"I've got a car with snow tires and the roads are empty," I shouted at the Bluetooth microphone hidden somewhere in the car. "Wanna go for a ride?"
"You're in luck," my friend Lucy's voice emanated from the stereo. "The university gave all non-essential staff the day off."
I asked her what that meant. "Professors, teaching assistants and students all get a snow day," she explained, "but security and maintenance still have to work."
It was late Tuesday afternoon. New York City was just beginning to dig out from winter storm Stella. The forecast had called for up to 18 inches of surprise March snow; the blizzard lost steam after seven. The bridges and tunnels, the mainline arteries of Manhattan traffic, stayed open through the storm, but much of the city's public transit was hobbled. The clock said it was peak rush hour, but the streets were nearly silent.
I was driving a 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF, the "retractable fastback" that trades the Miata's manual cloth roof for an automated aluminum targa top. It's the second generation of Mazda's folding-hardtop variant, developed for people who want the Miata's lightweight verve and unobstructed sky views, but worry that a cloth top means guaranteed pneumonia from November to April.
For many folks, a ragtop is non-essential staff, the car that stays parked in rough weather. A rigid-roof vehicle-even a sports car, and especially one as approachable as the $33,000, 155-horsepower Miata RF-rarely gets such delicate treatment. The RF is destined to be someone's only car, not their sunny-day plaything. So when nature steered a blizzard at the little gray coupe, we bundled up and hit the streets. Hardtops don't get days off.
I set out in the RF around lunchtime, right around when the clouds shifted gears from flurries to 1000-grit hail. City plows had made a first pass nearly everywhere, but most of the roads were still covered in hard-packed snow.
I wasn't out for reckless oversteering shenanigans. I wanted to see how the hardtop Miata would handle a normal blizzard commute. Teenagers and car journalists may judge a car solely on its snow-hoon abilities, but in the real world, most of us just want to get to work without overdrafting our adrenal glands.
Besides, even in a freak March snowstorm, New York's roads are never truly empty. The NYPD and FDNY don't take snow days; neither do taxi and livery drivers out to pick up the slack left by shuttered subways. Delivery guys seem to multiply in bad weather, hurtling chintzy electric scooters through abandoned streets, skimming their feet to stay upright to feed non-essential apartment dwellers. My goal was to trundle easily along, neither a nuisance nor a hindrance to anyone on the clock.
With its winter footwear-205-width Bridgestone Blizzak LM-60s, installed mere hours before the snowstorm with heroic cooperation from Mazda's northeast fleet operators-the RF was undaunted. Headlight-height snow berm across the intersection? The Miata chewed right through, its cartoonish grille taking big gulping bites of powder. A long unplowed alley? With a few yards' running start, the RF was happy to belly-slide along, a little gray penguin tobogganing across a Manhattan ice floe.
Inside the RF it was cozy and hushed. The aluminum targa roof is two pieces; add in the disappearing rear windshield and the flying buttresses that rise up to swallow the whole operation, and you've got four body panels set in motion when you raise or lower the roof. Cinched shut, the RF's lid never uttered a single squeak, creak, or pop over New York's crumbling roads.
Local radio said the bridges and tunnels were open, so I crossed into Brooklyn to meet up with photographer DW Burnett. On a sweeping snow-covered off ramp, a smidge of throttle kicked the RF into a tidy little drift. The MX-5's nannies allow just enough slip to register in your tailbone before gently nudging things back in line.
The approachability that makes the Miata such a joy on pavement shines bright even through seven inches of snow. At city speeds, I couldn't detect the 113-pound weight penalty of the targa top, but the utterly natural steering, the neutral chassis, and the satisfying zing of the drivetrain were all right there, telegraphed to me through gloves, boots and thick wool socks.
For the most part, I left traction and stability control engaged. Both are blessedly easy to turn off-a single push of the TC OFF button just left of the steering wheel kills all electronic assistants. The button is easy to find in a rush, say, when you're momentarily beached on a snowdrift and need some extra wheelspin to dig out.
In fact, the only time I really had to invoke the car's safety nets was in a full-ABS panic stop from about 14 miles per hour. Two bearded dudes in pricey jackets and unmarred boots lurched out of a Greenpoint bodega, arms full of craft beer six-packs, unworried by the thought of a car approaching as they sauntered into the crosswalk. I muttered unprintable things about their nonessential nature as I anti-lock juddered to a halt.
Eventually Burnett and I found an unplowed patch of pavement in an industrial park hard against the East River. A couple lieutenants sat in a Fire Department 4x4 at the back of the lot, idly listening to the radio, awaiting an emergency. We asked, sheepishly, if we could set up the camera and kick up a little snow, fully expecting to be chased away.
"Knock yourself out," the guy at the wheel chuckled. "Just don't hit anything. That wouldn't make a nice picture."
Photo shoot accomplished, I dropped off Burnett and headed back to Manhattan to pick up Lucy. The last bare flurry at the tail end of the storm had finally stopped; the temperature was rising from biting, windy 20s to serene low 30s. Thanks to daylight savings time, the sun was still high over New York City, melting away the clouds at 530 pm.
Responsible commuting? Check. Lurid, childish oversteer? Documented. Only one task left for the Miata RF: The freewheeling joyride. Turning the corner on to Lucy's street, I hit the switch to open the RF's folding targa roof.
The car beeped peevishly at me; the roof didn't move. Apparently, it only operates below six miles per hour.
With my passenger collected, and having taken 12 nearly-stationary seconds to motor the top into its hiding spot, we set off into the glowing evening. Times Square neon warmed the snow piles growing at every corner. Cool winter breeze skimmed the roofless sauna we'd created, heater and seat warmers simmering as we peered up at the skyscrapers. A snowstorm and a little pop-top Mazda was all it took to enthrall us, making tourists of us, pointing at the skyline with unfashionable sincerity.
That's the Miata RF's greatest achievement: it raises your whimsy every time you lower the roof. Disappearing the targa top comes as a little surprise, every time, transforming this weatherproofed two-door into a delivery device for roving windblown glee. In the soft top MX-5, you expect that little wow moment when the top goes down. You anticipate it, peering cockeyed through the top of the windshield at the sky, yearning to toss the roof over your shoulder like crumpled paper. A canvas top is like a camping tent: A thing to emerge from.
And look, I understand that, in terms of winter capability, the distinction between the regular Miata and the RF is mostly baloney. Plenty of people drive ragtops through every form of winter hellscape without an ounce of added suffering. It's not the mark of hardass masochism it once was-today's soft-top Miata is more weatherproof and wind-tight than the fixed-head coupes of a generation ago. Given an identical set of snow tires, an MX-5 roadster would have wriggled through my snowstorm adventure with equal aplomb and identical warmth.
But if a convertible is, as Peter Egan once put it, a car of occasion, then a thing like the Miata RF is a surprise party. It's not camping in a snowstorm to prove that you can-it's finding the button that makes your log cabin into an outdoor cafe. Like a daylight-savings snowstorm, it gives you two different perspectives that you never realized can work so well together. And you never need to give it a day off.
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