzy looks and an extra kit list for a moderate price rise - and to reappraise the MX-5 through prolonged exposure against one of the world’s most spectacular backdrops.

Here's how it went:

00:30

Apologies for the long gap: the weather turned and the run in to Reykjavik was foggy, wet and a bit more difficult than expected. But we're here, having travelled 828 miles in 36 hours, having spent 24 of those hours in the MX-5.

It's a great feeling, but perhaps not one of elation - but purely because this car on these roads, ably supported all the way by stunning, regularly changing scenery, have made light work of it. I should be exhausted, but right now that's not the case.

Earlier today I posed the question of whether the MX-5 can truly be considered a sports car when it's powered by this dinky 129bhp 1.5-litre engine. The answer, emphatically, is yes. I can count on one hand the number of times it felt breathless on this trip - and then always on long uphill runs when I'd ballsed up and lost momentum beforehand.

Yes, some will want more and be able to handle more, but the MX-5 has enough. Enough to thrill, enough to make you feel alive and enough to teach you a few driving lessons about delicacy, precision and thinking ahead to get the most from what you have. Valuable lessons, all of them.

To wrap up, this has been an educational trip on two fronts. The first was to reaffirm just how good the MX-5 is in every guise. If you own one or plan to own one, I am very jealous. The second was to remind myself that there is no substitute for taking a long drive in a car to learn all about it. That I got to do so in somewhere as stunning as Iceland was an added bonus. If you get the chance, I heartily recommend it - ideally with an MX-5, but also in one of the Dacia Dusters so beloved of the hire car companies out here.

Finally, do read our first drive of the car for a more succint summary of its merits.

6.30 - motorsport potential

We've just had our first experience of Iceland's occasional gravel roads, and while it may have no honest bearing on whether you should buy an MX-5 or not, boy was it spellbinding.

The roads are in supreme nick, but extremely slippery in places - perfect for a little low speed sliding so long as you didn't dwell too long on the consequences of falling over the edge of the valleys. It's a reminder again if just how controllable this little car is - that precise throttle pedal, linear power delivery and feelsome steering pay such huge dividends.

Having been fortunate enough to cover the World Rally Championship 15 years ago I'm almost starting the campaign to get the WRC to Iceland, as sections of the gravel road would put New Zealand and Wales' famous roads to shame. Failing that, perhaps a one-make Icelandic MX-5 rally series. Announce it tomorrow Mazda and my house will be up for sale the next day...

5.30 - roof-up refinement

With 331km still to go we've spent rather too long staring at the scenery today. It'll be close to 10pm by the time we each Reykjavik and it means our planned eight-hour day at the wheel has taken 13. Oops.

Not that we have any regrets. Iceland is stunning, and this perky, just-so MX-5 the perfect compliment. It's not fast or ferocious but it is so nicely judged that it's an absolute joy to be in. On another note, we've had the roof up for 100km now. It changed the character of the car - there's some wind rustle for starters - but I'm not sure I could definitively say which I prefer.

Certainly my reddened wind-blasted face is enjoying a break from the elements. As I result, I suspect it'll stay up for this final four hours. But there's still time to change my mind

4.30 - thoroughly Reyk-ommended

Reykjavik is on the horizon, the fuel readout is still claiming just north of 44mpg and - given the chance - I’d probably swing round and start the journey all over again.

I won’t do the Icelandic Tourist Board’s job for it, but while my photographic skills may not be much to write about, the pictures here do convey some of the awesome natural beauty of this place.

Judging by the number of Dacia Duster hire cars on our route, plenty of people fly over and do exactly this journey. Someone on our trip has pointed out it would be possible to do a lap in one, gruelling hit - but you’d miss out so much in the dark, and you’d feel pretty rotten the day after even if health and safety didn’t intervene.

Two days is also hard work. 828 miles is a long way on even the best roads. But it is doable, and we have stopped pretty regularly to take in the sights and sounds, albeit usually sticking an MX-5 in the snaps. Fly in Friday, fly home Sunday feels like an extremely exciting way to spend a weekend.

Probably the ideal is a bit longer, though, so you can take a bit more time at some of the landmarks and indulge in a few of the tourist hot spots, walking up the volcanoes rather than looking at them from the foot of the steps, or dipping in one of the public lagoons rather than dreaming about a swim in a bath-like lake.

If you can find an MX-5 to do it in so much the better. But if you can do it in any way, I’d thoroughly recommend it.

 

3.00 - intimidation is expected

Black volcanic sand, crashing Atlantic waves, rising mountains, flat flood plains and now on the horizon there's the forbidding sight of a glacier - we're having quite an afternoon.

