The perfect sunset lies in many places. For many it’s when the sun dips gently into the Balearic Sea to mark the beginning of a boisterous night out on Ibiza. For others it’s the Manhattan skyline, Empire State Building proudly stood against a swathe of orange.
For me, it’s here. We’re 2,800m above sea level (or thereabouts) on the Ötztal Glacier Road in Austria, a whole mountain to ourselves, the only sound being the clicks and beeps of Lee Brimble assembling his drone for some aerial photography. Neither of us can actually see the sun, but the way the last, golden semblance of daylight is scattered across the jagged surfaces of the hills has us entranced.
It also happens to reflect pretty well in the bright blue paint of the Hyundai i30N we’ve brought up here. But this sunset isn’t memorable because its beauty is making our eyes moist or turning our speech into profound poetry. It’s memorable because we really shouldn’t be here.
The Ötztal pass is one of many wondrous European mountain roads that isn’t the quickest way anywhere, meaning it operates opening hours and sometimes shuts completely if the weather’s bad. Despite my borderline obsessive checking of its webcams and timings, as we pull up to its toll booths after two days of driving from London, their barriers are all down, red Xs illuminated above them, with not a member of staff in sight to explain why.
An ominous sign, when it’s pass number one in an outrageously ambitious Three Peaks adventure I’ve concocted to wave a proper farewell to the Top Gear Garage i30N, to check if it really is as much of an upset to the establishment as we first suspected.
It seems to have knocked every hot hatch bar the Honda Civic Type R into a cocked hat thus far, but new cars often come with a veneer of novelty factor that eventually wears thin. I’ve pulled together a ginormous route that takes in Europe’s three highest roads, so if that veneer’s going to vanish anywhere, it’s here.
The inspiration comes from the National Three Peaks Challenge, which regularly sees climbers ascend Scotland, England and Wales’s three highest mountains within 24 hours. Given we’re using wheels, not legs, we needed something more ambitious, and so the inaugural TG Three Peaks Challenge was born.
I’d have loved to have tried this in 24 hours – pop the journey from Austria’s Ötztal Glacier Road (2830m) to Spain’s Pico de Veleta (3300m) via France’s Cime de la Bonette (2803m) into Google Maps and the journey time is a teasingly close 26 hours. There are numerous reasons why we’re not trying to shave that down to 24, among them BBC health and safety, the lack of in-flight refuelling on the i30N’s option list and, most importantly, there’d be no time for photos. This would be a vastly less enjoyable page of the internet if it consisted solely of my words.
My initial fears that binning the time limit also binned any sense of jeopardy is immediately kyboshed by all those red Xs, though. Lee still has a flight to catch at the end of it all, and if we don’t ascend the Ötztal pass now, we don’t ascend it at all. With the sun quickly disappearing I spot a service barrier clumsily left open, glance across at my co-driver, and neither of us utters a word before throwing ourselves into the car like we’re in a Seventies cop show and tearing through the empty lane and up the road.
It’s at this point I should say I don’t condone such misbehaviour. But there’s something about the i30N’s rambunctious character that makes you act like this. While it conquered 800 motorway miles here without a hiccup, it’s a proper hooligan at its core, and most at home flamboyantly cocking an inside wheel through a hairpin or loudly combusting fuel in the bowels of its sports exhaust. Two things you can repeatedly do guilt-free when you’ve an endlessly curvy road all to yourself. The Ötztal’s twists and turns actually hosted the Land Rover chase scene in Spectre, but look vastly different without a cloak of snow.
Thankfully, really – the i30N’s on its standard Pirelli P Zeros, a vehemently fair-weather tyre – but it’s impossible to resist sniffing out a bit of white stuff when we spy a gravel track leading even higher from the pass’s peak and towards this winter’s first dumping of snow at the mountain top. Which is where I watch the last lingering glow of the sun fade, our challenge’s equivalent of proudly stamping a foot atop Ben Nevis. A chance to breathe a sigh of relief we’ve ticked off our first peak, but equally a chance to consider the 1,500 or so miles that lie ahead in just 36 hours…
Italy’s famed for its coffee. And there’s probably no finer place to drink unwise quantities of double espresso to sustain yourself through a 15-hour drive. Few finer motorway views, either, as the first glance of daylight starts to illuminate the hills around Lake Garda, the autostrada scything dramatically between them. I’d feared the slightly obscene motorway miles between our three peaks would be laborious, but thus far they’re making me grin nearly as much as the mountains.
The i30N’s an imperfect motorway car, mind. The steering can feel a bit busy around 80mph, tyre roar fights very hard against the sound system and its thirst is surpassed only by George Best’s. A 30mpg average is admittedly decent given its performance, but the fuel tank’s too small to make it welcome on a journey like this. Though after all that coffee, my own stopping requirements quickly line up with the car’s.
If you replicated our route yourself, the journey to the Cime de la Bonette can go via Monza or Monaco. We’ve no time to see either, but any sadness is immediately assuaged as we approach the French border, leaving the motorway behind and ending up on the quite fantastic Col de Larch. Now, often the approach roads are better than the money-shot mountain roads (the Stelvio Pass being a prime example), and once we arrive on the tight, blind and strangely busy Bonette, the same appears to have rung true here.
It’s a road for stopping and taking in the views, not driving like a modern-day McRae. Lee’s delighted, of course, and the silence is soon punctuated by the now familiar sounds of drone assembly. Our second peak is just 27m off yesterday’s and yet it feels a world away, the landscape a mix of luscious greens, oranges and yellows. If I had watercolours I’d whip them out and paint while Lee takes his pictures.
