If the blokes at evo say a stretch of asphalt is amazing, it has to be at least worth checking out. When it’s in the Austrian Alps and just a couple of hours’ drive from where I was staying during a vacation in Munich, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I didn’t make the time to visit the location.
Carved onto the surface of Austria’s highest mountain, the 3,798m Großglockner, the Hochalpenstraße (High Alpine Road) bearing the same name comprises over 45km of well-maintained tarmac winding through 36 hairpins. At its peak, the road is 2,504m above sea level, making it even higher than the Karwendelbahn that we visited when we were in Ettal.
Starting off at nine in the morning from our hotel, we left Munich and made the 200km-long drive through the Austrian border. Along the way, we passed yet another beautiful lake (presumably Walchsee), and stopped for a few snaps.
We then drove through Bruck an der Großglocknerstraße, which lies in the Salzach Valley at the northern entrance to the Großglocknerstraße. Pushing on, we made a quick stop by the side of the road when we were greeted by the looming mountain.
The mountain’s majesty and calm were at odds with the anticipation building up in me. We got back into the car and headed toward Fusch, paying a €34.50 toll before being permitted to have a taste of the motoring pleasure that Henry Catchpole had promised in his recommendation. The woman who processed my toll payment glanced down at our wheels and asked in a deadpan tone, “Do you have winter tyres?” “No” was my reply. “Drive carefully.”
Right then. Holding on to that bit of advice, I climbed the initial stretches of the road with a generous amount of caution. As we ascended further, more snow began to appear on both sides of the road until the tarmac was the only surface not covered in white. There are numerous spots along the route to pull over and take some pictures, so don’t worry if you miss one or two at first. Just slow down and signal your intention early when you decide to pull over.
Throughout most of the drive, the road surface was faultless. Lane markings on the single carriageway were clearly visible, and the snow was regularly kept off the driving surface to minimise any risk of dampness – or ice – becoming a hazard to the vehicles driving through (some at fairly enthusiastic speeds). It was tempting to slide the rear around some of the hairpins when there were no other cars in sight, but sensibility prevailed, so I’m afraid that I have no hooning exploits to brag about.
The alpine road ended at Bikers’ Point, beyond which was restricted to cyclists and authorised vehicles. We parked at one of the numerous spaces along the side and climbed out to take in the view. Despite the sub-zero temperatures at the top, the strong sunlight was enough to keep us comfortably warm. The only concern we had was the lack of cloud cover, which implied direct, unfiltered UV rays…
The view around us was spectacular. We could see cars in the distance seemingly crawling along the roads, while everything else was still as a painting. Standing near the rail, I felt humbled by the sheer scale of the snow-capped mountain range around us.
With the early growls from our stomachs, we returned to our car and dived down the ribbons of tarmac in search of lunch. I had planned to drop in at Glocknerhaus for a plate of spätzle but they were closed when we arrived, so we turned back to Schoeneck Restaurant, which we’d passed along the way. There was no English menu, the staff didn’t speak much English, and we had no cellular signal, which meant we couldn’t bail ourselves out with Google Translate, so we picked the only item we could recognise in its native name. Although we came with no expectations, the food was not bad, and we left feeling satisfied with the simple, no-frills meal.
The sun continued to shine on the Großglockner mountain as we departed from the restaurant, and with clear visibility and newfound confidence, we darted down the alpine road with a little more pace – albeit still quite conservatively if you compare it with other drivers who were more familiar with the twists and turns.
Retracing our way down the Großglockner mountain in the mid-afternoon, we stopped to take in one last view of the landscape. Months before, when we first decided to vacation in Germany, we’d never have thought to take a drive in a neighbouring country through such scenes of wonder and beauty. It was through an Instagram photo that I first discovered this mountain road, and when I realised how close it was to the border between Germany and Austria, it became a quest to ensure there was enough time in our itinerary to drive these roads.
The toll may seem expensive to those who are unaccustomed to such levies, but you’re really paying for an opportunity to drive one of the finest roads in the world, with breathtaking scenery in embarrassing abundance. When you have a car that’s engineered to deliver the joys of driving, it’s a combination that’s difficult to resist for petrol heads and road trippers alike.
The Car: BMW 430d Gran Coupe
We rented the Beemer from Sixt in Munich, and it had taken us around Germany for nine days already, carrying along two weeks’ worth of luggage for the fall and several bottles of locally-produced Riesling. The 3.0l straight-six diesel engine pushes out 258 bhp at 4,000 rpm, and can get to 100 km/h from a standstill in 5.6 seconds if you bury the right pedal into the carpet. Being a diesel, the car was obviously more torque-y at the low end, but offered the efficiency and economy that’s much appreciated for a long road trip like ours.
Despite also being a four-door, what the 4-Series has in its corner against the standard 3-Series saloon to which it’s related is reduced weight, a wider track and a lower centre of gravity – a pretty good foundation for improved handling. I’d driven the F30 saloon in San Francisco on a weekend earlier in 2015, and it was immediately apparent that the F32 sibling is sharper and more responsive. I had lamented about not getting the manual option that I had specified at the time of my reservation, but in truth, the eight-speed automatic was sublime. In fact, many motoring journalists have criticised the manual shift’s movement for feeling notchy while lauding BMW’s automatic eight-speeder as being one of the best in the market currently, so all things considered, it probably wasn’t a great loss during this drive.
On several occasions while driving along open winding roads, I switched the drivetrain into Sport mode and threw the gear lever left so I could shift gears manually. I enjoy controlling when the car swaps cogs but after a while, shifting gears in an automatic feels redundant very quickly, especially when this system seems to be able to anticipate when I need to shift up or down. I did sometimes miss the whole experience of operating a clutch pedal and short shifting the manual gear stick, though.
Our 430d Gran Coupe came with a head-up display that provided useful information, such as vehicle speed, speed limits, and navigational directions. The feature helped keep the road ahead in view even when I had to glance at specific details – particularly handy in instances when one is travelling at speeds upward of 200 km/h on the autobahn. Another useful feature was the heated steering wheel, which on cold mornings was a godsend. I also appreciated that BMW had persisted with a proper handbrake instead of configuring a switch-operated electronic parking brake (not that I contemplated making any J-turns).
In total, we covered nearly 3,000km across 10 days. Some days saw us getting through 400 – 600km, but you can trust BMW to get the driving position right, and although there was noticeable wind noise creeping through the frameless windows, the 430d Gran Coupe was ultimately built to be a cruiser, which meant ride comfort was very acceptable. I wouldn’t hesitate at renting the same car if I was on another road trip, and if you like to enjoy the scenery just as much as the driving experience, this is a set of wheels I’d recommend.