But it's nothing compared to the fun the guys and girls heading off-road are having. In Iceland you can only head off-road if you have a special licence that says your vehicle is appropriate - and low-slung sports cars don't count.

The hardcore vehicles have specially adapted tyres to stop them getting stuck and to reduce damage to the countryside. The Land Rover and Mercedes Sprinter you see here are good examples of how to do it. When they pull alongside your MX-5 you don't half feel small...

The MX-5's cousin, the Fiat 124 Spider, is getting a fixed hard-top variant. Read about it here

2.30 - have your say

It looks like we’re on for finishing around 6pm UK time - 34 hours (with 20 driving) after we left. Time to throw in a big question, then - and keep you hanging for the answer.

Do you think this MX-5 and most pertinently its dinky 129bhp 1.5-litre engine with a mere 111lb ft of torque is really, truly a sports car?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering a lot over this journey. I think I know the answer, but before I share it I’d be interested to know what other people think.

Don't forget, you can follow Jim's journey on our Instagram account

12.30 - drawing to a close

We’re only a few hours from Reykjavik now, which as I write this feels horribly close to meaning we’re at our destination. Odd that a four-hour trip from London to Manchester feels like a massive chore, Maybe Birmingham needs more volcanoes and glaciers…

If you’ve read this blog, you don’t need telling that I like this car. For a quick summary, you can read the first drive review.

What surprises me - and which may yet draw some critical comment from readers in the right of reply box below - is that I’ve actually come to rather like the look of this special edition Icon model.

I have disliked cars with stickers from the age of about eight, when I realised that the stripe down the side of a Metro really didn’t make it any faster. Upon reading about the Icon I was equally suspicious. And after spending nigh-on two days in it, I rather like it.

Fancy a hard-top MX-5? This is coming soon...

10.30 - if we have to be picky

As we head through the quite stunning glacial sections of road on our route down to the bottom of the island, perhaps it’s time to apply some rigour to this assessment and pause the superlatives for a minute.

None of this, however, should be taken, as deal-breaking - it’s more to acknowledge that a sports car that can be bought for a sizeable chunk under £20k in base guise is always going to have some compromises. In many ways the shock here is how few there are.

Anyway, here goes: on coarser surfaces the bumps and potholes are keenly felt.

The pedals, while well spaced, are slightly offset.

And - maybe - the body could be better pinned to the road, although if there is an issue its marginal and confined to when you’re tackling a series of fast corners that weave back and forth. I also suspect that in tightening up the body control, you’d lose some of the suppleness that makes the MX-5 so predictable and so joyously easy to drive hard.

That’s it. I’ve been in this car for 15 of the past 26 hours and all I can do is nit-pick.

The new Mazda 3 was recently revealed. Is it as good as the MX-5

08.30 - heigh ho, heigh ho

Here we go again, off on the much more moderate 500km eight-or-so hour run from west of Iceland in Egilsstaðir back to Reykjavik to complete our lap of the Ring of Iceland on the evocatively named Route 1.

After 12 hours in the car yesterday, and at six foot four tall, I’m surprised to find myself jumping in with such relish. The MX-5 is a compact sports car in genre and reality, and there’s no question that it’s cabin is tightly packaged.

But I’m amazed at how I fit in. Sure, he top of my head is buffeted when the roof is down (which it was for every second of the 12 hours yesterday) and yes my knees are rather closer to the dashboard than I’d like, but it’s okay.

Maybe I’m lucky because a lot of my height is in my legs, which I can curl up, but I really have no problem with it. On a track day when more energetic use of the steering wheel is needed I might be in trouble if arms and legs got in the way of twirling the steering wheel, but otherwise everything seems in good order.

23.34 - read the full review

Ahead of tomorrow's mileage, perhaps the best recommendation we can give is to read out first drive review of the MX-5 Icon. If you've been following this blog, the 4.5-star verdict won't be a great surprise, but it's confirmation that this diminutive sports car lives up to the hype even after a long, long day of driving.

With that, we'll leave you until tomorrow's run down the east coast of Iceland and then west along the length of the country back to Reykjavik.

21.14 - and what did we learn today?

A quick update prior to some dinner and hammering out the first drive review on this car. As you'll have gathered, it has been an amazing 12-hour day in the MX-5, enjoying plenty of adventure in a country that just leaves nature to inspire you. There's a neat parallel with the MX-5, of course, which does what it does exceedingly well, without ever trying too hard to do more than it should.

Conclusions? After more than 400 miles there ought to be a few, but with almost as many to go there's no point rushing the process. What's abundantly clear, though, is that 1.5-litre engine has enough poke to make this a fun car most of the time. And for most of the people most of the time that will be enough. In my book, that makes it a genuine sports car, and no debates.

