Drive: Queenstown to Queenstown, New Zealand (230km)
Despite being just 1/29th the size of Australia, NZ is spectacularly well-endowed when it comes to great driving roads.
Prime among the best is the Crown Range Road linking Queenstown with Wanaka on the south island.
Reaching an altitude of 1121m, the CRR is the highest, sealed main road in the Shaky Isles (completed only in 2001).
As circumstances have it, we’re driving from Queenstown to Wanaka on day one of the Australasian launch of the brand-new Nissan 370Z roadster (2010).
But, not via the CRR – at least not first up.
It’s a drive taking the long way around (230km), past Lake Wakatipu and the Devil’s Staircase, through Kingston, Riversdale, Moa Flat, Heriot, Alexandria (lunch stop), then a push on to our destination via Cromwell and Ludgate.
Highlights among several – the amazing downhill, winding Moa Flat Road through open farmland, and the challenging Cromwell Gorge.
The Zed sled has shown itself to be a good thing.
Costing $7000 more than its coupe sibling (what’s that old saying – lower the roof and raise the price?), the roadster is built around the same mechanical package, but with convertible-specific chassis and stiffened body, and available in just the one specification.
An identical 245kW of power is available at 7000 rpm from the award-winning, 3.7-litre DOHC V6, with 363Nm of torque peaking at 5200 rpm.
A six-speed manual with Nissan’s celebrated SynchroRev Match, the world’s first synchronised rev matching system, comes standard, while the optional seven-speed automatic sports a system called Downshift Rev Matching.
High-backed sports seats, with height and tilt adjustment for the cushion and lumbar support for the driver, also offer plenty of lateral support.
However, the steering column lacks reach adjustment and rear three-quarter visibility is not good with the roof up.
Apart from the chilly, early start it’s been down anyway.
We’ve made it to Wanaka and checked in to our accommodation with plenty of daylight left.
There’s a choice: a 55km scenic waterside drive skirting the left side of Lake Hawea through The Neck and along the right shore of Lake Wanaka towards Makarora; free time at a four-discipline shooting range; or swanning around in a hot spa/heated pool.
For me, roar by the shore, it is.
The roadster makes light load of its 1608kg (some 60kg up on the coupe), driving through a viscous limited slip diff to get the power down early and emphatically.
Additional bracing through the A-pillars, side sills and doors, along with a high-strength hoop frame mounted horizontally around the boot, has been incorporated to compensate for the comparative loss of rigidity.
Team this with wide, low-profile tyres and well-tuned sports suspension, and the soft-top has the goods to attack the lakeside’s bountiful bends and twists with undiminished zeal; cornering flat and gripping tenaciously.
However, for every action there’s a reaction and the trade-off for the dashing dynamics can be felt in the everyday ride where a fair bit of road shock is transmitted through the sports seats and thick, meaty steering wheel when the going gets bumpy.
Tyre rumble also is present on coarse surfaces, although it doesn’t seem as bad as the reverberations inside the 370Z coupe.
The Zed stops as well as it goes, thanks to the Brembo performance brake package (355mm ventilated front, 350mm ventilated rear).
Day Two: we savour the delights of the Crown Range Road.
Ascent beats descent any time, right, so the plan is to drive down to Arrow Junction taking in the substantial sights enroute, turn around and head back up, this time with focus full-on the driving experience.
Touted as the most photographed watering hole in NZ for good reason, the historic Cardrona Hotel is the first of several must-take stops.
With its timber façade flush to the roadway and picked out against the skyline, the Cardrona looks like a Wild West movie prop, except that it’s a for-real survivor of NZ’s 1860s’ gold rush era.
Just up the road is Central Otago’s Snow Farm, aka the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, which attracts carmakers from around the world who come to perform off-season winter testing.
The unsealed road up to the Farm is an epic drive in itself. It was here, from 1998-2007 (and again in 2015), that the Race to the Sky was held.
The 14.5km hillclimb, with an average gradient of 1:11, takes in 135 turns as it winds from 450m to 1500m above sea level.
It was also here, where Australasia’s most successful rally driver, Possum Bourne, died in a collision with another competitor during practice for the 2003 race.
But, now to the main event . . .
In its quick-fire 68km, the CRR serves up a barrage of open sweepers and tighter curves, dips and crests, with switchbacks at their most prolific just above Arrow junction.
We pick up the climb just past Lake Hayes, from where the road zigzags to the Crown Terrace and a panorama of stunning views unravel of the Arrow Valley and across to the aptly-named Remarkables Range.
This is 2nd and 3rd gear central, and with the revs loitering between 4500 and 5000 rpm, the Zed inhales the road, extra oomph ever-ready and just a few millimetres of right foot travel away.
SynchroRev Match has become my close pal and it’s soooo easy to find myself shifting gears for no other reason than to hear the engine note bouncing off the earth cuttings.
The CRR then soars steeply to the summit, where on the way down we saw Frankton, part of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown in all their splendour.
On the Wanaka side of the range, the road crosses a plateau of farmland and descends steadily along Cardrona Valley.
To the left is the mighty Crown Range, to the right the equally imposing Criffel Range; we bisect them with the Zed delivering a (V)6-gun salute.