A Sports Car for All Seasons
Japan’s snow-covered Hokkaido island gives Inside Mazda a chance to see if the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF can cut it in extreme conditions
The most tempting thing to do would be to turn around. To head back to the Mazda depot and ask if they have a Mazda CX-5 or a Mazda CX-3. Something with i-ACTIV all-wheel drive.
The northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is completely blanketed in snow. Actually it’s more than that. Hokkaido is lying beneath an enormous, thick duvet of the stuff. More snow than I’ve ever seen before. And I am driving a Mazda MX-5 Miata.
A low-slung, rear-wheel drive roadster is not the obvious choice of transportation around here. But this MX-5 is the RF, its retractable roof making it a genuine all-seasons sports car. Or, at least, that’s what I’m about to find out.
This car, and every Mazda besides, was honed on Hokkaido at Mazda’s Kenbuchi Proving Ground. With winter temperatures plummeting into double digits below freezing, it’s where Mazda pushes its new models to their limits. Every component from wheel nuts to heating systems, brakes, and stability control are tested to extremes. And so are Mazda’s engineers, who live here during the long cold winter months.
For 30 years Mazda has been testing its cars to withstand the most extreme conditions at the Kenbuchi Proving Ground in Hokkaido. In January and February this year more than 1,000 employees braved temperatures between -9°F and -27°F to carry out assessments from tire-grip tests to an analysis of braking in the snow to how well doors open and close in freezing conditions. Mazda’s i-ACTIV AWD and G-Vectoring Control technology were developed here too. In addition, a team of locals maintain the site year-round, starting the preparation and buildup of the test courses in the summer when there isn’t even any snow.
Bitterly cold it may be, but Hokkaido is also very beautiful. And I’m aiming to see as much of it as I can in the next couple of days from the unique vantage point of the MX-5 RF.
Hokkaido is the second largest of the Japanese islands, its landscape forged by millennia of seismic activity. There are no less than 20 volcanoes, and, rather worryingly, many of them are still active. You’re never far from the smell of sulfur or other earthly emanations. But the trade-off is that the land itself is tremendously rich.
Dense green forests cover vast swaths of the island, feeding a prolific paper trade, while flat plains are home to a huge farming industry. Hokkaido’s delicious pumpkins and potatoes, and milk and beef from its cattle, feed the whole of Japan. But in the winter you wouldn’t know it. Only the eerie skeletal structures of polytunnels or the occasional sign advertising the presence of Holstein cows suggest the abundance that the warmer summer months bring.
At this time of year the snow itself is the main attraction. Widely regarded as the best powder on the planet, this snow draws visitors from all over the world to a growing number of ski resorts. Top of the list for many is Niseko, so that’s what I enter into the RF’s navigation system. And, with a quick kick to check the winter tires and a prod of the heated seat switch (which is an obvious option for driving a car in these sub-zero temperatures), it’s time to head off.
The cabin of this Japanese-specification MX-5 RF is really rather lovely. A deep Nappa leather envelops the seats and it takes a mere matter of seconds to get comfortable behind the wheel. The controls, steering wheel, and pedals have been placed in such a way as to make you feel instantly at one with the car. That’s Mazda’s Jinba Ittai philosophy at work, even before you start the engine.
My hand falls to the gearshift and I’m surprised to find that the car is an automatic. Part of the essence of the MX-5 is the simplicity of connection through the sweet-shifting six-speed manual transmission, and I wonder how the bond between car and driver will be affected.
But this Mazda MX-5 RF does feel a little more sophisticated than its convertible sibling. The exterior styling, with its striking flying buttresses defining the unique fastback coupe profile, definitely gives the impression of being a little more grown up. Perhaps the addition of an automatic transmission could provide a new dimension to the MX-5? There’s really only one way to find out.
The MX-5 RF’s SKYACTIV-G engine fires with an inspiring blip of the throttle and an accompanying rasp from the tailpipe. It’s a little more subdued as I have the roof in place and the windows up, but it is well below freezing, so you can hardly blame me.
I shift into drive, selecting Sport mode with the Drive Selection Switch handily located just behind the lever and tentatively move off.
The road is an endless white sheet, layer upon layer of compacted snow and ice, and it takes a little time to work out the best approach just to get moving. However, after a bit of experimentation, I find that a manual shift to second gear using the steering column-mounted paddle is the best way to get going. In fact, manual mode seems to suit both me and the conditions better, allowing early upshifts to avoid overpowering the rear tires.
There’s promise of much sideways fun to come, but I’m now approaching the serenity of Kenbuchi’s Shinto shrine and it’s hardly the place for that kind of behavior. So I step out and ring the temple’s huge bell for good luck instead—I may need it.
