STORY & PHOTOS EDRIC PAN
"THE FURKA PASS DESERVES TO ALSO BE KNOWN FOR BEING TERRIFYING TO DRIVE, BEING NARROW, REPLETE WITH HAIRPINS, AND WITH SOME SECTIONS LACKING ANY FORM OF BARRIERS OR RESTRAINT WHATSOEVER… "
Tackling roads like these in a capable sports car is pure bliss for a petrolhead.
PREDICAMENT. You’re in Stuttgart, home to Porsche, and someone hands you the keys to a 718 Cayman GTS, yours for the next 3 days.
Where do you go?
A first-world problem, I know, but one which confronted me in mid October. The obvious answer was to head for some great driving roads, but which ones?
Being in Europe, there are so many amazing stretches – usually draped, Instagram-worthy, over spectacular mountainous landscape – that it was genuinely hard to choose.
There are some stunning examples in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the south of France (the Route Napolean was particularly tempting) but all of them would have required dreary, timesapping motorway hauls to get there from Stuttgart, wasting precious driving time which could have been better spent exploring other roads closer to base.
Maximising B-road fun therefore meant minimising motorway time, and involved finding and plotting a route through the best driving roads within a 300-kilometre radius of Stuttgart.
Hours of (pleasurable) online research and GoogleMapping ensued.
So in the wee hours of an autumn morning the GTS and I headed south-west from Stuttgart towards the town of Ste Marie-aux-Mines in Alsace, France, to explore the Route Des Cretes Vosges which had been highly recommended by a Frankfurt-based old friend and fellow B-road junkie (who in fact drove down to join me for part of the drive).
On the 200km slog down from Stuttgart the GTS was painless, its suspension (stiffer and 10mm lower than a standard Cayman S’s) feeling firmly resolute yet sufficiently compliant over autobahn expansion strips, and also coping well with the vagaries of rural French tarmac.
The PDK gearbox swapped cogs quickly and fusslessly, although the thumping mid-range torque from the 2.5-litre turbocharged flat-4 meant that downchanging for overtakes was done more for entertainment than out of necessity.
Speaking of that engine, it has been panned in some quarters for lacking the stirring wail of the old Cayman’s flat-six at full chat, but to my ears (and especially with the GTS’ standard-fit sports exhaust) it still sounds great – with a distinct, bassy boxer burble at idle and low revs which morphs into a throaty roar higher up.
With the driving mode selector in Sport the exhaust also crackles deliciously on the overrun, although curiously in the more extreme Sport+ mode the crackle is gone.
And with 365bhp it runs the hardcore 380bhp Cayman GT4 very close on power, and in fact comprehensively trumps it on torque – which I put to good use for the occasional wake-me-up blast on the autobahn (I hit 270km/h at one point, still well short of the GTS’s 290km/h potential).
And so for the best part of the next two hours after reaching Ste Marie-aux-Mines, the GTS whipped through the lovely roads undulating and coiling through the landscape on a seemingly endless stretch known as the Route Des Cretes, which runs along the ridge of the hilly range that marks the French border with Germany.
The Cayman’s superb dynamics came into their own, its midengined layout giving the car superb agility and balance, and giving me the confidence to really commit to the many wellsighted sweepers and mediumspeed bends, as we charged up to the summit of each Col and then down again the other side.
After a lunch stop at a quaint hillside chalet for some hearty local grub, we headed South out of the hills and onto the autoroute towards the town of Basel where France, Germany and Switzerland converge, crossing over into Switzerland and then continuing along the motorway towards our rest halt for the night, a little town nestled in the Swiss Alps called Meiringen towering over the road, with vistas over the vast valley to our right, and mist-shrouded mountains in the distance.
A light drizzle as we neared the top meant that I had to temper my cornering speeds, as did the fact that the temperature fell into low single-digits.
Mindful of the fact that the GTS was on summer tyres which don’t get on at all with low temperatures, I started braking earlier and easing through the switchbacks, the GTS relaying its now much-reduced grip limits with slight understeer on the tighter turns, and a cautionary wiggle of the tail if power was introduced a touch too soon.
Still, we made it to the 2164-metre summit and back down again safely, and after passing through the small town of Gletsch, there was another incredible road to tackle.
The Furka Pass, memorable for being the road driven by James Bond in the 1963 movie Goldfinger in pursuit of the eponymous villain, as well as for being the site of the Rhone Glacier, the source of the mighty Rhone River which runs through much of Switzerland and France.
