A 1,500 mile adventure through the heart of the Scottish Highlands and along the NC500
By Craig Toone
Photography by Marek Banert
It doesn’t matter how many sheep I count. The anticipation of the days ahead wins out, and the phone next to me constantly buzzing confirms the insomnia is contagious. All went to bed hours ago, eager to be of fresh mind and body for the road. I had even invited the members of our Motley Crew over to my house under the false pretences of saving time, thus extra sleep, but they saw right through my snake oil - the pub would have come calling and this trip is far too important for that nonsense. Still, the WhatsApp group would not stop pinging its excited messages across the airwaves, even the Witching Hour passed without a ceasefire in transmission.
There’s a good reason for our enthusiasm. Ahead lies a road trip of epic proportions – fifteen hundred miles over four days and three nights in a mission to sniff out the best roads Scotland has to offer. This isn’t a road test, it's an adventure with the best possible company - bucket list stuff. The three cars we are taking certainly aren’t rivals, more like a progressive ownership curve. A finishing order isn’t the objective, but it doesn’t mean a few questions can’t be answered along the way. Copious amount of tea and biscuits were sacrificed refining the details of the plan, a route that pierces through the heart of the Trossachs before slingshotting around Ben Nevis and tracing the coastline to the Isle of Skye. The best of the NC500 follows, then it’s an abrupt turn South at Kylesku, seeking out the Cairngorms and the challenging Old Military road.
The warm night’s air is making it even more difficult to settle, but it would be wrong to curse it. We are about to be blessed with the hottest spring on record, yet a week ago the trip was in jeopardy due to gloomy weather reports. A Nürburgring pilgrimage, the Isle of Man and even Ibiza were floated as alternatives. The cutting 4.15am alarm call will be the least pleasant experience of the trip - whilst the urge to abuse the snooze button is strong, abuse from a late arrival would be stronger so I leap out of bed and hit the road. But already the night has claimed its first victim as I leave the house. Paul sits in the BMW M2 Competition, waiting for his co-pilot to rise. Soon a bleary-eyed Chris emerges, muttering something about a faulty alarm clock.
News relayed, I dial back the cruise control of the Mini JCW to 65mph and enjoy seeing the mpg counter climb north of fifty, impressive for a car loaded with the essentials of highland survival - sandwiches, snacks, water and fermented hops. Fifty to the gallon is certainly a number that won’t be seen again over the next four days.
Somewhere over the North Pennines meanwhile a third car is making progress, our meeting point and breakfast awaits. Only it’s heading in the wrong direction - the night has claimed a second victim as Marek, the man behind the lens, is on the phone apologising profusely for forgetting his cameras and having to turn around. A second round of sausage and egg butties is ordered. Thirty minutes later a sheepish looking M135i pulls onto the car park, its owner craving caffeine. Addictions and rumbling bellies satisfied, the convoy settles into an eco-pro cruise along the M6 for the long journey north…
The adventure proper begins at Aviemore. The tourists head for Loch Lomond, but we have an ulterior motive for coming to the Trossachs. The A809 & A81 have acted as the perfect palette cleansers after the motorway, but now our target is in sight – The Dukes Pass. The innocuous turn off Aberfoyle High Street didn’t show much promise, but immediately the forearms are given a workout as we’re pitched into a series of wide, sweeping hairpins, constantly climbing. Once scaled the road levels off but undulates with constant direction changes, never letting the cars settle. Any straights are short but sweet, the speedometer acquiring a quick thirty mph before the brakes are tasked with scrubbing it back off again. The corners keep coming, a kaleidoscope of turns of all shapes and angles.
Up front in the M2 Chris is using all his race craft but the hyper agility and low mass of the Mini are what count up here, and despite the difference in skill it’s easy to maintain touch. The Mini is aided by a couple of tricks up its sleeve – the car is both lower and wider to the tune of 30mm thanks to the fitment of the optional KW coilovers, 15mm spacers all-round and 17” wheels wrapped in performance orientated Michelin Supersport tyres. The new suspension set up and stickier footprint has combined beautifully to eradicate the standard cars’ floaty behaviour, locking down any pitch, dive and body roll. Beforehand, the centre of gravity felt as if it gathered at a point around the driver's shoulder line, giving a distinctive and unpleasant top heavy feeling to the handling balance. Now however, the Dan Tien is significantly lower, the mass of the car pivoting into a turn from your hips, each axle sharing the load rather than rolling into submission.
