GREAT ROADS come in various guises.
They’re not always the photogenic mountain roads that lay draped like discarded spaghetti across Instagram-perfect peaks. You may have your own personal favourites that you know like the back of your hand, that are your go-to routes when you need to blow off some steam.
But keep those local gems to yourself. They’re your hard-earned secrets and you don’t want the likes of us clogging them up. Instead join us for a virtual tour of the globe in search of ten of the greatest driving roads in the world.
10 – Mount Iwaki Access Road, Japan
Do you like hairpins? Try 69 of them in metronomic, rhythmic lockstep. That’s the promise of the Mount Iwaki Access Road, in Aomori Prefecture in the northern tip of Honshu, Japan. What’s more it packs those 69 power-oversteer opportunities into just 10 kilometres, which means you’ll need hands faster than an overcaffeinated cup-stacker. The road starts at the base of the hill and ascends to the 1247m peak, whereupon a chairlift takes you higher.
Best time to visit: It’s closed between November and April due to snowfall, so head there in our winter.
Best car to drive it in: We’d be more than happy with a Toyota 86 here. You’ll need tactility and no great amount of torque.
9 – Sani Pass – South Africa/Lesotho
If you prefer your roads a bit more adventurous, the Sani Pass isn’t about to disappoint. Known to locals as ‘The Roof of Africa’, this dirt road starts in South Africa and ascends up to the Lesotho border. While the South Africans insist that you take a rugged 4x4, the Lesotho guards will let you take anything down the hill, and you can spot the remains of vehicles that weren’t so lucky. With 1 in 3 sections near the top and mud, ice and snow possible year round, it’s a heck of a challenge. With waterfall crossings and frequent wildlife incursions, it’s a real adventure drive. You’ll need to get in quick, because next year a project starts by Chinese contractors to completely tarmac the thing.
Best time to visit: This route is usually closed between May and July. In summer it’s searingly hot and the spring melt can dislodge serious landslides. And don't forget your passport.
Best car to drive it in: You need something fast and rugged which can also withstand a baboon impact or two. We’d plump for a well-used Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution.
8 - Pico de Veleta, Spain
The cool thing about the Veleta road is that you can ascend from sea level to the highest motorable point in Western Europe in just over an hour: an ascent of 3369m. You’ll need to pull a few strings to do so, because there’s a barrier across the road 2600m up that only permits certain traffic. The tarmac to here is an excellent set of wide open sweepers but not for those with a fear of heights. Beyond the barrier it’s far scabbier and the last few kilometres require something with a bit of suspension travel. It’s worth it though, because on a sunny day you can enjoy a cold drink in the snow and see the African coastline.
Best time to visit: It can be really snowy from November to April, so we’d head there between July and September. Make sure the Vuelta a Espana bike race (end of August/start of September) isn’t including it as a stage.
Best car to drive it in: Ford’s Ranger Raptor would be pretty much unstoppable when the route got gnarly.
7 – Ronda Road, Spain
This route has long been a press-launch staple of European manufacturers who are confident of their car’s handling abilities. The road snakes from the outskirts of San Pedro de Alcantara on the coast up to the historic town of Ronda. It’s over 50km of unalloyed, beautifully-surfaced fun that climbs from the golf courses of the Costa del Sol, up past the millionaire’s gated community of La Zagaleta before turning seriously gnarly. The higher the road climbs, the more spectacular the scenery becomes, with a blend of technical turns and fast sweepers on the open plateaus up top. Watch out for locals in souped-up SEATs who know the road intimately. Reward yourself with a coffee in Ronda, one of Spain’s prettiest towns, and maybe a side trip to the nearby private member’s racetrack, Circuito de Ascari.
Best time to visit: High summer can see tourist coaches out in force for the schlep up to Ronda. Early morning before the tourist crush at any time of the year can be a joy, but the off-season months of October and November will see you have the road largely to yourself.
Best car to drive it in: A Porsche 911 GT3 would be nigh-on unbeatable here. There are also plenty of cliffed-in sections where you’d just want to wind the windows down and crank the thing up to its 9000rpm redline.
6 – Dades Gorge, Morocco
The R704 is known as the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, but it’s more like the Road of a Thousand Corners. It just never lets up and you’ll have twisted blood after the 160km between Ouarzazate and Tineghir. The scenery is breathtaking and so is the driving from some of the locals, who will think nothing of bearing down on you in the middle of the road in a Mercedes W123 that’s little more than a series of components flying in loose formation. Geologists will have a field day here, with the road cut deep into the side of a gorge which overhangs in places. The surface is pretty touch and go, so you’ll need something beefy to have fun.
