Great British Drives: North Coast 500, the best driving route in Scotland – but is it best by car or motorcycle?

Honda Civic Type R and Honda CBR650R on the North Coast 500 route in northern Scotland - August 2019
Never mind grey skies, the roads are unforgettable; our Honda Civic Type R and CBR650R were ideal

It started in Corby. Not all great road trips do. In fact, I’ll wager most don’t. Indeed, I hope the town’s denizens won’t be too offended when I say it is perhaps not the most glamorous place in the world, or even in England, for a great road trip to start.

But Corby was where ours started. For that was where we would collect the second vehicle for our trip. The first had arrived at my home the day before; a bright red Honda Civic Type R. We had driven to Corby and stayed in a local B&B before an early start to head for an industrial estate on the edge of town, where our journey would truly begin in earnest. 

Corby, you see, is where Honda keeps its motorbikes. And I was to be joined on this journey by friend and avid motorcyclist George on another Honda; a CBR650R, to be precise. The reason? Well, there were several of those. But chief among them was to try and work out, once and for all, whether a car or a bike is the ideal weapon of choice on a great road trip.

And this was certainly set to be a great road trip. One the like of which we may not be able to enjoy for much longer, if the Science and Technology Committee gets its way. That was another reason for taking it, in fact: there’s no time like the present to get out and experience great roads like this one.

Mind you, the first day wouldn’t be particularly romantic, and with more than six hours of motorway before we reached our destination for the evening – Perth – it’d be a tough, and hot, one for George. I feigned sympathy from the comfortable, air-conditioned, Pink Floyd-filled environs of the Civic’s interior.

The reward: it's quite a trek from southern England, but the North Coast 500 impresses with its stunning views Credit: Stefan Schurr/Getty Images

This day was always going to belong to the car. But fitted with the optional Comfort Pack, with its bigger screen and heated grips, the bike proved far more adept at cruising than we’d expected. Its biggest drawback, in fact, turned out to be its short range; despite considerably better fuel economy than the car, its much smaller tank meant the bike had to stop to ship petrol every 150 miles or so, where the car could manage almost 300 miles to a tank. 

At one point, traffic on the A1 left me stuck in a queue while George was able to filter through, but his advantage disappeared completely when he stopped for fuel where I didn’t have to – at which point I caught him up again. 

The Civic, of course, shrugged off the A1, the A66 and the M6 without issue, as we knew it would, its adaptive cruise control taking the strain out of the long miles and its adjustable suspension set to Comfort so as to blot out all but the worst bumps. 

As we crossed the border at Gretna, it was as though someone had flicked a switch, so suddenly did the landscape change. As green-grey hills shot up around us, thickly clad in pine forests, we could be in no doubt we were in Scotland. 

Despite much better fuel economy than the car, the bike's much smaller tank meant it had to stop for petrol every 150 miles or so compared with the Type R's 300 miles

Our arrival in Perth was spectacular, with the sun setting over the town as we crossed the Friarton Bridge. Neither of us had heard much about the town, and it turned out to be delightful – clean, pretty, quiet and leafy. 

The next day, however, did not start well, with cold, fat raindrops billowing across the roadwork-riven A9; while the low cloud lent the epic hills a fabulously brooding air, which I could admire from the comfort of the car, George was having a less enjoyable time of it behind me.

Soon, though, the road opened out, and he was able to press on ahead, skirting around lorries and campers, while I had to wait for dual-carriageway sections of road before I could overtake. We detoured south-west to Drumnadrochit for lunch so we could drive along Loch Ness, which as you might expect turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap, and then turned north again. 

It was here, after one and a half days’ travel, that the fun really began, the A833 toward Beauly giving us a taste of what lay ahead. The rain was still falling, but the Civic took it all in its stride, finding grip and traction where you’d least expect it, and inspiring enormous confidence. After a couple of corners George, still finding his feet on the bike, had vanished from my mirrors. When the weather turns bad, then, there’s no doubt it’s the car – with its extra contact patches and, of course, roof – that you want to be in.

When the weather threatens the car is the vehicle to have

But once we rejoined the A9 for the journey up Scotland’s north-east coast, the tables were to turn. The rain stopped, and the road became thronged with campers. The CBR’s high-revving nature meant a couple of downchanges were a necessity, but with that proviso, George had no trouble carving his way through the lines of traffic that built up behind each slow-moving motorhome. I, on the other hand, had to wait for the traffic to break up – and then for long straights where I could pass the remaining cars safely. 

It was hard work, therefore, to keep up on the way to Wick, our stop for the second night. In fact, the only reason I was able to sight George again before we arrived was the temporary set of traffic lights that turned red for him, but green as I arrived on his tail. Pretty soon, though, he was gone again, a vanishing speck ahead of the lumbering camper I was caught up behind. 

