MOTORING writer Matt Westcott travelled to the Arctic to test the iconic MX-5 roadster in unfamiliar surroundings

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AFTER what I had just told him I was surprised at the shop owner's muted reaction.

He had asked what an Englishman was doing in the town of Lulea and why I was so keen on the Salomon shoes with the metal studs in the sole.

"I've just driven 800km from Norway, into Finland and then Sweden in a two-seater sports car with the roof down and the studs in those shoes are just like the ones in the tyres on our car," I told him. "They are one of the main reasons that I am standing in your shop in one piece."

I expected him to utter a 'wow' or at the very least a 'really?', but he brushed it off as if I had just told him I had nipped to the shops.

"Here, everywhere is a long way away," he informed me.

On reflection, it was a fair point.

In this part of the world, going to school, the petrol station or in some cases just popping down to take the bins out entails a trek. And pretty much any journey of substance is measured in hundreds of kilometres.

My own journey was, in the grand scheme of things, no more remarkable than many of the others that had brought people to this location on the Swedish coast.

To me, however, it had been epic.

I had arrived in Norway at the invitation of Mazda.

Celebrating 30 years of its iconic MX-5 roadster, the unconventional manufacturer had decided a fitting way to mark the occasion would be to hand over the keys to one of its latest models to a group of journalists, set the sat nav and point them in the direction of the aforementioned town.

Eight to 12 hours later, depending on the number of stops, we would meet up again and relive the journey over moose fillet and a bottle or four of Scandinavian beer.

Or at least that had been the plan.What actually happened was far more eventful.

First, while sat in the warmth of the bar of the Scandic hotel in Honnigsvag, the most northerly town in mainland Europe, I asked Mazda's Graeme Fudge why he had chosen such a testing environment for the MX-5's special birthday. After all, the car most suited to an arduous Arctic road trip was surely the all-wheel drive CX-5 SUV.

"The MX-5 is a great drivers' car, it is perfect for quiet country roads and brings a smile to the face of the driver," he said. "The better the road the wider the smile, it is a car people drive just for fun.

"However, people think of the car as a summer car and yet it is so capable in the winter on the right rubber.

"The roads north of Lulea are ideal MX-5 territory, wide, open, quiet and challenging, just the sort of road the MX-5 was designed for. Just because there is snow and ice should not be a deterrent to having a huge amount of fun on these roads in one of the greatest cars ever built designed to be fun to drive."

At slightly before 5am the following day I arrived downstairs ready to experience some of that fun for myself.

However, the stormy weather that had caused problems in the UK prior to our flight out had arrived in Scandinavia and triggered an avalanche overnight.

As a result our road out was blocked by huge piles of snow and rock and a 6am departure became 7am and then 11am.

Prior to this point I had not driven a car on the compacted snow and ice and while I possess an adventurer's spirit, I must admit to being more than a little nervous.

That we now had even less time to complete the 500-mile trek just added to this trepidation.

Lisa, my co-pilot, was a seasoned cold weather explorer – a veteran of countless trips to this part of the world and places even more remote. With that in mind, I was tempted to give her the keys, but the man in me didn't want to come across as weak and so I said I'd drive the first stint. The fact, we were doing this stretch in convoy and behind a snow plough was just an added bonus.

With that we were off, our train of two-seaters and CX-5 support vehicles snaking out of town towards Alta. Whereas I had expected the MX-5 to be akin to Bambi on ice, it was far more composed than I had given it credit for and only really got squirrelly if I turned into a corner too sharply. Even then the onboard electronics kicked in quickly and turned what could have been an embarrassing fishtail into something far more perfunctory.

The scenery was simply stunning and were it not for my desire to keep all four wheels in alignment I would have enjoyed it far more than I actually did. Beyond the snowbanks, skilfully sculpted by the snow plough ahead, we had water with crashing waves to one side and cliffs stretching high into the sky on the other. The road twisted and turned, at times going through tunnels that were truly a feat of engineering. Trees were sparse if at all and aside from the cars and a few crows wheeling above there were no other signs of life.

Several of my fellow travellers had taken the opportunity to put the roof down. I was a little more conservative, for the time being at least, and was glad of this when a snow plough came the other way and inadvertently dumped a load of the white stuff on those inside.

"So long as you have the heating on it's not a problem," I was told later, "As it will melt eventually." I wasn't convinced by this explanation, I must say.

All of a sudden our snow-shifting companion pulled off and we were on our own. Some took advantage of the MX-5's fleet-footedness and disappeared into the distance, but I still felt a degree of caution was necessary and anyway we needed to stop for something to eat.

The first service station we came to was like something out of Fortitude or Fargo, pine construction, trademark squeaky door, curious looking people sat drinking coffee and, on sale, everything you could wish for, including the kitchen sink.

Despite my reservations, the welcome was warm, but we couldn't stay long – the earlier setback meaning we needed to get back on the road as soon as the espresso and fruit and cream heavy waffle was consumed.

Lisa took over the driving for the next stint as we moved away from the coast and further inland. The scenery might have been less dramatic, but it was no less beautiful as we headed towards the town of Alta.

