“Aw, crap,” I said to my driving partner, as we descended into Gravenhurst, Ontario at the end of the fifth stage of the seven-stage 2017 Mazda Adventure Rally.

“We’re screwed.” That’s not an exact quote, but this is a family publication, so—

I had just discovered there was a very good chance an oversight at the outset of the day was going to cost us a position – we were in second place at the time – if not a spot on the podium, something we had enjoyed the two rallies prior, including an outright win in 2015.

We had misread how long we were allowed to take to complete the stage, meaning we were facing a five-point time penalty. Considering these races are always so close, those few minutes could prove disastrous.

I felt like Carlos Sainz at the end of the Wales round of the 1998 World Rally Championship, the then-leader looking at the finishing gates but not having the fuel to get there. I felt like Kazuki Nakajima as his race-leading Toyota TS050 gently rolled to a stop on the last lap of the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours, a victim of turbo failure.

We were devastated, sad that our chosen charity – Kids Help Phone and its French equivalent, J’eunesse, J’écoute – wouldn’t be getting the charity money awarded to the winners, and sad that of all the driving we’d done, there was a good chance we’d have nothing to show for it.

As I continued to travel the rolling roads set out before us, however, I realized that just wasn’t a fair assessment; while not getting our hands on that big, shiny trophy was going to hurt, the experiences we went through on the event were still going to leave us with memories for a lifetime.

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A little backstory for the uninitiated: For three of the past four years, Mazda Canada has hosted the Mazda Adventure Rally for charity. It pits ten teams of two drivers each against each other and the clock, as they try to gain points by conquering a number of challenges.

This year’s line-up consisted scavenger hunts, fuel economy challenges (strange when you consider our car, which you’ll learn more about in a second), maple syrup sampling (you read that right), even an at-your-own-pace (in our case, blazing) tour of famous artworks from the Group of Seven.

It’s all set up by the rally masterminds at Vehicle Dynamics Group out of Campbellville, Ontario. Each team is given a (nearly) identical Mazda model – we’ve driven CX-5s, MX-5s, and CX-3s in the last three events – with their names, the name of their charity, and their outlet on a door-sized sticker. The teams know nothing about the challenges until the event is underway; heck, we didn’t even know where we’d be driving or in what until the 11th hour.

This year, we were thrown the keys to the fantastic new MX-5 RF, which was especially surprising since we’d only just driven the car at its press launch two weeks prior. We were then told to put it through its paces on the heaving, winding roads of Ontario’s picturesque Muskoka region.

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Now, rocking a drop-top MX-5 as winter ever-so-slowly melts into spring at the end of March may not seem like the best idea. Indeed, we were provided down jackets and toques in the event we just couldn’t help but indulge in some open-air motoring.

Thing is, “RF” stands for “Retractable Fastback,” meaning the top doesn’t fold completely. Just the top panel folds, leaving you with a targa-like environment that does a much better job of protecting occupants from freezing March winds.

Still, though; the toques (and scarves, and jackets, and gloves) were a necessity, because while this isn’t a speed-based rally, this here’s car that just begs to be driven.

Lucky for us, the region is full of roads that love to be driven on; off-camber bends with hidden frost heaves on the other side, cracked concrete, rolling tarmac—we saw one stretch of about 80 km of straight road during our whole 1,000-km-plus journey. It wasn’t quite the South Carolina and Tennessee tarmac we’d seen two rallies prior, but needless to say, the environment suited the car perfectly.

Every apex was easily clipped, which was important for the challenge that had us completing a stage while driving the fewest kilometres possible; even the slightest deviation – pulling off the road for a driver change, for example – could result in failure. Our goal was to find the shortest way through every turn, and we all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Or as straight a line as possible, considering the circumstances.

In Photos: the Mazda Adventure Rally

You can fit a surprising amount in the car, too; we had DSLR cameras, two navigation systems (one standard, one rally-spec-form VDG), snacks, water bottles (lunch breaks? Where we’re going, we won’t need lunch breaks!), extra layers of clothes, and, of course, two adult humans. It took some creativity, but we eventually had it all going like clockwork.

Personally, I was glad that while our car’s GT trim featured the better-looking BBS wheels and more powerful Brembo brakes, we didn’t have the Recaro seats that come with the GS with Sport Package, one trim down.

The Recaros are supportive, sure, but their taller side bolsters mean the wider-hipped among us get pushed further to the roof, and we all know that while the MX-5 – even in RF form – is a lot of things, it’s not especially headroom-y. Considering how much time we’d be spending in the car, the flatter (but far from flat) standard seats fit the bill perfectly.

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Unfortunately, in competition as close as this, it’s all about who blinks first; you may not see your opponents in your rear view (or through your windscreen), but you know they’re there, breathing down your neck.

Unfortunately, it was us that blinked first this time ’round, and we paid for it. Let’s just hope we get the chance to redeem ourselves next year!