THE NEW SUSPENSION AND STICKIER FOOTPRINT HAS COMBINED BEAUTIFULLY TO ERADICATE THE STANDARD CARS' FLOATY BEHAVIOR
The steering's glassy initial turn in has been eradicated and the chassis now makes sense of the quick steering rack - command and the car responds to the exact degree and tempo, with an economy of movement the others simply cannot match. It isn’t a complete transformation however, for all its accuracy the finer details still remain elusive. A change in surface? Seen and heard but not felt. The transition from grip to slip? Not well telegraphed. You end up searching for alternate answers, learning to extrapolate the limit of adhesion through the seat of your pants and the oration of the tyres, assuming you can hear them over the racket of the JCW’s sports exhaust. Another optional extra party piece, the carbon tipped pipes emit a riot of pops and bangs that ricochet back off the rock face and chase you up the road. It's little wonder the Bluetooth fob to operate its valve comes with an anti-social behaviour warning.
As Loch Achray comes into view the exhaust valve is quietly closed in order to not disturb the Lady of the Lake. Glencoe is the next port of call and I slip behind the paddles of the M2, but it’s an uneventful, if highly pretty, commute over to our first overnight stop of Fort William. In this environment the M2 reigns supreme, picking off traffic with absolute authority, its companions no match for the rapid fire gear changes or top end reach of the additional turbo. If only the voice generated in the process had more personality. All around us gentle slopes give way to towering jagged peaks and every side road shows promise - it takes considerable will power to resist their siren call but tiredness and range anxiety curb our enthusiasm. One detour we do take is to Appin, where Castle Stalker stands isolated on a small island, stoically guarding the coast of Loch Linnhe.
A swim, steam, sauna and shower later we’re sat in the hotel bar with a beverage in one hand and the menu in the other. Upon seeing two unfinished Macaroni and cheese pass by we decide to take our chances with the trip advisor lottery and head to the Fort William high-street. After some hangry bickering, a small bistro is chosen and seafood, burgers and fries are washed down with Peroni’s and a side of car chat.
Chris in-between a mouthful of fries “The Dukes felt like a rally super stage. Short in-gear bursts then hard on the brakes for the next bend. Left-right, left-right. The M2 felt like it was on a Scalextric track that you’d put together without any thought. The car defied its weight, tyres grabbing at the tarmac pushing us into the bolsters with every turn of the wheel and twist of the road”.
Marek, after grabbing the last onion ring “I bravely fought with the law of physics trying to move the mass of the M135i from right to left quick enough, to stay behind that nimble Mini and more powerful M. Then the brakes started losing the battle, increasing in heat with every corner. Over this rollercoaster road, the car felt like it reached its limits and started showing its weaknesses. No matter how hard I hustled, I simply couldn’t keep up.”
Back at the lodgings the cabaret act is in full swing, the dancing on display straight out of the Phoenix Nights playbook. We leave Les Alanos and the young at heart to it, and shuffle off to bed.
The next morning we wake up the entire hotel with booming cold starts. The Mini fires up first, followed by the M135i, exhausts amplified by the courtyard. When the M2 rumbles into life several curtains twitch. Time to make a hasty exit north.
It’s a striking morning, the sun has risen against a crisp, azure sky but the word remains asleep. Free from the responsibility of shouldering commuters, the A82 comes alive, a short fifteen minute stint taking us to the commando memorial, where the gaze of the soldiers falls upon Ben Nevis, the last of the snow clinging to his peak, defying summer's advance. We linger a little longer than planned, nobody complains.
Back on the move we’re making progress but taking our time. Inputs are measured and deliberate, short shifting through the gears, letting torque do its thing. A road sign proudly announces we’ve reached the Territory of Skye. We navigate around a series of breath-taking lochs under the watchful eyes of the Five Sisters of Kintail, each shoreline influencing the road in its own unique manner. Only one car is passed, German tourists who cheerily wave us through. If only the real world had such etiquette.
I finally manage to wrestle the keys back off Chris after a couple of choice jujitsu moves at the foot of the Applecross pass. He runs off to take up residence in the M2. This stretch has a reputation not for the faint hearted with a warning sign speaking in bold of 1 in 5 gradients and hairpin bends. Narrow width aside, the initial encounter is friendly - a gentle climb overlooking the beautiful bay of Kishorn. Then the compass needle swings north into the mouth of a dramatic glacial valley, typical in its U shape but somehow larger in scale. As the cliff faces tower above us, we get the same feeling the crew of the Perquod must have felt as they encountered Moby Dick for the first time.
