Mazda MX-5 RF on Transfăgărășan: achieving automotive satori
It’s the car-road combo through which you will understand everything
Romania’s best known driving road, the Transfăgărășan, is not really that well maintained and smooth, to be honest. In order to fully enjoy it and not wreck your spine you need a car whose suspension is not rock hard yet still firm enough so as not to not make you sick on its multitude of hairpins - Mazda’s MX-5 RF really works on this road, and aside from pulling all the usual MX-5 tricks to get you hooked, it also makes staying dry easier and faster with its folding targa top.
And you need a quick-operating top on the Transfăgărășan as like with all mountain passes, its weather can dramatically change in minutes, sometimes even seconds (it can be sunny, then pouring with rain, then foggy, then sunny again all in the space of literally minutes). That’s why the fact that the Mazda MX-5 RF’s roof takes a mere 13 ticks to deploy or retract is really rather useful, and there are no manual latches you have to operate; it’s all fully automated - what’s not so great about it, though, is the fact that you have to slow down to under 10 km/h or 6 mph in order for it to work.
But enough about the top, as you’ll most likely want it down like I did, and you’ll still keep it down as long as the rain doesn’t get too intense.
The MX-5 RF is great fun on twisty mountain roads and has a lot going for it: responsive steering, the world’s most playful stubby gear lever that acts like the tail of an overly excited labradoodle, wagging at you when it’s time to shift up and, of course, limitless headroom with sky blue headliner. Then there’s also the handling and the rakish good looks of the latest model that round off the package.
Driving it on the Transfăgărășan in a spritely manner is not difficult, as it’s not really that powerful (even the 160 hp 2.0-liter I drove) - on a dry day, you might as well turn the traction control off in order to fully enjoy it - it does require you to be present in the moment, as the back does step out if you gun it out of corners, but this is the fun of the Mazda MX-5 (RF included as its driving experience is not perceivably different to the regular model). You need to be prepared for a bit of oversteer, and when it comes correcting it and keeping the car pointing the right way will turn your frown upside down.
Some criticize the MX-5 for not being a true, pin-sharp sports car with a super stiff body and rock-hard suspension. However, the fact of the matter is the MX-5 (especially the latest one) is as precise as you need it to be and no stiffer than you’d want it to be - sure, there’s some body roll (especially in 1.5-liter equipped cars), but there’s a lot of grip and the sheer joy of driving a fresh, modern drop top that’s this light and responsive is undeniable.
One ought to think of the MX-5 as a bit of a momentum car - the kind in which you want to brake as little as possible, and maintain as much the speed you’ve already achieved as possible. This is especially true for the 1.5-liter, but the 2.0-liter is no rocket either, so you’ll want to scrub off as little speed as you dare - and that’s where the fun is derived from.
The MX-5 RF inspires great confidence, and driving it quickly is not scary - it genuinely is a perfect companion for whichever kind of drive you want to take on the Transfăgărășan. It’s fun for both experienced drivers and newbies alike and everybody will find something to like about it. It’s just a plain old good car for which you don’t have to make excuses no matter who you are and what you normally drive. MX-5 on the Transfăgărășan is an experience, one that makes time and profane everyday thoughts seem like they're irrelevant and futile - I just wish some part of the road was actually a moebius strip so as to never stop driving it - I think that if I keep driving on it long enough, I may find my inner balance.