Barry Green saddles up for some more great drives as he tackles three of Victoria’s best driver’s roads in a lithesome threesome — VW’s Scirocco, Audi’s TTS roadster and the underrated Mazda’s MX-5.
Car: 2014 Volkswagen Scirocco R
Drive: Yarra & King Valleys (230km)
Bonnie Doon – Australian movie buffs would know it as the Kerrigan family’s holiday retreat in that classic Ocker cult movie, The Castle. But if you’re more the type to seek out a great road than a cinema, then chances are the name might resonate as one of a string of vibrant dots to join on a driver’s drive through Victoria’s Yarra and King valleys.
No surprise that the area is a favourite new vehicle launch location with car manufacturers and motor noters alike. For me, an occasion that particularly stands out for all the right reasons was the launch of Volkswagen’s refreshed Scirocco R in 2014. When I first saw a Scirocco on the road – Europe, the year before – I was won over immediately by its sporty, assertive stance.
When the R arrived Down Under in early 2012, it took just a few minutes behind the wheel to confirm substance matched said style. Two years later, an update brought more to the party: a revamped interior and front end, gloss rear diffuser and LEDs. Power (188kW) and torque (330Nm) might be carried over, but the latter now arrives 100rpm earlier @ 2400rpm and lingers longer @ 5200rpm (up 200rpm).
Leaving Healesville on the B360, our drive starts in earnest. In seemingly no time, the road climbs and coils steeply through forests of Ash trees and gullies of mega ferns that could well have been straight out of Jurassic Park. Welcome to the fabled Black Spur, core to the Yarra Ranges drive experience.
The road is tight, though nicely-cambered, with a smooth, well-maintained surface. But only filtered light and warmth make it through the overhead canopy of tall timber, hence it can be slippery even at midday on a warm day, and damp leaf litter accumulates in the centre of the road.
Regardless, the Scirocco R is in its element. The XDL electronic diff, adjustable dampers (set to Sport, of course) and grippy 235/35 R19 rubber underwrite all the traction I need. The punchy, 2.0-litre turbo-four is on the boil, tacho needle hovering between 4000 and 5000rpm in 2nd and 3rd. The steering feels ably weighted and pointy and the front-end tucks in on command. For 28km, the beat goes on …
Next up is historical Alexandra, near the Goulburn River, which well warrants a stroll around with large flat white in hand to admire the heritage streetscape. Back in the Scirocco, we head past Yarck, dismissing the notion of stopping and buying a T-shirt emblazoned in true Aussie mischief with, ‘Where the farck is Yarck?’ and Merton before arriving at Bonnie Doon, but there’s no sign of the Kerrigan family.
Mansfield, just up the road, is the stepping-off point for the Mt Buller ski fields, but it’s the end of the main street and a sign saying ‘C 521 Whitfield 62’ that beckons. This, my friends, is a road par excellence for keen drivers and riders. ‘High risk area’ signs warn of what lays ahead: a collage of steep climbs and descents and clusters of tight and medium corners, all rolled out over a generally smooth strip of bitumen.
Time to again enable Sport mode, roll the throttle on and give the DSG paddle-shift another sustained workout, validating easily VW’s claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.1 seconds. The road flashes by; some 10km of nicely cambered curves and about 15 kays of technical, tricky challenge, interspersed with fast and open going. We don’t see another car. It’s so good a drive that, I guarantee, one run will not suffice.
As Darryl Kerrigan was wont to say whenever he was impressed with something, “This, is goin’ straight to the pool room.”
2014 Volkswagen Scirocco R
Basic price new: $48,490
Engine: 2.0-litre, turbo DOHC inline 4-cyl
Power: 188kW @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 330Nm @ 2400-5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-spd DSG
0-100km/h: 6.0 secs
Car: Audi TTS
Drive: Lake Mountain (10km)
Ever driven a cracking stretch of back road and wished you could be guaranteed of no oncoming traffic? That way you could use all of the blacktop, straight-line the corners and sniff the apexes. Of course, you have.
I’ve lucked in. Set in the Victorian high country, on the fringe of Marysville, the winding, climbing, privately-owned 10km road up to the Lake Mountain alpine resort has been closed to facilitate such an opportunity. Occasion – the Australian launch of Audi’s third-gen Audi TTS.
Our small convoy is led by former Formula 3 driver Ian Dyk, who will set the pace. Already, he has given our party of motor noters the heads-up on matching car to road – wind the Drive Select to Dynamic in all settings except suspension, which should be set to Auto or even Comfort mode.
Heading downhill first up presents the opportunity to properly reconnoitre the road. It’s seriously serpentine, with a complete repertoire of mountain road challenge – blind corners, changing camber, variety of surface, and short, sharp straight bits. Then, we turn around, and it’s game on. I’m first car behind Dyk, and I’ll be driving to his pace. Maybe.
The extra urge of the 2.0-litre TFSI engine (power up 10kW to 210 and torque 30Nm to 380; 0-100km/h in 4.7sec) is immediately apparent. Ditto the level of grip and traction, confirmation of Audi’s improvements to its acclaimed quattro AWD system, and the car carves the corners with confidence and competence.
The progressive steering initially feels a little light, but it’s sharp and accurate and, in manual mode, there’s an incisiveness to the 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. Despite finishing the run down and up smoking acridly, the four-piston front and single-piston rear brakes retained their strength and progression.
Top Gear Australia magazine named Lake Mountain Australia’s best driving road. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s certainly among the best – especially when you have exclusive use.
2015 Audi TTS Roadster
Basic price new: $103,900
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo DOHC inline 4-cyl
Power: 210kW @ 5300-6200 rpm
Torque: 380Nm @ 1800-5200 rpm
Transmission: 6-spd DSG
0-100km/h: 4.7 secs
Car: Mazda MX-5
Drive: Great Alpine Road (340km)
The Great Alpine Road (B500) starts at Wangaratta in the north and runs 340km through the Victorian high country to Bairnsdale in the south. Australia’s highest year-round, accessible sealed road, it traverses valleys deep, mountains high on the way to the Gippsland lakes.
At just 76km, the stretch from Wangaratta to Bright can be easily done in an hour, so no excuse not to make a detour or two. Built with 19th-century gold rush wealth, Beechworth’s historic streetscape (pictured) includes some 30 National Trust-listed buildings, none more significant than the stone courthouse where Ned Kelly went to trial before being hanged in Melbourne Gaol.
Bright, with its avenue of deciduous trees which have matured grandly like a vintage wine, is warm and welcoming at any time but with the leaves in their red and amber autumn tones, especially so. We follow the road as it ascends sharply from the valley floor at Harrietville and snakes for nearly 30km through to Mount Hotham, Victoria’s highest alpine village.
The landscape morphs from alpine ash to snow gum and heathland, with just enough breaks in the forest density to snatch dramatic views of sky or further afield. From here, through Dinner Plain (pictured) to Omeo, the road continues to live up to its reputation as one of Australia’s best drives. And in Mazda’s then-new (2015) 2.0-litre ND MX-5, we have just the bit of kit to do it justice.
This is an opportunity to see if size (as in ‘cc’) really does matter. Compared with its 1.5-litre sibling released just a few months earlier, the bigger engine variant brought not just an extra 22kW and 50Nm to the party but firmer shockies, thicker anti-roll bars, bigger brake rotors and taller wheels (up from 16 to 17-inch).
Of course, the ‘big boy’ excelled, as we knew it would. The extra punch and suspension enhancements could be felt soon as the radius of a curve opened, the MX-5 putting its power down smoothly and rhythmically and forging on to, though, and out the next bend. And the next…