Swallowed whole, we thread the needle through the signature zig-zag hairpins that deliver us to the summit, stopping for a dose of vertigo having climbed to 2054ft. The Inner Hebrides are scattered in front of us, their outline distorted in the heat haze. We all agree that we’d like another crack at the pass, preferably at 7am with only the highland cows for company, or as Stewart quips “where the steaks have never been higher”.
Tumbleweed cleared, all the day’s action has seen us work up quite a thirst and it’s amazing how people can suddenly find an extra gear when there’s a beverage at stake. Marek declares the last one back to the hotel buys the beers and does a Le Mans start into the M2. I’m left with the keys to the M135i with no complaints, for it’s the perfect combination of size, gearing and grunt for the Isle of Skye.
The engine takes centre stage after the Mini, its throttle response a highlight, even if it lacks the extra 500rpm lung capacity of the M2’s bespoke motor. It counters with a more cultured note emanating from the sports exhaust, easily putting the monotone M car in the shade. When the pace inevitably quickens it’s actually the front axle that impresses - faithful to inputs and gripping tenaciously, but offering little by the way of information to the palm of my hands. Traction isn’t an issue in these optimum conditions, but an off-camber left-right combination approaches with a hidden ridge. It’s telegraphed by a contained wiggle from the M2 in the lead so I keep my foot in, but the M135i ties itself in knots, the shockwave producing an odd corkscrewing sensation from the rear. It shakes my confidence in the chassis and from that point onwards I back off, wary of getting an encore. I pinpoint it to the bushing at the rear axle, which is just too soft for an engine of this magnitude. Unfortunately as the trip goes on I won’t be the only one to notice the twerking action, which is quickly dubbed the M135i’s truffle-shuffle.
The other two have disappeared over the horizon but it doesn’t matter. Free of the peer pressure of trying to keep up, I strike up a rhythm with the baby M - running with the windows down, the warm breeze mixing with the aroma of salty air and the occasional whiff of tortured rubber and acrid brakes, all underlined by the soundtrack of the sonorous straight six. Driven at seven tenths, the M135i is fine company. I’m eventually reunited with the group in Kyleakin, where I pay my forfeit and our thirst is quenched whilst overlooking the stunning Skye Bridge and Kyle of Lochalsh. We are treated to a stunning molten orange sunset as dinner is devoured - more fresh seafood. With jutting bellies, we walk back under a sky of a thousand stars. Paul makes his excuses and heads to his hotel - he’s being a lone wolf tonight, staying in plusher surroundings, no longer able to cope with the group's snoring.
The morning see’s us rudely awakened by the feral cry of a wild animal. Soon Paul is on the phone howling over a breakfast mix up, in that he doesn’t get any. We explain how we’d love to come and help him find some, but our bacon is as thick as gammon and we may be some time. We smuggle a ham and cheese croissant past the army of waiting on staff, saddle up and cross the bridge back onto the mainland.
After another “lap” of the Scotsschleife, we hit Applecross and pick up the NC500, which takes us out to the Atlantic coast before retreating inland towards Ullapool. The roads are fast and open, the corners requiring steady hands, quiet feet and a calm head. The M135i and M2 are in close quarters, the advantage of following playing into my hands, the M2 ahead announcing every hesitation whilst I’m being decisive on the throttle, using every last revolution available and shifting that little bit harder. The pretender proves to have the speed but not the endurance as I’m forced to call the chase when the brakes expire.
The further north we press the more the traffic thins and our jaws slacken. Gairloch & Kylesku flash by in a blur before the team re-assembles at the foot of the A838, which follows another glacial valley cut across the spine of Scotland. It's at this point we feel the most isolated of the entire trip – between small off the grid settlements there’s little sign of human presence. The M2 maintains point duty, the others tucking into its slipstream. The road is single file but well sighted, and save for the occasional road train, swift progress is made towards Inverness. After dinner we take up position in the ski lodge and the Cairngorm craft lager starts flowing. As it’s our last night the conversation is animated, and the rounds keep coming. After one too many pints Paul lets slip “I admit it, I respect that Mini, bloody brilliant” and in the car equivalent of a drunken bromance, the compliments keep coming. “It feels like a baby touring car, it’s the great basis for a project.” Hiccups Marek.
You never go full project” interrupts Stewart, who wants to talk about the M135i “sure it tails off just as the M2 is getting into its stride, but break down the nature of a day’s driving – only around one hour spent at maximum attack, the rest in the making progress zone, and it starts to make a lot of sense out here.” Marek is keen too “you could close the dynamic gap to the M2 by modifying it like the Mini, fit some springs, a differential and maybe even a tuning box, but honestly it's quick enough, and that means you’d have less money for trips like this, and I know what I’d rather do.”
