You’ve probably all got a special section of local road that you frequent, somewhere that keeps you coming back when you just ‘go for a drive’. You probably know it like the back of your hand and can commit to every corner as if your car’s on rails. But venture out with your comfort zone into the wilds and what you find could change your petrolhead life forever.
I’d heard much about the five hundred miles of road scattered across the North of Scotland, be it through Evo’s most recent ‘Car of the Year’ test or through fellow Scottish car friends that had made the pilgrimage themselves. Tales of enormous glens, mirrored-glass lochs and untouched gems of tarmac float around the car community up here, and with a Subaru at my disposal, it’s time to pop my North Coast 500 cherry.
I’ve been given a BRZ in black which would definitely look better in the classic Subaru Blue, but the angular front and rear make it a great looking sports car. And once you press the starter button and the four-cylinder boxer unit burbles into life, the strings of the Toyota GT86 suddenly slacken – this is a proper Scooby.
The NC500 begins and ends at Inverness and forms a circuit around the entirety of the Scottish mainland North of the city. If geography isn’t your strong point, here’s a map:
The scenery up here is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The sheer scale of it all makes each strip of tarmac seem like a tiny black line drawn onto the landscape, the peaks of each glen towering above you. The roads often follow rivers that carve their way through the bedrock of the colossal valleys and then burst free into the huge expanse of a Highland loch. This scenery creates almost surreal amphitheatres for driving and force me often to slip the BRZ into its top gear and to cruise while trying to somehow take the surroundings in.
The route follows the natural paths of the glens and thus is full of a huge range of inclines, corner types and scarily long straights. The tightest of first-gear hairpins can then lead to a mile-long straight followed by a combination of fast-sweeping bends, a proper race track etched into the landscape. Beginning with furry Scots Pine, the road soon becomes lined with thick, scraggy heather that grabs at the rear tyres if you decide to have a little fun, something that can be had due to the long lines of sight which often dictate the speed you decide to enter each corner.
The BRZ with its stiff suspension and pin-point handling is one hell of a car on these tight and twisties; its rear-wheel drive nature combining with a fantastically balanced chassis to make for a flat-cornering, spritely companion. The car really comes to life on the stretch from the famous Kylesku Bridge up to Scourie on the A894. High cliffs line each side of the road and amplify both the sheer sense of speed and the sound from the gargling boxer engine and with clear tarmac in front of me, I’m able to stretch the Subaru to its very limit. I can chuck the car at quite startling speed into every corner and the Prius-shared tyres do their utmost to grip the smooth, unmolested road surface.
Multiple long downhill straights finish with huge right and left-hand sweepers, and the BRZ hunkers down to the road with no sign of body roll. I’m currently trying to properly learn how to heel-and-toe and rev-match so this frantic combination of hard accelerations and last-minute braking is the perfect place for a lesson. I try my utmost to flick the throttle pedal with just the right strength and after a bit of trial and error I’m able to devour the challenging A-road with all the speed and finesse of the Cormorants fishing off the nearby clifftops.
Although there are plenty of beautifully-sculpted two-lane A-roads up here, much of the most Northern areas of the NC500 are single-track. It’s obviously a massive pain when a grouping of motorhomes decide to convoy for miles in front of you, but once clear, the narrow strips of asphalt provide an entirely different driving thrill. You have to be ultra-alert and on your toes with your braking once you meet another car, but with decent stopping power you can make tremendous progress down the tracks.
The single-track roads almost resemble time attack or hillclimb tracks in their layout, often disappearing over blind summits and snaking through low-lying peat bogs. This means that cornering accuracy is extremely important; stray a rear wheel onto the side-banks and before you know it your car will be claimed by the sinking marshland. Thankfully the BRZ is one of the best-sorted cars for steering feeling on the market, rivaling my old Mk2 MX-5 with its tactility.
The best single-track section lies between Torridon and Kinlochewe, as perfect sightlines make for some truly breathtaking driving through the base of another mighty glen. Small patches of red gravel litter some of the corners also, allowing for some beautifully progressive oversteer moments in the wilderness.
The big problem that seems to arise whenever the BRZ is mentioned is its lack of power. But I would like to see any petrolhead take one on the roads of Northern Scotland and come back wanting more grunt. The 197bhp boxer will get the car from 0-62mph in 7.2 seconds and with ferns and purple heather inches away from the tyres on either side, that feels more than quick enough. The roads have to be soaking wet to get any real movement from the rear, but the single-track roads demand surgeon-accurate cornering coupled with very short bursts of acceleration - it all makes for an unbelievably engaging drive.
There’s nothing more euphoric for a driver than an open, empty road that spirals off into the distance with a great car under him, ready to do whatever is asked of it. Whether you are an experienced road-tripper who can throw a car around for miles on end or a maturing young motorist who needs the space, time and road to perfect a heel-and-toe downshift or whatever other driving technique, the Highlands of Scotland couldn’t be a better setting.
In terms of car choice, I would recommend something relatively small and light; a Mazda MX-5 would do plenty. Power? I’d say nothing more than 300bhp - any more and the single-track roads up some of the mountain passes would become rather treacherous. If power really is a must, I’d make sure it is reined in with four-wheel drive; a Focus RS or Golf R wouldn’t be a bad call. But no matter what you bring, it will be totally outshone by the majesty of the Highlands.
I cannot emphasise how good the roads up here are and there’s no way my words do them any justice whatsoever. So ditch that lads weekend to Amsterdam or jaunt to Ibiza and get your car prepared for the most intense few days of driving possible in the British Isles. The NC500 will change you as a driver for life.
So what are you waiting for?