Best time to visit: It gets so hot here in summer that the locals tend to avoid travelling. Go extreme and head out in August and September.
Best car to drive it in: You don’t want anything too flash given local driving standards and road conditions. We’d rent a beater Suzuki Alto from Marrakesh airport and have at it.
5 - Cuesta de Lipán, Argentina
Done the Stelvio? Then try its completely deserted twin in Argentina, the Cuesta de Lipán. You’ll find no lycra-clad mobile roadblocks or lollygagging German tourists here, just kilometre upon kilometre of deserted blacktop climbing to a head-swimming 4170m above sea level. National Route 52, located in the department of Tumbaya, province of Jujuy, Argentina, then drops down to Salinas Grandes, a giant salt flat where, when conditions allow, you can go flat chat without fear of hitting anything other than a lost tourist or a salt mine.
Best time to visit: Due to the altitude and the salt condition, you’re best going for this one in late summer, so February would be right on the money.
Best car to drive it in: You’d need a combination of great handling,a bit of ground clearance and all-wheel drive. We can’t think of much that would top a Porsche Macan Turbo here.
4 – Three-Level ZigZag Road, India
Tucked away in East Sikkim on the old Silk Road is a road that packs 100 hairpins into 30 kilometres. The Three-Level ZigZag road is asphalted all the way to its 3414m summit at Thambi and while you will need to arrange a permit to visit, it’s well worth it for the views of the Himalayan foothills and the challenge of this scarred and pockmarked road.
Best time to visit: From October to February it’s usually snowbound; from March to May, pleasant cool and from June to September is the monsoon season, cold and occasionally very wet.
Best car to drive it in: We’d try for shoulder season and use a Focus RS on Goodyear Ultragrip 9 snow tyres.
3 – Karakoram Highway, Pakistan/China
Known as the Ninth Wonder of the World, the Karakoram Highway (known as the KKH) is the highest paved road on Earth, peaking at 4693m. It’s also not something you’ll undertake lightly. Apart from the mountains of red tape you’ll need to unwind to travel between Pakistan and China, the route is also 1300km long. China owns 413km of it and Pakistan the remaining 887km. It’s proper expedition-strength stuff, so you’ll need spare tyres, fuel, radio, medical knowledge and so on. The Chinese are preparing to widen their section of the road from 10m to 30m, making that an easier proposition when completed. The Pakistani side is the one with the killer views of K2 though, so that would be our destination.
Best time of year to visit: The border crossing between China and Pakistan at Khunjerab Pass is open between May 1 and December 31, but the road can be impassable due to avalanches throughout the winter/spring season.
Best car to drive it in: A Toyota Landcruiser. Accept no substitute.
2 – Lyell Highway, Tasmania
Yep, you don’t even need a passport to drive on of the very best roads on the globe. Just put your car on the Spirit of Tasmania, unload in Devonport and warm up with a run down past Cradle Mountain or, well, anywhere really. You can’t go worng in Tassie, but make sure you end up in Strahan and start pedalling along the west coast to Queenstown, then east back through the Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair National Park to Derwent Bridge and Tarraleah on the A10. Keep an eye open for animals on the road (at some points it looks like the aftermath of a wallaby serial killer on the loose) but otherwise just enjoy some of the most beautiful and wild roads anywhere.
Best time to visit: Late summer can be spectacular. Biting flies can be an issue, but we’ll take bug splats over driving rain anyday.
Best car to drive it in: A BMW M2 is about the perfect size and packs a sweet power-to-weight ratio for Tassie’s winding roads.
1 – Transalpina, Romania
Top Gear nearly got it but blew it at the last when they named the Transfagarasan as the best road in the world. That road is 90km long but only the northern section really challenges. The 148km Transalpina is longer, higher and wilder, earning its nickname of The Devil’s Path. It was only fully asphalted in 2009, with the full length opened to traffic in 2012. Linkings Novaci, south of Parâng Mountains and Sebeş in the north, the Transalpina was originally built in 1938, rebuilt by German troops during WWII and then, in 2007, work started in renovating the dirt route.
Best time to visit: Autumn is the prettiest, when the deciduous trees are turning red and the weather has yet to get savage.
Best car to drive it in: You’d want something nimble but leggy and with a decent ride quality. An Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio would be right on the money.