19.30 - road and car harmony

I hope by now the pictures are giving you a taste for the type of road we're on while tackling the Ring of Iceland, an 828-mile loop of this most spectacular island (and I write that in the knowledge that heading inland would provide yet more dramatic landscapes).

It's raised a bit of a debate about what makes a great driving road - splendid scenery and prolonged hours in a sports car tends to do that. The roads we've tackled have been largely in pristine condition and are wide open and empty.

Coupled with the backdrop I'd say this makes our route one of the greatest driving roads I've encountered. But opinion differs: there aren't many corners, cambers or inclined to be found, and I rather get that point. But I'd just say that lends more power to the MX-5's credentials for being able to turn an average drive into a great one.

Bar on the steep inclines, the 1.5 engine delivers enough power to keep on pulling, and while it may not be the sharpest handling car in the world, it gives the driver enough to get the heart beating faster. And if a car and road together can put a smile on your face, they get my vote.

Read the final report of our long-term Mazda MX-5 here

18.00 - an end in sight

The end of this long day is finally in sight, with just a couple of hours to go. Irritatingly there are clouds overhead, so the chances of the lottery jackpot winning photo of the MX-5 under the Northern Lights is unlikely to come off.

It’d be a lie to say I’m not exhausted. In fact, I’m shattered. Four hours sleep and eight hours in a car tend to do that to you. But what reserves I have owe much to the MX-5s cabin. For such a small car, there is a surprisingly decent amount of space.

Out here, most of the locals drive Toyota Land Cruisers on monster truck tyres, so they can go off-road without tearing up the tundra or getting stuck. Draw up alongside one of them and all you can see from the MX-5 is tyre wall. You feel so small.

Still, it’s the MX-5 that’s turning heads. Iceland has a single Mazda dealer, who reckons he’s sold about two MX-5s - unsurprisingly, as there’s not much call for open-topped roadsters in the land of ice and fire - so to see UK-plated cars roaming around has certainly piqued interest (if not, I suspect, sales).

17.00 - MX-cellently equipped

It's easy to look at the MX-5's price tag and equate it to its reputation for being a stripped back sports car and then conclude that you have to do away with creature comforts.

Not a bit of it - I'm tapping this with a heated leather seat warming my backside, phone connected to Bluetooth and the sat-nav doing its thing. Low cost doesn't mean low on kit, and when you're evaluating a special edition like this MX-5 Icon that counts because one of the inducements to buy is the extra kit bundled up for a relatively small premium.

Is it worth the extra? That's what we're here to find out, but while the journey may be long (526km to go today) we're far from roughing it.

Read our review of the 1.5 Mazda MX-5 here

16.00 - MPGood grief

A considerable way into our odyssey for today's leg and it's time for a fuel and chocolate covered liquorice stop (it's a local thing).

Most impressive stat of the many that I've learned about the MX-5 is rather mundane in nature but hugely impressive - so far we've averaged a claimed 44mpg. Even allowing for the computer's optimism that's impressive, and another reminder of why lightweight construction feeds a multitude of benefits.

Sure, the speed limit means we're sat around the 55-65mph sweet spot for eking out mileage, but it is still a stat for the MX-5's makers to be proud of. We're up into some more mountainous roads soon, though, so let's see if we can put a dent in that economy...

Find out if all Mazdas impress with their fuel economy here

15.00 - an unsung driver's paradise

The biggest problem with driving in Iceland so far? Not the right speed limits, but the fact you want to stop every 500 metres and take photos. It's freezing today, but there's no chance we're going to leave the MX-5's roof up and risk missing seeing anything.

Fjords, rolling hills, waterfalls - we've had them all, with the promise of geysers, bubbling mud and molten lava to come. Could the Ring of Iceland be one of the great undiscovered driving roads? If you're judging it by scenery rather than the challenge of the roads, it could well be.

Matt Prior thinks we should all find a local driving road...

14.00 - a pure formula

Back to an earlier point - the delicacy of the controls and how they combine so well with the MX-5’s engine to make it feel alive.

One asset I didn’t mention was the linear power delivery of this 1.5-litre engine. Not only does it deliver just enough shove to make you feel like you are making decent progress, but it keeps on giving, all the way to 7000rpm if you so choose.

That’s such an important characteristic for a car like this, because it gives it and the driver a connection, a feeling that it will respond immediately to every request.

Out here on the lonely roads and lunar landscapes of the north coast of Iceland (NASA sent early astronauts here to train, so desolate is it in places), the Mazda’s engine has also prompted some fairly dark thoughts about the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of turbocharged engines.

Mazda has pledged to stand strong. How long it can hold out remains to be seen, but if they ever give way we’d better hope that turbo tech has moved on a long way.

