Rear-wheel-drive in a Canadian winter... how hard can it really be?The MX-5, equipped with Michelin winter tires, handled the snow and black ice like a champ. I didn't get stuck once; I didn't have the slightest issue going up or down hills, and best of all, the back end didn't kick out on me unless I intentionally forced it to.
For years and years, all I’ve heard is “you can’t drive a rear-wheel-drive car in a Canadian winter”. To do so would be asking for trouble, not to mention the fact that supposedly, getting anywhere would be a serious challenge. I have always shrugged off such suggestions, and I was a huge advocate in convincing my FWD-diehard parents to trade-in their beloved late model Toyota Camry for a BMW 3-series, minus the xDrive option. This is their second winter with that vehicle, and I can safely say that they have converted to the dark side. I decided to conduct a few tests with the 2013 Mazda MX-5 GS to find out just how “dark” this side really is.
When I planned this story a few months ago, I contacted our dear friends over at Subaru to find out if they would be willing to put a BRZ on the fleet for the winter. Unfortunately, that pursuit was a no-go. I then came up with the brilliant (or so I thought) idea of trying to convince Mazda Canada to stick a properly-equipped MX-5 onto the cold-weather fleet. One of my all-time favourite driving cars in some of my all-time favourite driving weather. Could it be the absolute perfect winter car? Mother Nature decided to help out too; my week with the roadster corresponded perfectly with the coldest week of the winter so far.
It’s not just the rear-wheel-drive that makes this 2013 Mazda MX-5 GS so awesome. It’s the perfect weight balance, the lack of weight altogether, the limited-slip differential, the 6-speed manual with a shifter 99% as good as Honda’s, and finally, the sheer size of the car that makes lane-hogging beige Corollas appear the size of city buses. On the downside; it’s not very fast in a straight line, it’s stereotypically a girl car, and I’m pretty sure that it shares its powerplant with my blowdryer. However, none of that mattered; because every single second I spent behind the wheel of the 2013 MX-5 had me positively giddy.
On my daily commute one day, I found that there was about half a foot of snow on the ground. Toronto drivers, in their typical fashion, were crawling to a stop. Cars everywhere seemed to be throwing on their four-ways and surrendering to the shoulder. I noticed it wasn’t just the typical Siennas and Altimas; all-wheel-drive Range Rovers and 4Matic S-Classes were pulling over. I honestly have begun to question whether everybody has just forgotten what life was like 10 years ago before traction/stability control and snow tires were taken for granted. I threw the MX-5 into second gear, turned off the traction control, and drove exactly like I was taught how to; like a normal person. The MX-5, equipped with Michelin Primacy Alpin winter tires, handled the snow and black ice like a champ. I didn’t get stuck once; I didn’t have the slightest issue going up or down hills, and best of all, the back end didn’t kick out on me unless I intentionally forced it to.
Temperatures hovering around the -13* Celsius mark meant I couldn’t spend much (read: any) time driving with the top down. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to revisit the one significant issue I had with the MX-5 when I reviewed it this past summer. At 6′ tall with relatively long legs, I found it extremely difficult to get comfortable when driving my little roadster. Top down is absolutely no issue whatsoever, but that’s partially due to the fact that I love open-air driving so much that my legs seem to forget how uncomfortable they get in cars this small. When sitting in the car, I had to have the seat as far back as it would go, reclined right against the back of the cockpit, and the height adjustment set as low as it can be. Even still, I found my knees banging against the steering column, which ensued in a couple bruises.
I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to drive many high-horsepower vehicles. That being said, proper sports cars such as this MX-5 and its rivals (Subaru BRZ anyone?) hold a special place in my heart. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again; there’s a certain appeal to being able to drive a car close to its limits without doing anything illegal. While I was piloting the MX-5 down Erin Mills Parkway in Mississauga on a clear day, my colleague suddenly exclaimed while hyperventilating, “Cop! COP! COP! SLOW DOWN!” Not wanting to deal with being pulled over for ‘having too much fun’, I glanced down at the speedometer, and to my surprise, I was only doing ~65 km/h in a posted 70 km/h zone. I genuinely believed for a few startling seconds that the speedometer was off. Upon my imagination’s return to reality, I couldn’t help but appreciate the feeling of “going like hell” when in fact you’re going no faster than anyone else.
Is the MX-5 the perfect winter car? Mazda Canada put me in a relatively loaded GS model; coming in at an as-tested price of just over $36,000. That’s a bit high; especially considering I can have a Scion FR-S for exactly $10,000 less. Also, for $36,000, my MX-5 was missing a few key features I’d like in a car that I’d thoroughly enjoy all winter long. I’m not complaining about luxury features such as leather seats or a heated steering wheel. Basic as a “pure” sports car should be, I’d like the opportunity to play my iPod via a USB connection in the year 2013. If the Chevrolet Spark and Toyota Yaris can offer a USB port at half the price, so can the MX-5. I know it’s an option; it should be standard. Same goes for the lack of Bluetooth. The Ontario government has prohibited the use of my mobile phone while driving. Granted, with the top down in the MX-5, I probably couldn’t hear anything from my phone anyhow, but still; $36,000 and no Bluetooth is unacceptable. Also, yes, I suppose there’s a part of me that may very well be getting old and frowns upon a car that, for that $36,000 price tag, doesn’t have heated seats.
Though the frugal part of me was a tad bitter at the fact that the 2.0L 4-banger in the MX-5 demands premium fuel, I was pleasantly surprised that no matter how hard I drove it, I still managed to get below 9L/100km. Cruising on the highway, the numbers dip into the 7L range. This economy is definitely a fair bit better than the Subaru WRX I fell in love with a few weeks ago, but the 6th gear in the Mazda helps. Acceleration is non-existent, though the awesome sound of the blowdryer engine and the wonderful gearing does give you the illusion of getting to speed quickly.
I do understand where the MX-5 enthusiasts are coming from with their incessant harping on how the car has gained weight with every generation. Even still, with our roads being dominated by Audi Q7s, Chevrolet Suburbans, and Toyota Sequoias, I’m still comfortable driving the 2013 MX-5. The 1990? Maybe not so much. There’s no denying though that the little roadster that few have dared to directly compete with still provides an unbeatable value for your dollar. Another bonus point towards the car is that a few minutes of quick research showed me that with current incentives, one can actually buy an identical MX-5 for just above the ~$30,000 mark.
Absolute best winter car ever? As long as you fit in it, there really is no substitute.
2013 Mazda MX-5 GS Gallery