Rolling on through the countryside, my next planned stop is the Hokusei-no-oka Observatory Park. Here a massive pyramid provides an incredible vista of the Taisetsu mountain range. Or at least it would, but the cloud has come in thick and fast and it’s difficult to see further than a few yards. With visibility getting worse and night closing in, I think it’s best to take the Hokkaido Expressway towards Sapporo and my overnight stop.
At higher speeds and on clear asphalt, the RF is remarkably refined. With the roof up, exterior noise is kept to a minimum and the journey passes quickly as I work my way through the playlist on my phone, which hooks seamlessly to the Mazda Connect system.
Sapporo is a city of almost two million hardy people, where the winter is made more manageable with such feats of weather-defying engineering as heated streets and sidewalks. Unfortunately they don’t extend to where we’re staying and the roads are like polished glass, so I elect to put the car away in the automated parking facility of the hotel. Simply park on a turntable, get out and watch in awe as the car is whisked away by robots to some unseen spot.
Another good reason for leaving the car behind is that Sapporo is home to Japan’s first brewery, founded in 1876. Sapporo’s namesake lager goes down very well with a steaming hot bowl of ramen.
The morning brings clear skies and, although the outside temperature gauge reads 14°F, I decide to enjoy the sun while it lasts and drop the roof of the RF.
After warming the engine (and the seats) I press the switch and just 13 seconds later the roof has been stowed away, thanks to a mechanical ballet that draws approval and some disbelief from the locals.
With hat and gloves on, heater blowing, and a posterior that is gently toasting, I leave Sapporo behind. The built-in wind deflector means there’s little buffeting, and it’s only when I have reached the Nakayama Pass, an hour to the south, and the snow has begun to fall in earnest that I raise the roof again. Slowing right down to a near-walking pace, the precision performance takes place in reverse as the roof goes up and I’m soon peeling off layers of clothing as it’s so snug inside.
Like many of the twisting, turning country roads in Hokkaido, the Nakayama Pass has a low speed limit, but as I climb deeper into cloud and thick snowflakes swirl and dance across the windshield, I’m hardly even approaching double-digit speeds. I can barely see beyond the hood and am grateful for the bright red overhead arrows installed to mark the edges of the road. It’s decidedly odd to look up rather than down to figure out where the road goes, but it works. On a clear day, with views of the Mount Yotei volcano (thankfully, inactive), I’m sure that this would be a beautiful, thrilling drive, but right now I’m just glad to stay on the road.
The ski area of Niseko is accessible from four resort villages, Hanazono, Niseko, Annupuri, and Grand Hirafu. There’s a lift system that links all four and the slopes of Mount Niseko offer a depth and quality of snow that is world class.
The area is booming, with the number of fine restaurants, hotels, and luxury homes growing year by year. Think of it as Japan’s Aspen, with a mix of hardcore snow junkies and discerning tourists seeking the finer things in life from onsen (hot springs) to hotels where the ski lift quite literally picks you up at reception. Travellers from all over the globe come to enjoy the mountain activities of the Niseko region and many end up staying.
Canadian Andrew Spragg is just one of them. The founder of Rising Sun Guides, he specializes in guiding groups of adventurous skiers and snowboarders in the back-country areas away from the busy slopes. Andrew has been in Niseko since 2005 and still gets excited when there’s a fresh dump of snow. “If you want to ski pow [powder] then this is the place,” he says.
There are many ways to ascend the mountains, from the resort’s lifts, to snowmobiles, caterpillar tracked vehicles or even helicopters, but one that’s becoming popular, says Andrew, is split-boarding. As the name suggests, this uses a snowboard that splits in half (lengthways) to effectively form two skis. The bindings get switched around and, when sticky “skins” are applied, they allow the rider to hike to places where snowboarders could never reach before. When you get to your starting point, simply re-assemble and board down, carving fresh tracks in the waist-deep powder. It sounds like heaven.
Niseko is so popular that, although this was to be our final destination, there’s nowhere to stay (top tip, vacationers: book well in advance). Instead I head an hour further south to Lake Toya where an extraordinary hotel—The Windsor—has been built with views of the lake to one side and the Sea of Japan on the other. It has its own ski slope, golf course, and spa. Not a bad spot to wind up.
We see it in the distance, lit up like an ocean liner on the horizon. Turning off the main road onto the hotel’s lengthy private drive, plowed between vertiginous snow banks, there’s nobody for miles around, so I switch off the car’s traction control and carve a few turns, steering more with throttle than wheel, relishing in the astonishing balance of this MX-5 RF as it powerslides with grace and poise through the frigid winter’s night.
It’s a fitting end to the trip, a reminder of just how fun to drive the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF really is. But what I have also discovered after long hours behind the wheel in sometimes highly treacherous conditions, is how comfortable and confidence-inspiring it is, no matter what the road or the weather throws at it. This truly is the sports car for all seasons.