Is the Mazda MX-5 the perfect weekend car? Read our long-term report here

12.00 - "a thrill to drive, even on the wrong kind of road"

A short stop to devour a sandwich, although given the straight nature of some of the roads and the fact that you can go for 10 minutes without seeing another car (and when you do it’s a fellow tourist) there’s plenty of thinking time here.

What’s acutely clear, even given the aforementioned restrictions of knowing there could be a zealous policeman around the corner, is that the old cliché about the MX-5 being a thrill to drive even on the wrong kind of road is true.

Sure, some will raise a smile at that: how can a sportscar be powered by a 129bhp engine with just 111lb ft of torque? Well, those people probably haven’t driven this MX-5. Sure, there’s little in the way of poke to set your trousers on fire, but there’s enough to raise a smile every time you slide through the gears.

Key to that is the precision of the controls - accelerator response, gearshift and steering are all pretty alert and keenly calibrated, and that just breeds confidence.

We've run an MX-5 as a long-term test car, read what we think here

10.00 - 300 miles in

We’ve tucked almost 300 miles under our belts now, which is pretty decent given the stops for photography and video.

Rather than spill everything out at once, I’ll try to build up the conclusions as mileage rolls on. One thing I’m confident of saying now - or repeating, as just about anyone who has sat in an MX-5 says the same - is just how accommodating the cabin is.

The seat adjusts enough to get people of all shapes and sizes comfortable, while the steering wheel is just so and the switchgear is all intuitively positioned. It’s a rare achievement to get the pedal spacing just so, too, although the alignment isn’t quite straight ahead of the driving position.

One thing I’m less certain about is whether to have the roof up or down. As reports of a heatwave in the UK abound, it’s somewhere between cold and very cold out here. Being blasted with cold air isn’t without appeal, but after this many miles I’m starting to struggle to see the joy of it…

What's in store for the next MX-5? Find out here

09.00 - what it's all about

As we start to stretch our legs, it’s worth a line or two on what the Mazda MX-5 Icon actually brings to the party - after all its launch (in the UK only) is the excuse for dreaming up this road trip in the first place.

To all intents and purposes, it is a special edition in the lightest sense; a well-kitted, well-priced 1.5 SE-L Nav bedecked in striking paintwork on its door mirrors, rear spoiler and front skirt and some stickers down the side. That kit list includes buyer-friendly rear parking aids, leather seats and automatic headlights and wipers  - not a bad return on the £800 price premium over the standard car.

Inevitably, most buyers are expected to be found among Mazda and MX-5 fans. Just 600 will be made, a figure that’s less than ever before: 750 Icons were launched in 2000, 1563 in 2005 and 1250 in 2007.

While MX-5s have never been especially tenacious at holding on to their value, there’s a kudos in these cars that some will covet.

Which is better; a new Mazda MX-5, or a used Porsche Boxster? 

07.00 - Reykjavik

I’m writing this outside the hotel in Reykjavik, a city that’s home to half of Iceland’s 320,000 or so population. Early in the morning it feels like a sleepy British village, shops shut and silent but for our bustling about as we get ready to set off.

From here, we’re heading north to Borgarbyygð, then Skagafjörður, Akureyri and then an overnight halt in Egilsstaðir. I mention these place names not in the expectation that you’ll know them, but to challenge you to try and say them out loud. If I start practising now, I might have perfected each of them by the time I return on Thursday night.

With a strictly controlled 90kph speed limit that’s enforced by the threat of on-the-spot fines, it’s a 400-mile journey that would take more than eight hours if we drove non-stop. I’m assured the scenery means we will stop, and it will take nearer 12. It’s certainly one way to get to know a car.

Read our full review of the Mazda MX-5 here

Our Verdict

Here is the fourth-gen Mazda MX-5 - the definitive small sports car

Fourth-generation MX-5 heads back to the roadster's roots

Join the debate

Comments
3

14 September 2016
Cute
Red Devil

15 September 2016
On the way to borgarbyð don´t use the hvalfjarðar tunnel instead use the cost road that circumvents it called hvalfjarðar vegur. The cost road is a bit bumpy but otherwise great to drive on and the odds on the police being there are slim. The police tend to hang out close to towns or in them (therefore farther away towns = lesser likelyhood of seeing the police) and on the way to borgarbyð there are three speeding cameras.

15 September 2016
The Whalefjordroad or Hvalfjarðarvegur, the alternate choice to going through the Whalefjordtunnel or Hvalfjarðargöng should make a very nice drive in a small sport car, plenty of turns, some blind hills - though be careful with the speed, as you really don't want to end off the road in that area.

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