With sweeping white vistas and clear blue skies it was crying out for us to experience topless driving – the car not, its occupants, I hasten to add.

Doing so in the MX-5 is a simple operation. Unclip the roof, push it back, fasten it securely and off you go. The sense of freedom that comes with it has to be experienced to be believed.

Although the temperature outside was way beyond the yon side of chilly, inside the cabin we were bathed in a constant flow of warm air from the heaters.

The road was a like an Arctic version of Route 66 – stretching off into the horizon and with snow covered landscapes on either side, punctuated every now and then by tiny settlements. Fellow travellers were few and far between and consisted, in the main, of huge articulated lorries, the drivers of which you knew were adept in driving at speed in these conditions, but still remained wary of until they had passed safely by.

What captured our attention most though was the drifting snow. Ethereal and almost mystical it blew across the road, swirling this way and that in hypnotic fashion. We were almost lost in its natural beauty.

With time pressing, however, we pushed on, stopping only to refuel – the little MX-5 proving to be a remarkably frugal beast.

It was during this halt that we enjoyed a couple of minutes of fame.

Filling up, we were approached by a woman. "Do you mind if I take your photo?" she asked. Slightly perplexed, I asked why? "We don't often see people driving with their roof down here. You look so funny." Happy to please and to play up to eccentric English stereotypes I posed for a snap which is probably now doing the rounds on the Norwegian version of Facebook.

Underway once more, and with the midday sun sinking lower, we put the pedal to the metal – the car happy to respond, its precise steering and grippy tyres inspiring us to push on with newfound confidence.

Up until this point we had barely spied anything constituting wildlife – I hadn't been expecting polar bears but the odd crow was scant reward for the journey we had made – then suddenly out of nowhere we saw something trotting along the road. Wild reindeer. For a while it trotted happily along in front of the car, before turning sharply down a bank and heading off into the wilderness.

We were now close to the border with Finland, but still two countries away from our final destination.

As we drove on the weather began to close in. The blue gave way to grey and all of a sudden we were in the middle of a freezing rain storm. In England, this would be frightening enough, but out here with ice beneath our wheels, steep drop offs to either side and artics heading towards us, it put the fear of God into me. No sooner was the screen cleared than it was covered once again making driving nigh on impossible. Through gritted teeth and with my backside in full on squeeky mode I persevered, Lisa giving instructions as I veered at times too close to the oncoming traffic.

As soon as it appeared, the storm abated as we approached the Finnish checkpoint. There was no need to stop, the border simply an impromptu roundabout heralding our entry into Sami country.

Visibly indistinguishable from Norway, only the place names gave indication of where we were. Susie Dent of 'Dictionary Corner' fame would love it here as the sign for every town resembles a Countdown conundrum, random consonants just thrown at a board. To paraphrase Blackadder: 'You need half a pint of phlegm in your throat just to pronounce them'.

As the evening began to pull in, Lisa took over the driving. Being nearer to the passing trucks exacerbated my feelings of vulnerability – the MX-5, basically a small bonnet, two seats and a boot, wouldn't have stood a chance if one was to have hit us.

What had been easy to make out earlier in the day as a tractor unit and trailer, now just became white headlights on a white background. Add to that it then began to snow heavily and my palms began to sweat. At one point, convinced a truck was on our side of the road and heading inexorably for a devastating crash, I screamed the 'F' word four times in quick succession sensing death. Lisa didn't move a muscle as it passed by, well inside its lane. Not that I am equating it as the same, but I recalled reading in Sir Ranulph Fiennes' book Cold how the snow plays tricks on the mind – this had been my version.

We turned right off the main highway, over a little bridge and into Sweden, the end if not exactly in sight then just a couple of hundred kilometres away.

We communicated with the other drivers, at least a couple had finished a good hour ago and Mazda's PR team were within an hour of the finish. I felt like we had been driving hard, but in reality we'd been dawdling - one other couple and a patiently crewed backup truck the only others behind us.

After another refuel, the keys were rather reluctantly handed back to me for the final stint – the fact I'd almost spun the car twice – it didn't, the MX-5 admirably correcting my misdemeanour – bounced off two snow banks and had the aforementioned apparition with the truck probably sowing doubt in Lisa's mind.

It was now dark and the snow was falling again. Working in tandem with the wind, it was flying horizontally into the windscreen, making the wipers ineffectual. On more than one occasion, I lost the road completely, drifting into a couple of laybys before quickly correcting my error with a jerk of the wheel. It was truly frightening, but I was determined not to let the side down. "Do you want me to drive?" asked Lisa, the courtesy in her question not matched by the look on her face.

I said 'no' gave myself a metaphorical slap and continued on to Lulea. It was only as we approached the outskirts of the city that the reality of driving in such conditions was brought to bear. Wedged in the trees, half on the road, half off it, was a double bodied articulated lorry, its form contorted by the collision.

It could so easily have been us, but in spite of my Arctic driving deficiencies, the MX-5 had got us to the finish in one piece.

We entered the restaurant just as everyone else was finishing their desserts. "What took you?" the general consensus and no doubt the same response that the shop owner at the beginning of this article would have given.

A truly epic drive and one that I will never forget.