On the hunt for Britain’s best driving road
You don’t need to dig out your passport to get the most from a test drive when a trip to South Wales ticks all the right boxes
Tuesday 06 March 2012
We should probably not be too surprised that when a car maker invites the press to sample its products, particularly in winter, it chooses an exotic location in which to do it. Journalists get a chance to top up their tans, roads are usually more interesting to drive and the backdrop in the photos is likely to do more for a car's image than a view of the M25 pretending to be a car park. With this in mind, I spent some time considering the best setting in which to test the new 2012-spec Jaguar XKR convertible when given the chance to do so recently. The result? Well, South Wales, actually.
We had noticed a growing level of enthusiastic debate about good "driving roads", and not just from Subaru Impreza and Ford Focus RS drivers. A definition of a driving road is perhaps one that can be driven for pure pleasure; one that allows drivers to explore their cars' potential, and maybe their own too, a little more adventurously than they can on the daily slog into work. The first part of that definition rules out a good chunk of the British road network and probably explains the obsessive hunt for the best examples from what remains. I had heard rumours that some of the most enjoyable of these required a trip over the Menai Strait so, suppressing all my prejudices against slag heaps, sheep and rain, I started to research a route that took in the best Wales could offer.
These roads were going to be tight, twisting, probably wet and with plenty of changes of elevation and camber; ideal for something small, light and nimble such as a Golf GTi perhaps. But if we're looking for traditional British driving roads to sample, a traditional British roadster should do the sampling: a Jaguar XKR convertible. It's not small, it's not light, and it might turn out to be as nimble as Audley Harrison doing the jive on Strictly Come Dancing. If you add in the factor of the 500-plus horsepower that it would be trying to put down on narrow, greasy roads through its rear wheels, you will see why I suspected Jaguar might find a reason why it would not be possible. To my delight it didn't. Either it had faith in its product or it had not read my request thoroughly enough. A goal was set: find the best driving road in Wales and see if the Jaguar's dynamic qualities come anywhere near its undoubted visual appeal.
Websites were scanned, car clubs contacted, Welsh colleagues phoned for suggestions and he latter loyally suggested Wales was all one huge driving road. I pressed for specifics and finally a loop of nearly 1,000 miles was planned; eight stretches were particularly recommended, linked by entertaining A and B roads, and not a motorway in sight.
The run down the M5 to the start of the route confirmed the Jaguar's reputation as an effective mile-eater, and the continuous drizzle could not deter me from dropping the roof. The small but surprisingly effective wind deflector kept the November chill at bay, helped by the heated seats and steering wheel. Even with the roof down, the quality of the Bowers and Wilkins sound system was good enough to raise depressing comparisons with previously respected home hi-fis. The leather, chrome and carbon-fibre of the interior was of very high quality, if a little Euro-anonymous, and made it a satisfying place to be.
With the Menai Suspension Bridge behind me, the empty roads of the Brecon Beacons provided the first real opportunity to press on with some enthusiasm, and the resulting bellow from the 5-litre supercharged V8 made the sound system second choice for aural entertainment. Early caution over the potential for TVR-pirouettes proved groundless as the stability control system did exactly as its name suggested it should. Even lifting off or braking mid-corner could not disturb its composure. As my confidence in its abilities grew, the empty roads encouraged pushing a little harder and it became clear that, in dynamic mode, some very sophisticated control of the suspension was going on. Despite 20-inch wheels and ultra-low-profile tyres the ride was soft and comfortable, yet it cornered as flat as a go-kart, with just a trace of understeer but not a hint that the back end might have been considering misbehaving.
The first specially recommended stretch of road was the A4069, which crosses the Black Mountains from Llangadog to Brynamman. For a mountain road it is in remarkably good order and the best stretches are combinations of bends and straights with clear visibility for miles ahead. If you are lucky, neither tractor nor errant sheep will interrupt your pleasure, and I was lucky. The Jaguar showed an ability to be flicked through linked bends with an accuracy and lack of drama that belied its size. The way the paddle-shift automatic gear change has been set up really helped here. As a dyed-in-the-wool manual-gearbox man, I confess the XKR's gear change came nearer than any other to converting me. Up shifts were smooth and instantaneous on a pull of the right paddle and the left paddle down-shifted equally well. Here there was the bonus of a perfectly timed and sized blip of the throttle, ensuring deceleration was smooth and jerk free. A routine soon developed of a fast approach to a bend, followed by hard braking with a couple of tugs on the left paddle to lose speed, before acceleration on to the next bend and then repetition of the process. The bellow of the down-shift throttle blips, and the engineered-in pops and crackles from the four exhausts, became utterly addictive.
As I continued on the planned loop, I managed to sample all the roads that had been recommended. Choosing a favourite and designating it the best driving road in Wales did not prove easy, both through being spoiled for choice and because they were so different. Some, like the B4518 loop around the Elan Valley reservoirs, were of necessity slow, and wound their way through quite astonishingly beautiful country. On a clear, sunny day you would be hard pushed to find more sublime views anywhere in the world. Some, like sections of the B4520 from Brecon to Builth Wells, were wild, empty, and fast. A favourite was a trio of roads that has become known as the Evo Triangle, because it is used by Evo magazine's test team for all its performance car reviews. The section from Bylchau on the A543 to Pentrefoelas on the A5 is worth the drive to Wales all on its own.
However, if I were pushed to choose, it would probably be a road nobody mentioned, which I came across by accident while making my way to Aberystwyth late one afternoon. The Aberystwyth mountain road from Rhayader, through Devil's Bridge until it joins the A44, seemed to tick every driving road box. Another day, with traffic or rain, it might not have, but the combination of that warm early evening light over a wild and deserted landscape, and a road that seemed to wind endlessly to the horizon, made this, in my view, a worthy winner of the accolade "Best Driving Road in Wales". Many may not agree, and I am sure there are plenty of contenders I did not even try, but I certainly enjoyed the search.
I feel fortunate to have the chance to test some of the nicest cars around, and I really do enjoy every one of them. Usually I can make my judgements, write up my review and walk away. This Jaguar is different. Not the most expensive car I have tested this year, nor the fastest, yet it has got under my skin. I find myself thinking wistfully about those blasts through the Welsh hills. In short I miss it. So, extremely nice people at Jaguar, if you need someone to do an XKR review in a year or so, you have my number. In the meantime, I need to work out how to tell my wife we are moving to Wales.
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