Wick turned out to be scruffy round the edges, but welcoming; we were brought breakfast by our landlady in our room, which overlooked the pretty little harbour. The sun was shining as we ate, and indeed when we left – but by the time we stopped at John O’Groats, half an hour later, angry clouds had swept in once again with a summer gale beneath them, driving the cold rain into our faces as we took photos. 

Happily, it wasn’t to last. I’d been told by those who’d done the route to expect the scenery to start to get dramatic along this northern stretch of coastline, so the sunshine in which Thurso basked was welcome. Sure enough, beyond the town, the road started to twist, rise and fall, with each corner revealing another view of lush, grassy hills leading down to the cobalt sea. 

When it's fine, you could almost imagine you're by the Mediterranean

These were ideal roads for the car – well-surfaced and with excellent sight lines. Happily, we met little to no traffic along them, too; in fact, along that stretch of road I found myself laughing out loud to myself with sheer joy, for no reason other than the combination of a fantastic driver’s car, perfect weather, and utterly sublime roads. 

George was having fun, too, as it turned out; the Civic’s far higher cornering speeds left him with a gap to close on each straight, giving him a perfect chance to stretch the CBR’s four-cylinder, 16-valve engine to its 12,000rpm redline.

When following him, too, I found myself able to get on the power far earlier, the Civic’s aggressive limited-slip differential hooking up and delivering traction for me where the George was still waiting for the road to straighten out. In sheer straight-line terms, though, both vehicles were incredibly well-matched; even with full-bore acceleration, I was unable to shake George from my tail if he was already there. 

That differential really is at the heart of the Type R’s driving experience. Yes, the chassis is great, with oodles of grip and just the right amount of movement to warn you when you’re getting close to its limits. Carry more speed than you’d planned into a bend and you know it won’t spit you off unless you’re going irresponsibly quickly; a confidence lift mid-corner gets the tail shifting slightly to warn you that that isn’t such a great idea.

But the best way to drive the Civic is, as with most things, slow in and fast out. Turn in, feed in the throttle as early as you dare, and then keep on feeding it in as the diff does its thing and the nose dives even harder into the turn. Marvel at the complete lack of understeer, hang on tightly as the steering twitches slightly in your hands, the front wheels writhing as they find grip seemingly impossibly, and then slingshot out of the corner fully on the power, ready for the next straight.

Over lunch in Tongue, I asked George what he thought of the bike so far. “It’s the polar opposite of my Triumph Street Twin,” he said. “That’s a big, torque monster – the CBR is light, agile and rev-happy. You have to be in the right gear to get the best out of it, because if you’re off the power you don’t get the acceleration you’re looking for. But when you get it right, it’s absolutely tremendous.

“Yet just because it’s sporty doesn’t mean it’s intimidating. It’s very progressive in the way it moves through a turn, so it’s easy for someone who’s new to it to have fun without feeling as though it’s about to bite you.”

The next part of the route was to favour the bike. From Tongue to Durness, and then south towards Kylesku, the roads were mostly single-track affairs with passing places. 

Much of the NC500 route is single-track road with passing places - patience is a virtue

On these sorts of roads, police notices urge slower drivers to pull over in passing places to allow overtaking. Most, to their credit, do; however, there are always those who won’t – perhaps tourists who can’t understand the signs, or local drivers unwilling to allow the uppity boy racer in the angry-looking car behind to pass. 

In such circumstances I waved George by, then sat back and waited; better that than to annoy the locals or risk a coming-together with a fellow tourist. The tactic paid off, and rarely did I have to wait more than two or three passing places before being allowed to squeeze through; a cheery wave, or a flash of the hazards, and I could head off to find the bike.

Time was pressing on, so we decided to skip the loop through Drumbeg, and head due south towards Loch Assynt. These roads were fantastic fun; wide, sweeping corners interspersed with long straights perfect for overtaking dawdling campers and hire cars, all with huge, dramatic vistas, either down to the sea or inland to craggy mountains. 

Ahead, the sky was dark, but happily the rain held off until we were moments from reaching our destination in Ullapool, a compact, pretty town in a spectacular location on the shores of Loch Broom. As the rain clattered down outside, we settled into a local pub with a roaring fire for a fish supper and, having decided on a late start the next day, a quick exploration of the bar’s well-stocked whisky supply.

The rain was still falling when we set off in the morning, heads still a little sore, and the run down from Ullapool to Gairloch was tricky. I was glad of the car’s weather protection, but George was able to ride the crown of the road surface and thus avoid the puddles forming in the road’s tyre tracks. 

