It is also a family car

Published on 6/1/2015

Albeit one family member at a time.

So we got a new baby seat, and I tried to fit it into the car, which it did! Naturally, this called for a drive, so I piled my son in and we set off. Of course, the previous baby seat was a lot smaller, as was my son, so that wasn't a problem at all. This new seat though, this is much bigger, and supports the backward facing position up to 18Kg. This is required since the boy's already 13Kg at 10 months.

His first time in the car, at about 6 months, in the small seat.

Now that he's older I can take longer drives with him, so I went for gold: Franschhoek pass. It was a superbly cold and misty day, and drizzle every 5 minutes to keep the road conditions just so. I set off out the back from Durbanville, avoiding the N1 and instead opting for a more interesting and slightly bumpy road, the R312. It's winding, but not tight, and not loaded with traffic. The view over to Paarl mountain is good enough on a clear day. From there I crossed the N1 past Butterflyworld, and turned off for Simondium at Klapmuts, past the Anura estate. This is an even more bumpy road, but low traffic makes it the better option. A great place to visit on this road is Le Bonheur. From here it's pretty much straight on the R45 to Franschhoek, although you might want to stop off at the Franschhoek Motor Museum; it's well worth it. It has some great banked bends and a really smooth surface, but it is pretty much single-carriage, and the run into town is slow. A lot of other cars join from the Stellenbosch/Pniel road and are sight-seeing and stopping and turning at different estates. It makes this road rather hazardous, and the wet conditions and low visibility on the day also didn't help.

Then you are into Franschhoek, and boy this town is something else. On a rainy Sunday traffic in general is usually light since everyone's in a shopping mall somewhere. Franschhoek however is the exception. This town is a tourist trap, even for locals, and there are too many restaurants and never any parking. I never stop here. It's too expensive, to crowded and too pretentious. It is rather good if you are out supercar-spotting though. On this occasion I saw a black Lamborghini Gallardo, which didn't disappoint. But despite the parked-up high street you are through it in no time, and at the start of the pass going up the mountain. A GP plated Kia was kind enough to slow down for me to pass, and we were off.

Now, before you complain about irresponsible parenting, note that I do this safely and while focused (unlike you, probably on your mobile texting*), and advanced driver training helps to deal with any conditions, especially wet roads, and to maintain a margin within the car's capabilities for any unforeseen circumstances. Having my son on-board doesn't change how I drive, or my approach to driving this car or any other car. As a user of a public road, you always have to drive safe, not just in certain circumstances. So with that out of the way, the pass was clear of traffic, but it was misty and it was wet, and I mean standing water wet. In spite of this, the MX-5 is simply just fun. This is a car you drive, and a car that responds to your driving it.

In contrast to that Lamborghini I saw, in the Miata you go quickly by not going slow. Going uphill I never use the brakes. I simply shift down if required and let gravity slow me enough, stick it in the bend and gently apply throttle to balance any under-steer there might be. Then, as the road straightens out again you push down on the throttle harder, and in the wet especially, you can feel how the back-end tightens up and starts pushing, first the one wheel, then the other. The open-differential is a bonus in this regard. Even in the wet this car's grip and lack of body roll translates to a flow between the corners. Swap a cog, get off the gas with a burble, turn it in and listen for the swoosh as the excess water washes out from under the additional pressure on the tires, let it settle and then step on it again and feel that prop grab the two rear wheels by the scruff of the neck. It really is automotive poetry.

On the first part of this pass there isn't really enough space between bends to even reach the 7k red-line on the engine, so there's no real need to change up. You might push 80 or so on this 1.6l in third, and on these wet roads that's already plenty. The other thing about this engine: it's rather restrictive. If you take your foot off the throttle in a low-gear the car slows right down. This is handy both in traffic and on the downhill. The car will easily under-steer if you under-brake for a corner or if you don't shift to a low-enough gear. The most defining aspect of this car's driving experience to me is managing the gears, and to enjoy this car the driver has to get to know the ratios and engine speeds. It's not just the chassis that makes you feel one with the car.

Soon though I spotted a Land Rover a few turns ahead and decided to turn around. It was nearing lunch time, and the boy was bound to wake up grumpy from hunger. I quickly stopped at the viewpoint to take a picture, but alas, the weather drew the curtains.

At the top, misted over and fast asleep

The drive back was, as usual, pale in comparison, and I simply lumbered down the N1 to get home in time for lunch. That pass in the wet though.. that's something else.

*Based on anecdotal data