And I can report that it deserves to also be known for being terrifying to drive, being narrow, replete with hairpins, and with some sections lacking any form of barriers or restraint whatsoever (no matter how perfunctory) to prevent a wayward car or bike taking an unintended shortcut down the cliffs and back to the bottom.
After an obligatory photostop at the iconic (but now shuttered) Belvedere Hotel near the summit, we continued as the Furka Pass corkscrewed back down into the valley, before making our way across to tackle another couple of roads, the Oberalp and the Susten Passes.
The Susten, in particular, was a driver’s delight, with some beautifully flowing, well-sighted portions allowing big speeds to be reached.
The Cayman GTS was perfect in this setting, not too big, stiff or highly-strung as something more track-biased like a GT3 RS may have felt.
It had ample grip and the power to decimate even the steepest uphill stretches and to overtake at will, yet was small and nimble enough not to be intimidating or cumbersome on the hairpins or when the road narrowed.
A hearty pasta lunch later, I bade goodbye to my driving mate (who had to be back in Frankfurt in time for dinner) and set off for one last Swiss pass, the Gotthard Pass.
Constant drizzle on the way up precluded any driving heroics, but my efforts were rewarded with an epic view at the top, the summit mystically shrouded in cloud, the rockwalls a striking orange-brown in colour.
Parking in a layby to snap a couple of souvenir iPhone shots, I happened to glance down the mountain and was glad I did, because snaking its way down into the valley was the most spectacularly coiled road I’ve ever seen – it was the old Gotthard Pass, laid with cobblestones and long rendered redundant by the new, wider and faster tarmaced main stretch, but still there, still accessible, just because.
That majestic sight was a fitting finale to the driving nirvana that this quintet of Swiss passes had served up, and I left the region reluctantly, heading back up through Basel into France – best known for being the site of the Reichenbach Falls, from which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Moriarty wrestled to their (apparent) death.
But this place had been chosen not so much for its place in literary folklore, but for the fact that it is within literal sight of the most stunning driving roads in Switzerland, and possibly in all of Europe.
Which we experienced for ourselves the next morning on, first, the Grimsel Pass. The GTS was magical on the sweeping beautifully-surfaced roads in the foothills as they started to gain altitude, delighting with its grip and balance and the delicious keenness of its turn-in, the accuracy of its steering and the subtle but distinct feel being relayed through that Alcantara-clad wheel.
Magnificent as the GTS was however, it was the setting that took our breath away – the roadside pine foliage at lower levels making way, as we climbed, for a surreal barren moonscape of green-grey rock and to a waiting Ibis room in the town of Colmar.
Crossing back into Germany the next day, with several hours on hand before the GTS was due back at Stuttgart, there was time to explore the famous Black Forest along the way, and so I did.
The main routes through this hilly, pretty region, I discovered, are dotted by countless villages – which meant repeatedly having to slow for the reduced urban speed limits – and also heavily trafficked, making the 110km/h limit a distant fantasy.
So I turned off onto the minor roads, which although generally narrower and tighter, were far quieter and hence much more fun.
One stretch in particular was unforgettable – almost devoid of traffic, with sweeping, well-sighted bends and a billiard-table surface, scything and gently undulating for 10 kilometres through forest without a single building in sight – it was like stumbling upon a secret mini-Nurburgring in the middle of nowhere, and I did what the GTS was asking – no, ordering – me to do.
I drove that road again and again, flat out, boxer note bouncing off the trees, until time and fuel were starting to run out and Stuttgart beckoned.
And when I finally handed the GTS back to the nice lady in Zuffenhausen with nearly 1500km added to the clock and she asked if it had been a good trip, I lied and said yes. Because this road trip hadn’t been merely good, it had been epic.
The 718 Cayman GTS met several Alpine A110 models – its mid-engined French rival.
"THE THUMPING MID-RANGE TORQUE FROM THE TURBOCHARGED FLAT-4 MEANT THAT DOWNCHANGING FOR OVERTAKES WAS DONE MORE FOR ENTERTAINMENT THAN OUT OF NECESSITY."
The 718 Cayman GTS displayed power and poise throughout the writer’s 1500km journey.
"THE SUSTEN PASS WAS A DRIVER’S DELIGHT, WITH SOME BEAUTIFULLY FLOWING, WELL-SIGHTED PORTIONS ALLOWING BIG SPEEDS TO BE REACHED."
The writer’s B-road buddy tackled the passes in a zippy supermini – the Opel Corsa GSi (right).
"BEFORE THE GTS WAS DUE BACK AT STUTTGART, THERE WAS TIME TO EXPLORE THE FAMOUS BLACK FOREST ALONG THE WAY, AND SO I DID."