We stopped for coffee in Gairloch, after which the rain eased off, and with no traffic about we were free to enjoy the marvellous stretch of the A832 that runs south from there along Loch Maree to Kinlochewe, a long stretch of two-lane road whose poor surface is made up for by heavily cambered corners, and snatched glimpses of the loch through the pine forests that grow along its shore. 

But the best views of the trip were yet to come, as we turned off toward Applecross. As the road turned back into a single-track section, George pulled away – only for his brake light to come on as he turned into a parking area. As I pulled up, I wound down the window and asked if everything was OK. “Yes,” George replied, as he gestured toward the wild, heather-covered moors around Loch Clair and the mountains beyond. “I just had to stop to have a proper look at that.”

As we followed the coastline round, once again we were afforded some breathtaking views, this time across the Inner Sound to Rona and Raasay. The road dipped and dived along the coast, stretching out for miles ahead of us while the sun played across the sea, now battleship grey, in patches where the clouds allowed it.

Highland cattle and sheep are not averse to using the road

Ahead of us, though, the leaden sky indicated more rain. It came as we arrived in Applecross, and as we headed up the Applecross Pass, big red signs warning of frequent poor weather suggested things might become tricky. Sure enough, no sooner had we passed them than fog closed in, restricting visibility to around 50 metres. 

The road was still a single track with passing places; aware of the possibility of meeting oncoming cars in the pea soup, I dropped to near-walking pace, and threw on all the lights I could. George, somewhere ahead of me in the gloom, managed to squeeze past oncoming cars, but I got caught up in a knot of gridlock with one driver who’d overshot his passing place and tried to press on regardless, only for following cars to block up the road behind. 

Soon, though, the cloud cleared, if not the rain. From here on in, though, the sailing was plainer, first along the A890, which wound its way around beautiful lochs and through pine forests, then on the flat, straight A832, with majestic views of Strath Bran spread out to our right. Then we were back in Beauly, completing our loop, and heading toward Inverness, for our final night before heading south.

Over a pint that evening, we compared notes. “I think what it comes down to is confidence,” says George. “What the car gives you is considerable, and immediate, confidence. You know exactly what it’s going to do, you know you’ve got some margin of error, and you can have fun in it the minute you jump in the driver’s seat.”

“Whereas on the bike,” I added, finishing the thought, “you have to learn it. And that adds an extra dimension to the enjoyment you get when you master it, but the conditions have to be right in order for that to happen.”

“I think,” concluded George, “that as much as I’ve come to love that bike, the car has to win this challenge, simply because we couldn’t have done this trip without it there as a support vehicle, for luggage. 

“I’d have had to add panniers to the bike, which would have affected its weight – or take a bigger, heavier bike which would have been almost as compromised for the journey up, and less fun on the route itself. And it gave us shelter from the weather when we needed it.”

“Whereas I reckon you could probably have packed light and made it work with the bike, and you’d also have had more fun,” I said. “I’ve loved every minute of driving this car; it’s been immense fun when the roads were clear, and its greater grip also meant it’s had the legs on the bike in anything other than a straight line.

Each Honda has its merits, but in the end the car's luggage capacity swung it

“But it’s the way the bike deals with other traffic that gives it the edge. I spent far too much of this trip trying to catch you up; and when I wasn’t, I was holding you up. Ultimately, on the bike you spent more of your time enjoying yourself, and less plotting the next overtake. While the car was great, the bike was truly exquisite.”

Call it envy of each other’s machines, if you like – or simply call it a draw, and conclude that both car and bike won our hearts in very different ways. 

The Civic Type R sealed its status in our eyes as one of the best, if not the best hot hatch on sale today, for its astonishing all-round ability: not only did it offer comfort and space for the drive up to Scotland, but the power to find a way past most of the traffic, and that incredible diff and chassis combination when the road was clear. And it could drive on by while the bike had to fill up.

Meanwhile, the CBR650R offered a scintillating thrill every time it soared up to the top end of its rev range. Not to mention an agile but accessible chassis, and enough comfort that even a six-hour day in the saddle didn’t prove too much to bear. In its way, then, it proved to be a respectable all-rounder too – and its size meant much less time clogged up behind a camper. Horses for courses, then. 

The real star of the show was Scotland, and the North Coast 500. In some ways, it wasn’t what we expected – some of its sections are far from ideal driving roads, with single-track stretches and rough surfaces spliced between smooth ribbons of wide tarmac. But where it would be foolish or irresponsible to drive quickly, you find yourself slowing and drinking in the impossibly glorious scenery instead. And for this reason, your mode of transport for this route doesn’t really matter.

So whether you drive there, as we did, or fly to avoid the motorway legs and hire something, this beautiful set of roads and the towns and villages that sit astride it won’t disappoint. Pick your weapon of choice – car or bike – and grab a mate or two to share the experience with. It’s one you aren’t likely to forget. 

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