I wouldn’t want anything more exotic than the Hyundai up here. Mischief constantly courses through it
We’re barely halfway up, mind, and as we ascend further, seeking out the plaque that marks Bonette’s peak, the colours get greyer and bleaker until we’re surrounded by a panorama of mountain tops, each doing its best impression of the Toblerone logo. Rock fall clothes the road, which has narrowed to a car’s width, a sheer and quite lengthy plummet to its right. Fall off and I’m pretty sure I’ll have time to call Hyundai and apologise before we touch the bottom. The climbers ascending Scafell Pike doubtless scramble their final few feet in a similarly cautious manner, but much as I adore the Lake District, I’m almost certain the view from our second peak is better.
I wouldn’t want anything bigger or more exotic than the Hyundai up here, but don’t think that means it’s low on drama. We carefully descend back down before reaching the D900B, which might be my new favourite road. Night has fallen in Monte Carlo rally territory and the i30N’s lights are punching through the dark like a WRC car’s lamp pod (well, in my head). What follows is a quite breath-taking hour or so, the 900’s corners quick, testing and exhilarating after the stop-start progress of the hairpin-laden passes we’ve been shooting on. The approach roads really are always better.
The little Hyundai has outrageous grip at its front axle and a supremely judged lack of it at the back when you lift off the throttle. The way the car moves around in quicker corners is mesmerising, and there’s a sense of mischief constantly coursing through it.
The man who runs Hyundai’s N division used to run BMW’s M division, and the way he’s made a front-wheel-drive hatchback drive with a similar aggression to a rear-wheel-drive saloon ought not to be surprising. But it’s gob-smacking. A lazy cliché would be to compare it to a Nineties French hot hatch, except I own one of those, and it feels nowhere near as frisky as an i30N with the stability control turned off.
With 271bhp, it’s off the pace of the class best. But come on. That’s still more than enough power to use on the road, and more than enough for the Hyundai to spin its wheels in the first few gears when the surface isn’t perfect. You get to use far more throttle in here than a Type R, and that simply means you have more fun, more often. Its speed and grip levels appear to have been benchmarked on squeezing out as much performance as you dare on the D900B, and I could stay here all night. Alas there’s a long slog through France and Spain still to go, but with two passes out of three ticked off, the mood’s jovial. Confident. Complacent…
Even if the coffee’s no longer up to scratch, the miles continue to be made painless by the scenery. It’s amazing how distinct Europe’s landscapes are, their colours, architecture and signage uncannily transforming at each border crossing, giving us new things to look at as the odometer reading climbs and the Hyundai consumes most of southern Europe’s fuel. It’d be easy to assume us Brits aren’t big fans of Europe if you don’t dig much beyond headlines (or four per cent vote swings), but every yard and minute of this journey has been a glorious reminder of what a wonderful continent it is.
Well, until we reach the most seethingly angry Spanish man I’ll likely ever encounter as we home in on our third and final peak. We’re already nearly 3000m above the sea, having sailed up most of our highest climb with the kind of carefree swagger that’s only ever followed by comeuppance. With the end in sight, our stomachs sink as an unexpected gatekeeper blocks our path. We’ve driven way too far to accept turning back, so upon establishing our high-vis, hard-hatted enemigo speaks even less English than we do Spanish, I reach for a translation app and ask, if he wouldn’t mind, explaining why we shall not pass.
“CORTADO, CORTADO, CORTADO!” Is the, um, forthright response that’s bellowed into my phone’s mouthpiece. The app takes a second to translate, as taken aback as we are. “Chopped up” is the English that eventually appears. I’m genuinely unsure whether he means the tarmac that lies beyond the barrier or our bodies if we keep pestering him, so with heavy hearts we turn around. You need a permit to have reached this far anyway, but even that doesn’t account for the road randomly being rebuilt. It’s the equivalent of our Three Peaks climber nearing Snowdonia’s panoramic views but turning back early.
The lesson, then, is to aim for the car park 800m shy of Veleta’s peak, having packed a bicycle or some walking shoes with which to complete the rest. Your best miles are already behind you, the wheel-popping hairpins and scenic, snaking sections of Hoya de la Mora on the way up having been replaced by a slower, less frantic run to the glorious views from the mountain top.
An emerging theme, you’ll note. Our Three Peaks Challenge has been gruelling and rewarding in equal measure, with some troubling logistics yielding jaw-dropping vistas. The best miles haven’t been on the roads with Insta-friendly plaques at the top, though, but on the undulating tarmac that lead to and from them, the stretches with no opening hours, no restrictions and no angry Spanish men. Europe’s brimming with glorious places to drive, and if you aim for any bunch of mountains you can’t go wrong. Even with a mischievous hot hatch acting as a devil on your shoulder.
Indeed, the i30N’s novelty hasn’t worn off, Hyundai’s first proper hot hatch a superb partner, one possessing as much size and performance as you’d ever want on each of our peaks. The roads may have been on a grand scale, but the car hasn’t once paled in comparison.
There’s not a single hot hatch on sale I’d have preferred here. It’s not as refined as a Golf GTI, nor as outright fast as that Type R, but it feels like a perfectly judged cocktail of their usability and performance. Nope, that veneer of novelty factor hasn’t worn off. In fact, I still glance back every single time I park up. Yep, even at every fuel stop. As the sun sets on the i30N’s time in our garage, it’s going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
- Stephen Dobie