The ‘World’s Greatest Road’ Actually Sucks, Here Are Four Better Ones
A few years ago, Top Gear declared Italy and Switzerland's Stelvio Pass one of the best driving roads in Europe. Countless lists name it as one of the best places in the world to lay down rubber. I just got back from Stelvio, and I can unequivocally say that it is not close to one of the best driving roads in the world. It isn't even the best in Switzerland.
(Full Disclosure: I wanted to drive the Italian and Swiss mountain passes so bad that I concocted a plan: I'd take a car from Munich south to drive five of the best passes in a 48 hour period just to see if the roads were worth the hype. I'd also bring ace photog GF Williamsalong for the journey. Porsche agreed that this was a fine idea and let me borrow a Cayman S for the adventure.)
Ever since Top Gear visited Stelvio and the roads on the way there from Davos, they have become a bit of a motoring mecca, one stop that every gearhead needs to make in his or her life. The footage Top Gear has from Stelvio looks fantastic. It's a string of hairpins up a mountain side to a sleepy village with no traffic at all. What gets better than that?
In theory, nothing. In practice, most everything.
Any road like Stelvio is amazing if you close it down. In reality, the Swiss side of Stelvio is crowded with RVs, buses, and people driving slowly. What's also deceiving is the width. It's so narrow. Sure, if you knew nobody was coming, you'd gun it. But you just don't know that. And you don't want to hit a bus at a million miles per hour or swerve off a cliff to avoid a motorcycle.
The hairpins on the Swiss side look incredible on film and from a distance, but driving them is repetitive and boring, even when you're not in traffic. Hard right, hard left, hard right, hard left. It's not flowing. It's more of an engineering masterpiece than a great bit of driver's road.
The Italian side of Stelvio redeems the boredom of the Swiss side. The scenery rocks. The road is still narrow, but you have faster corners that you can actually see around. It's truly a hoot. It's also perfect Cayman country. It's a chance to push the car, which has limits far higher than you'll reach on a regular road.
The problem is that the road is still full of very aggressive bikers and motorcyclists, as well as painfully slow tourists checking out the views. You can't get anything that resembles a clean run up or down the mountain unless you go at 6 AM on a weekday, and even then I doubt it'll happen. You might string together three or four minutes of traffic free driving, but you'll get caught again. And because the road is so narrow, you aren't passing anyone.
It's still fun, it just isn't a deserted motorists paradise. There are roads in Switzerland that are less crowded, wider, and just flat out better.
Here are four of them.
If you leave the Italian side of Stelvio and head towards Switzerland, you'll hit something called the Gotthard Pass. It's a faster, wider road with even better scenery. It's a test of braking and handling, which you find out when you see cars pulled over with brakes stinking like the dickens (technical term). The pads on the Cayman get hot, but they don't stink to the level of others. This car has carbon brakes, which are truly very good.
You aren't going to find a Swiss road without traffic, but Gotthard has fewer blind spots and passing is definitely possible.
And at the top of the pass is a rest area with an old cobbled road, insane views, amazing lakes, and a man who serves you a bratwurst or a hamburger on a single piece of bread. It's like a strange interpretation of heaven.
The downhill views off of Gotthard are incredible, and the way down the mountain has some hairpins, some fast turns, some straights, and some cows. It's a melange of everything you want in a great driving road.
The base of the Gotthard Pass is also the start of the Furka Pass, which is, without a doubt, the scariest road I've ever driven on. The road up the mountain is unbelievable narrow. Like two Caterhams have a tough time squeezing by each other. And instead of a solid wall or guardrail, there are just these little concrete posts. I think they're there to impale you before you fall of the cliff.
That way you die at the top of the mountain, not the bottom. That's thoughtful.
The real issue with the Furka Pass was the weather, not the road. Once you reach the top it widens out and becomes a lot of fun. But these mountains come with extreme weather, and we experienced some crazy shit on the pass.
Switzerland provided the wildest rain I've ever seen. Water flowed down the hill like a waterfall. Hail pelted the outside of the Cayman. Parking lots flooded. Bikers scrambled for cover. And after about 30 minutes of driving in it, it just stopped. Like God flipped a switch and said "ok, that's enough."
When you get through Furka, you come to a road called the Grimsel Pass. This is where things get really good. You're no longer on the edge of a mountain where a small mistake will cost you your life. Instead, you're on a road that was artfully drawn on the landscape. You can see the mountains, but you aren't falling off of them.
As far as a being a road is concerned, the Grimsel Pass is amazing. Unlike the engineering exercise of Stelvio, Grimsel is roadwork art. And compared to the other three passes, it's basically traffic free. And there are actual wide open bits to pass.
Then you come to a town. And in that town you make a right hand turn. And that right hand turn leads you to the best driving road in Switzerland.
It's called the Susten Pass, and it combines everything amazing about the Grimsel Pass and adds elevation change. It also adds glaciers and some of the most incredible scenery on this entire route.
Top Gear called the Stelvio Pass the cherry on the top of the route. If anything, the Susten will make you forget Stelvio exists. You run up the hill from town through an alternating series of fast valleys and technical sharper hairpins and chicanes, all perfectly banked. I didn't drift at all, but it's perfect for it.
The road is wide with good sight lines. There are plenty of opportunities to run your car out in the first few gears. In the case of the Cayman, you just get to hear more of that unbelievable flat six wail. The way down the hill is also fun. Sure, there is another shot at dying in a horrific crash off a mountainside, but you can see every single corner.
You actually know if a truck is coming or a wild biker. You can see what turns can be taken quickly and what needs more than just a dab of brakes to prevent you from dying.
Susten is one of the most incredible roads I've ever driven and has to be one of the most incredible in the world. Go there. Go there now.
Photo Credits: GF Williams