Car launches for we motoring hacks are normally fairly standard. Arrive at location for coffee and bacon roll; have product presentation; drive manufacturer’s new model for a couple of hours; have lunch; drive another hour, then home. But that’s not the way Mazda does it; oh no.
Just weeks after driving the Japanese carmaker’s new CX-5 across the Scottish Highlands — a two-day jaunt which covered close to 250-miles — Mr Mazda called me again.
“We’re about to launch our facelifted CX-3, and wondered whether you’d like to drive it?”, he said.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Great,” Mr Mazda continued. “We’re doing an epic 1,100-kilometre drive from Stavanger to Trondheim in Norway. See you there.”
And that explains why, having already covered the opening 540kms from Stavanger to Loen on Day one, the alarm on my iPhone went off at 3.50am.
But let’s rewind a bit. Why Norway: the land of mountains and fjords; 1.3 times the size of the UK, but with a population of just 5.2 million; and the £12 pint of beer?
Mazda has a simple philosophy which, unlike so many other carmakers, focuses purely and directly on driving. Humour me.
In its marketing blurb, Mazda says: “We believe the car should feel like an extension of you, a pure, intuitive relationship, creating a bond that words cannot describe. Like horse and rider — we call this ‘Jinba Ittai.’”
Fine. Whatever. But another of Mazda’s strengths is its innovative engineering, and its desire to break down boundaries. In the mid-Sixties it developed the rotary engine. Now it has SkyActiv technology.
And in many ways, it’s that pioneering engineering and ‘can-do’ philosophy which Mazda celebrated during the 1,100km journey on one of the world’s most demanding and challenging driving routes, dominated by vertiginous roads, dramatic landscapes, tunnels and amazingly time-efficient ferries.
Day one, and it’s a relatively relaxed 6.00 am start in Stavanger. Fuelled by a double-espresso I picked up my ‘breakfast bag’ and headed for my Mazda CX-3.
While the new 2017 range includes a 150PS 2.0-litre petrol and 105PS 1.5-litre diesel, both using SkyActiv technology, and available with the choice of either two- or four-wheel drive, I opted for what will be the big seller in the UK.
The 2WD, 120PS 2.0-litre petrol starts the range at £18,495 for the entry-level SE Nav spec. And while there’s a new range-topping GT Sport trim, which starts at £22,895, my car is the mid-range Sport Nav spec.
Priced at £20,895 (the auto will set you back an extra 1,200 quid, while the 4WD version is £22,895) the Sport Nav is well specced. In addition to the likes of stop-start, integrated Bluetooth, leather steering wheel and gear knob, DAB digital radio, cruise control, and 7-inch colour touchscreen, it also has Mazda’s new G-Vectoring Control(GVC).
First seen in the Mazda3, GVC varies engine torque to optimise loading on the wheels when cornering to provide more precise handling and improve comfort. The benefits of GVC were about to be maximised over the next 1,100kms.
Sport Nav also adds impressive 18-inch gunmetal-machined alloys, LED headlights and daytime running lights, a reversing camera, half-black leatherette seat trim, keyless entry, colour head-up display and a premium seven-speaker Bose surround system… all as standard.
The opening leg was, to be honest, something of a grind. Ok, perhaps it wasn’t helped by the dank, bleak weather and rain — it was more like a November day in Scotland than mid-July — but, apart from strictly adhering to the speed limits (Norway applies its speeding fines based on your excess speed and income, so fines can be eye-watering) there were two notable high points.
The first was the dramatic Langfoss waterfall, which drops a massive volume of water 2,000ft into the Akrafjorden and is the fifth-highest in Norway.
The second was a complete contrast: the 24.5 kilometres of the world’s longest road tunnel, at Laerdal. Strangely, it wasn’t as daunting as some of the other shorter 10km-ish tunnels, buried deep into the rock below the mountains which block the routes for surface transport.
The green light was given in 1992 for work to begin at both ends — Aurland and Laerdal — and it remains a massive achievement in construction that both tunnel sections met more than 10km into the rock and 1,000m under the mountain.
Costing $125 million and taking five years to build, a total of 2.5 million cubic metres of excavated rock had to be removed.
And cleverly, to break up the monotony and feeling of claustrophobia, they built three massive, brightly-lit chambers into the tunnel every six kilometres.
Just when I had satisfied myself that I didn’t suffer from claustrophobia, Day one — which involved 10-hour driving because of the roads and slow-moving traffic — finished by challenging any fears of vertigo with a trip up the 3,000ft-high Hoven Skylift at Loen.
Day two, 3.50am, and the alarm rings ahead of another 11 hours of driving. I have to be on the road for 4.45am to catch the ferry to ensure I beat the 2,000-odd tourists who are disgorged daily from the cruise liner on the UNESCO-protected, Geirangerfjord.
Like me, they will drive Norway’s famous Trollstigen, the Trolls Path, a daunting series of nerve-jangling, ever-tightening hairpin bends up and over the mountain. But while I’m in the zesty, nimble CX-3, they will be part of a never-ending snake of lumbering coaches. Hence, it’s crucial I’m ahead of them.
My task isn’t helped when, en route to the ferry, the early-morning rain and mist turns to thick fog, sleet and just four-degrees as I slide the Mazda across the mountain top before plunging down to the ferry.
Having disembarked, I head for the mighty Geirangerfjord, safe in the knowledge I’m ahead of schedule. And sure enough, as I climb the Trolls Path, I see the cruise liner sailing up the fjord. Now I can relax.
But Norway keeps on giving. The stunning Atlantic Highway is a sinuous ribbon of roads linking the westernmost islands, then we dip 1,000ft below the Atlantic through one of the world’s deepest sea tunnels.
Finally, the last 50km section of road to Trondheim is how I imagine the A9 would be between Perth and Inverness if there were no average speed cameras, and you had it to yourself. Perfect.
Stavanger to Trondheim. An epic drive indeed, and one which, after 1,100kms, confirmed Mazda and the facelifted CX-3 is up for any challenge, no matter how daunting.