Paul, banging his shoe on the table, slurs “M performance exhaust!”
Chris, nursing his pint brings the focus back onto the Mini “The Mini is the most fun, it constantly eggs you on. You can really lean on the tyres thanks to the stiffer sidewalls of the Michelin, trusting the grip, taking liberties due to the friendly nature of front wheel drive”. But then the tone changes to a more serious one “there was one nasty point however where I had to really stand on the brakes mid corner on a rough surface and the car leapt to the left, following the camber. The rear went alarmingly light.”
THE JCW'S ENGINE FEELS LIKE IT HAS A MUCH HIGHER CEILING - IT DOESN'T STRIKE YOU AS THE APEX PREDATOR OF SMALL HOT HATCHES
Marek has a different axe to grind “It’s not the best-looking car, but the new stance goes some way towards toughening up the kerb appeal. One critique is the engine, there is no doubting its ability from a performance standpoint, but on an emotional level I find it lacking - look past the demented exhaust and you’ll realise it never reaches a truly engaging climax, the mid-range offering the meat of the performance. You can tell it’s been plucked from the BMW parts catalogue, this engine feels like it has a much higher ceiling – it doesn’t strike you as the apex predator of small hot hatches. The rev counter is also far too small, I found myself running into the meek limiter too often with the shortest gearing here.” The consensus is Mini should make the optional heads up display standard equipment.
As the last order bell tolls, Paul rises “I don’t think the M2 has shown its hand yet. It’s spent most of the time in fourth gear, gobbling up the long sweepers. We’ve saved the best till last – the old military road, and tomorrow I think it’s going to come into its element”. Hat thrown in the ring, he gingerly heads towards the bar.
Loch Morlich framed by the Cairngorms national park
After a predictably late start, the final day brings my chance in the M2, but like some of the humans on this trip it takes longer to wake up than the others. As we set off the car is hesitant, the brakes sharp, the gearbox engaging ratios with a clunk. The fluids are yet to warm, and the car imposes a cold rpm limit. I like this process, it’s a subtle hint that the M2 operates on a different plane to the others here. Perhaps there’s still some truth to that Motorsport badge.
It’s a process that also means I'm positively foaming at the mouth by the time we get to the Old Military Road. The electronic shackles are finally released the moment we crest the first rise, which promptly stops me in my tracks. I pause for a look around, studying the tarmac ahead as it bobs and weaves its way down into the glen, before reappearing across the otherside, meandering invitingly across the moorland before finally disappearing into the next valley. But let’s not stand on ceremony too long, the fluids have gained their vital viscosity and the tyres have some heat in them, and I now have a JCW and M135i to catch.
Picking up speed, one of the first things you notice about the M2 is just how solid the structure feels. The M2 amplifies bumps in the road more than the M135i but the chassis seems to absorb them without consequence. The chunky steering wheel feels appropriate as it's easily the meatiest to operate here, and straight away the feedback elevates itself above the others. Where the Mini & M135i are concentrating on filtering out NVH, the M2 begins to load up in a wonderfully linear manner - you can really admire the road holding, the car performing the double trick of absolute stability with rapid reflexes.
I’m soon back in the lead but the pursuing JCW is right on my tail, close enough to clock Chris wearing his game face behind the wheel, but my confidence has grown and any traces of a lingering hangover evaporate every time the twin turbochargers spool. I’m now secure enough to activate the M dynamic traction control setting and an open chicane allows the M2 to play its trump card. I leave the braking late and lean heavily on the optional M5 sourced six piston callipers, clicking off a couple of ratios. The M2 turns in with precision and dismisses the hard direction change with the balance of a lighter vehicle. I’ve got full traction and a clear view on the exit so I push hard and the rear arcs out naturally as I apply the slightest, instinctive amount of counter steer, feeling the absolute hero as the big six digs the fat Michelins into the ground and fires us up the next hill. It’s a task that asks too much of the little upstart chasing.
There hasn’t been any divine intervention by a flickering yellow light - the microchips computing the yaw as playful rather than excessive - but for a fleeting moment, I’ve tapped into that magical progressive handling balance at the limit that’s a hallmark of all truly great M cars. The noise of the S55 straight six remains a complaint but the trade-off is throttle response that makes the other two here feel asthmatic, with just the right amount of forceful performance that can be exploited on the public road - you question the need for anything faster.
