Autumn leaves and hairpin turns: Discovering NH’s back roads in the Mazda Miata


There isn’t anything quite like autumn in New Hampshire. When the maples begin their explosive journey from green to red to yellow, and falling leaves catch the wind and look like the whirling snow that you can feel is only a few weeks away, it’s time to go for a drive. And the best vehicle for the job? On a day like today when the temperature is in the mid-seventies with nary a cloud in the sky, there’s nothing better than a nimble convertible sports car. Enter, the Mazda Miata.

To drive the Mazda Miata (technically called the MX-5), is to know what a small lightweight sports car should be: crisp, engaging and above all, smile inducing. I’ve always told people that it’s like driving a leather clad go-kart, and if you read any review written about the Miata, you’ll probably see the go-kart reference made several times. This car, purchased brand new by my father in 2008, was spec’d out with the optional Grand Touring package which features leather, traction control, 17-inch wheels, cruise control, keyless entry, and a strut tower brace among a host of other features. He also opted for Mazda’s Suspension Package which adds Bilstein shocks and a limited-slip differential.

As this is my father’s car, I’ve been fortunate enough to drive it on many occasions and each time I drive it, I’m struck all over again by what a blast it is to drive a car who’s focus isn’t outright power. What the Miata lacks in brute force, it makes up for in tractable and linear horsepower and torque (166 hp and 140 lb.-ft), and terrifically crisp steering. Far and away my favorite part of the Miata is the shifter. It has a six-speed manual with short and satisfyingly precise throws, and rowing up and down the gears on a winding back road is one of the real true joys in life.

When I was considering what route to take on this journey, I was reminded of an autumn drive I had taken a few years ago in western New Hampshire. The western part of the state often feels like the neglected child of the family when compared to other parts of NH: the well traveled lakes region, the oft-visited North Country, and the easy accessible and popular seacoast. The small towns and twisting roads around Keene and Lake Sunapee would make the perfect place to take the Miata for a drive.

My journey started on Route 13 through Dunbarton, and then to Route 77 towards Weare. Large sections of 77 aren’t terribly interesting, they have that clinical/basic highway feel to them with wide shoulders, guardrails and the trees cleared wide on either side, but as 77 closes in on Weare, it starts to relax a little and the section before it connects with 114 is a genuinely nice place to be. At the intersection of 77 and 114, there’s a brown State Park sign for Lake Horace that I’ve seen about a hundred times, but never followed. I looked left, then right, grabbed first gear, and scooted ahead towards Lake Horace. On a day like today, why not go exploring?

I’m embarrassed to say that I never actually found Lake Horace. Later when I looked on a map to find it, I legitimately missed it by several miles. How you miss an entire lake escapes even me. What I did find, however, was a divine piece of tarmac about two miles long that made my useless wandering totally worth it. Dips, blind crests, slightly banked turns, and a blemish-free covering a fresh asphalt. It ended at Deering Center Road, and I immediately turned around to run the section again. I arrived back at the 77/114 intersection with a big smile on my face, all thoughts of Lake Horace gone, and took a right to head south on 114.

Route 149 darts off 114, snakes through the rolling hills surrounding Deering and Hillsborough, and reaffirms in my mind that this is a truly great road. While pavement quality left something to be desired, like a lot of the roads I drove, the Miata still stayed relatively planted even through tight off-camber corners with rough pavement.

In the center of Hillsborough where 149 ends, my route took a brief stint on Route 9 and then an eventual left onto Route 31 towards Washington. Both the road and the town of Washington were completely unfamiliar to me, but as soon as I turned onto 31, I knew I was in for a treat. The road was flowing and fast, and with the exception of Windsor and Washington, there weren’t any other towns near it for miles. One thing 31 does have plenty of are protected parks and forests: The Pillsbury State Park, Long Pond Town Forest, and the Washington Town Forest all located between Washington and East Lempster, which is where I left Route 31 and picked up Route 10.

When my father was considering buying a sports car, I implored him to get the best possible variation of whatever car he bought. It made no sense (in my gearhead mind) to buy a sports car and get the base model when a few more grand would get you a far superior driving experience. Because he knows what’s good for him, he listened to me.  And for Christmas last year, we added to the experience by getting him a Racing Beat axle-back exhaust system. Called the Power Pulse Muffler, it adds some significant exhaust noise and manages to sound fantastic without being overpowering. You can check out all of Racing Beat’s products HERE.

One of the more unexpected gems on the journey was Route 123 which I picked up after Route 10. While the quality of the pavement isn’t so hot, someone clearly had a day like today and a car like the Miata in mind when they made it. Scenic straights separated by fantastic lefts and rights, walls of green pines and red leafed maples perched on the edge of the road, and not a single car in front of me or behind me. My grin stretched from ear to ear as the Miata revealed it’s magic to me on this amazing road: Blip the throttle, grab third gear, steadily feed the power through the turn, upshift to fourth, hard on the brakes, blip to third, blip to second, on the power again, then smile and laugh as a carpet of fallen leaves crackle and whoosh beneath the car.

After taking 123 through the town of Hancock, which might be the most quintessential New England town I’d ever seen, I picked up Route 202 to Route 47 towards Crotched Mountain. As I hustled the Miata over 47’s writhing pavement onto an equally excellent Route 136, and across River Road through New Boston, I was thoroughly convinced of two things: that New Hampshire is an incredible place for an autumn drive, and the Mazda Miata is the perfect car for this kind of journey. In terms of driving dynamics and driver feedback, it has few rivals. It’s also comfortable, affordable, economical, built with quality, and reminds you what a joy it can be to drive a great car on great roads like these. I’d say it’s about time to grab the keys and find yourself a good stretch of road.

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