Mini: The drive of your life

Alistair Weaver puts the Mini convertible through its paces on the Jebel Hafeet road - 'the world's greatest highway'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Jebel Hafeet mountain road in the United Arab Emirates is the greatest driving road in the world. Stretching for 7.3 miles and climbing nearly 4,000ft, it boasts 60 corners and a surface so smooth it would flatter a racetrack. You could almost call it the eighth wonder of the world.

The road is cut into the Jebel Hafeet mountain, which lies on the border with Oman, about 90 minutes' drive south-east of Dubai. It looks down upon a dusty, desert landscape that belies a nation of astonishing wealth.

For the next two days, we will explore this mountain in a Mini Cooper S Convertible. This £17,935 soft-top is ubiquitous in the UK, but it's a novel sight in the Middle East, where big is beautiful. In the UAE, the Mini is sold only to the very young or the very old. Maybe that's why the locals find us so amusing.

The view could have been plucked from a computer game. Three lanes of immaculate highway are carved into the limestone mountain in one, continuous squiggle. Short, rapid straights merge seamlessly with sweeping curves.

On these roads, the Mini is a superb companion. BMW's engineers did a fine job of decapitating the popular hatchback without removing its soul. The soft-top isn't quite as good to drive - that would be expecting too much - but it's still great fun. Little wonder that it was the UK's best-selling convertible last year.

We park and look down on a vast sweep of tarmac. The Jebel Hafeet road must have cost £50m to build, but its origins remain shrouded in mystery. You can buy a guidebook detailing the hydrogeology of the local spring, or the DNA of the resident butterflies, but information on the road itself is almost impossible to find.

Desperate to know more, I seek out the manager of the Mercure hotel that opened at the top of the mountain three years ago. Rajesh Kapoor reckons the road "was completed a dozen years ago. I think the architect was Swedish because we had a Swedish guest to stay who claimed her husband was responsible for it." But that contradicts a claim made in a history guidebook that the road was built in 1987.

Official sources suggest it was built as a honeypot for tourists, who travel from nearby cities to sample the mountain air. But with the exception of the hotel, there's almost nothing here. The road culminates in a huge car park, but the tatty café is unworthy of custom.

Perhaps the real, unspoken reason for the road's existence is to be found a mile from the hotel. There, sitting on top of the mountain, is a huge palace that belonged to Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, who died on 4 January. His face also adorns a huge banner announcing the entrance to the road and it's under his watch that it was built. This incredible feat of engineering is actually no more than a giant driveway. It's enough to make Bill Gates jealous.

At night, the driveway is bathed in neon. The streetlamps, of which there must be 500, are tuned to light not only the road, but also the adjacent rock. At Le Mans, 230mph race cars must light the Mulsanne straight for themselves, while here in the Emirates an empty road is slow-roasted by a million watts.

The lights illuminate the tyre marks that suggest we're not alone in taking advantage of this motoring nirvana. Our hotelier reckons that Land-Rover's test engineers have been using the mountain for hot-weather testing, and that Porsche, too, will soon be paying him a visit.

Kapoor also points me in the direction of a Gulf News article headlined "Racing four-wheel drives put visitors' lives at risk". In it, an official from the Traffic Police Department warns that "the possibility of some mischievous youngsters doing something drastic could not [sic] be ruled out." Feeling like naughty schoolboys, we park the Mini and slope off to bed.

Today is a Saturday, but the traffic is still laughably light. Taking a sizeable whip to the Mini's 170 horses, we scoot up and down, grinning inanely in the 30C heat. I can think of few cars in the Mini's price bracket that can match its smile-per-mile quotient on this kind of road.

A new Mini will be unveiled later in the year and a more practical, Clubman estate will follow in 2007. It will have to be some car if it is to better this model, which is surely a future classic.

It would be easy to dismiss the Jebel Hafeet mountain road as a vulgar extravagance, but that would be to demean the majesty of the engineering achievement that created it. Rarely has excess been so beautifully crafted. In both senses of the word, this is the world's greatest drive.

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