A 500-mile road trip in Britainâ€™s cheapest crossover
The Scottish tourist boardâ€™s officially-endorsed driving route, the North Coast 500 is among Britainâ€™s most breathtaking drives. The scenery is truly awe-inspiring and itâ€™s not just the car mags and TV motoring programmes that are flocking to it: now summery weather is here, tourists are taking to the 500-mile route too.
We were one of them. And weâ€™re lucky enough to have a fleet of fancy cars that we could do it in. The editor kindly loaned us one for our holiday, too. But not the Audi V6 turbo S4 that would surely have been perfect. Not the Jaguar F-Type we had our eyes on. Rather, the Dacia Duster budget crossover. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, we grabbed the keys.
Pre-drive positives: itâ€™s big. Good job; itâ€™s 500 miles to the North Coast 500, so weâ€™d spend a couple of days just getting there, fully loaded up with camera gear and video stuff. Itâ€™s well equipped too, as the person in the office who ordered it forgot about the budget aspect and selected every option imaginable: leather seats, cruise control, DAB radio, you name it.
Pre-drive negatives: a sneaking suspicion it perhaps might not be the best car for a driving holiday. Every Dacia weâ€™d driven up to now had lifeless steering, and such vagueness was soon confirmed on the schlep up the M6. Hey ho, we thought, as we devoured breakfast at Loch Ness before joining NC500 near Inverness: in for a penny.
The first thing we did was go off-roading in our crossover. Few NC500 visitors do this, which is why we did. The system comes from a Nissan Qashqai, and works well enough to get us to our photo location. Job done, itâ€™s onto the route itself. Where the scenery soon becomes spectacular and sensational. The bit between Achansheen and Kinlochewe on the A832 is especially amazing: no wonder the NC500 uses it on its homepage.
The little 1.2-litre turbo engine proves to be a surprise, with enough verve to nip past slothful caravans with ease. The steering isnâ€™t as bad as we feared either. Yes, it needs constant corrections, but this sort of inaccuracy itself becomes something of a pleasure. Less pleasurable was when the puncture warning light flashed up.
A rigmarole ensued. A man in a van found us in the middle of nowhere, and couldnâ€™t find anything wrong. Neither could the garage he sent us to. But, sure enough, overnight, the tyre went completely flat. Thank goodness there was a spare: fingers crossed we wouldnâ€™t get another puncture, thoughâ€¦
We ploughed on, for more NC500 amazement. We drove through moonscapes, weaved past the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, passed picture-postcard scenery and then kissed the North Sea on the run up to John Oâ€™Groats. By now, weâ€™d really fallen for the little Duster. This is a real-world car more than up for the job in hand; practical, smart-looking and endearing.
The spec of our test car is a bit crazy: nobody will spend Â£18,980 on one. But for less than Â£10,000 for the base car, thereâ€™s little not to like here: cheap is good and more than able to make the best of the North Coast 500. Affordable driving holidays donâ€™t get more satisfying.