CRUISIN’ IN PORTUGAL
Mazda’s MX-5 Miata is small, light and made for magical sunset rides with the top down
“You will be spending time outdoors, in the mountains, near water,” is what the fortune cookie promised. A few months later, we found ourselves discovering hidden waterfalls and slicing through the jagged landscape of northern Portugal. But it missed one thing: the butt-puckeringly serpentine road leading up to the peak.
Putting you at 829 metres into the sky — that’s about 2,720 feet — Miradouro da Pedra Bela is a lookout in the southern fringes of Peneda-geres National Park. The view is absolutely breathtaking.
The collection of hairpins, kinks, and switchbacks leading up to the sweet spot should’ve been the icing on the cake — an enthusiast’s dream, especially when you’re driving a Mazda MX-5 Miata.
My better half, who is no stranger to Portugal and its roads, warned me about this the night before.
“You’re going to regret it,” she cautioned.
The journey to Geres started off innocently enough. We kept the top stowed for the morning and stayed off major highways, partly to take in more sights through small towns and villages, but mostly to save on road tolls. The little sports car didn’t skip a beat on the occasional mountain pass we encountered, slicing-and-dicing through various small towns and villages.
This is it, I thought as we turned off the N308 and began our ascent on the access road. Time for the little Miata to shine!
Boy, was I wrong.
This should’ve been a piece of cake. Mazda’s two-seater cemented its reputation over 30 years for carving roads like these. It wants you to go on a drive with no particular destination in mind — and if there is a destination, it wants you to take the long way. It wants you to push yourself, to challenge your limits, to make you a better driver. But all of that goes out the window when the road, while paved and technically allows for two-way traffic, is barely wide enough for one car. And you’re crawling up a 25, maybe 30-degree incline in first gear, blind corner after blind corner. And there’s dense brush on your left, and unforgiving rock on your right.
The Mercedes-benz Sprinter a few cars up ahead — once a bright red work van, now a sunkissed converted camper carrying a twenty-something German couple, their puppy, and loaded to the brim with their belongings — with its rear wheels fighting for traction, struggling to round the corner and ultimately stalling, certainly didn’t help matters. My palms were sweaty as I gripped the leather on the steering wheel and shift knob. I pictured the Sprinter rolling back, creating a chain of smacks that’d eventually meet the MX-5’S nose and push us into the Renault Megane behind us. My girlfriend — oops, fiancée — broke the silence.
She was right. But mercifully, we reached the peak unscathed.
Later, we were chasing the sunset and giving the MX-5 a proper workout on the long way home, on the properly wide and serpentine N304 and N307 b-roads, before merging onto the wider but still respectably fun N205-3.
The Miata comes alive on roads like these. After the previous-generation NC, the latest, fourth-generation ND is a return to form, with a smaller footprint and less weight. Corner after corner, the Miata’s sprightly reflexes, quick steering, and tight shifter make easy work of these roads.
And to think, all this character is from a modern car with an infotainment system and nannies such as anti-lock brakes and stability control.
Ah, but this wasn’t just any ND Miata. While the interior and ergonomics are virtually identical, right down to the hilariously impractical cupholders and infotainment controller your elbow always bumps into, this one’s a bit different. Because while North Americans are spoiled by big displacement and equally big horsepower — our NDS put out 181 hp from a 2.0-litre Skyactiv four-cylinder — the entry-level engine in Europe and Japan is a 1.5-L four.
Putting out 129 hp and 110 pound-feet of torque, the 1.5 carries a not-insignificant deficiency in straight-line acceleration compared to our revised (and now thoroughly excellent) 2.0. But I wouldn’t call it underpowered.
With less weight up front and a higher redline than the 2.0 in the 2016-18 models, the lowly base engine is an absolute treat.
We capped off our time in Portugal carving even more back roads, going for nighttime rips with the top down and no particular destination in mind, and chasing sunrises and sunsets in the two-seater. There are faster, more practical cars, but few are as magical as Mazda’s little convertible.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata has a smaller footprint and less weight, making it perfect for Portugal’s serpentine roads, writes Nick Tragianis.