I LISTEN TO THE DUELLING STRAIGHT SIXES STORM THE GLEN, THE RHYTHM EVENTUALLY DISTORTING, SIGNALLING ONE DRIVER HAS GAINED THE UPPER HAND
As we keep climbing the heatwave of the past few days becomes a memory, for the Cairngorms seem to have their own microclimate - the iconic ascent to Lecht Ski Station is heartbreakingly shrouded in fog. Fortunately, on the other side the valley is clear, the mountains blocking the progress of the pea soup. Past Ballater the road tracks the River Dee and dances in and out of a lush pine forest - we’re on the floodplain now, moving in two dimensions rather than three, but are no less entertained.
The treeline recedes at Braemar before a steady climb towards Glenshee Ski Centre, the cars making light work of the gradient. The huge car park is deserted, so we make it our base for the next couple of hours. A game of musical chairs occurs as we each sample the cars and retrace our steps north. After a blast in the M2 Marek jumps out, utters some expletives in his native tongue, mimics oversteer and wanders off for a lie down. Chris claims the keys to the M135i, Paul giving pursuit in the M2. I listen to the duelling straight sixes storm the glen, the rhythm eventually distorting, signalling one driver has gained the upper hand.
It’s a good opportunity to form some conclusions. Each car has its own unique properties - the M135i is the standout grand tourer of the bunch that’s ultimately let down by having too much Autobahn and not enough B-road in its suspension. We mourn its passing however as its successor has joined the 2.0 litre, turbocharged four-wheel drive imitation game - more practicality, less petrosexuality - it’s USP of creamy straight six and rear wheel drive propulsion killed off by a marketing survey in which the participants stated they didn’t care if their premium hatch was pushed or pulled.
The Mini has won us over with its flame thrower exhaust and gung-ho attitude to corners. Obviously the conversion to bring it to this level isn’t cheap, but the rewards are rich. This is exactly how a JCW should feel from the factory, putting clear air between itself and the Cooper S, filling the classic hot hatch brief to a tee. Of the three it was certainly driven the hardest, harassing the more expensive metal with its rabid cross country pace and playful balance. Chris describes it as a modern version of the Honda DC2 Integra Type R, with turbo punch - if you know the man praise doesn’t come any higher. We wonder if the oxygen light mountain air and excessive Iron Bru consumption has gone to his head.
In the end, the truth is the M2 had any thoughts of a giant killing sewn up within the first 500 yards. It feels special in a way the other two can’t and never lets you forget it. Sure, it can cruise as well as the M135i save for a little more tyre roar, but it never becomes mere transport like the 1-series can. One glance at the vast hips in the mirrors or the 7,500rpm redline is all that it takes to quicken the pulse. The engine transplant from original M2 to the Competition’s bespoke M Division unit might steal the headlines, however BMW should be praised for having the confidence to stick to a passive damping arrangement. When a set-up is this good, you question the need for any complicated electronics. It’s exactly how a 21st century M car should feel - as serious as you want it to be, or as silly with its drift on demand alter ego should you have the talent and the space. Whatever the approach, it always involves the driver in the process. Perhaps it should be named an Evolution, for this is far more than a tweak of the suspension geometry and a mild ECU tickle.
THERE'S A DESIRE TO TURN AROUND AND DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, AND DO IT ELSEWHERE - A WANDERLUST VIA THE ROAD
The descent from Glenshee feels endless, the throttle of little use, gravity alone providing enough momentum which remains unchecked as we level off. Wild moorlands fade into manicured lawns as suburbia creeps towards the fringes of the national park. Then just like that it’s over, no fanfare, no climax or salute - just the bitter embrace of the bloody A9, where ominous looking dark clouds release a deluge of monsoon proportions. The highs of the past four days give way to overwhelming feelings of melancholy and it’s not long before we hit roadworks. Despite the conditions other road users still tailgate each other whilst simultaneously hogging lanes. A sign of things to come perhaps, only serving to remind us how special this journey has been.
It’s on the final stretch home when inception for this whole magazine endeavour occurs. There’s a burning desire to turn around and do the trip all over again, and to do it elsewhere – a wanderlust via the road - and to share the journey. I finally pull onto my driveway and switch off the engine, but it’s me that lays idle. Tired but wired, I take a moment to relive the adventure, the cars, the company, the warm hospitality but above all the stunning combination of tarmac & topography Scotland has to offer. Walking towards my house, contracting metal clinking away, I cannot resist another look back over my shoulder, feeling the RUSH once again.