I drove the North Coast 500 in one day, so you don’t have to
The North Coast 500 is a tourist route that takes the form of a coastal lap of the northernmost part of Scotland. Starting and ending at Inverness, it covers some of the most stunning scenery in the UK and was designed to be driven over several days.
But, as I didn’t have several days to complete the run, I decided to do it in just one day. Yes, 500 miles on the some of the roughest roads in all of the UK a single day.
Essential requirements for a challenging journey
Now, the only way to see off this distance in a day meant I needed a car. Despite receiving much mockery from my DT colleagues, I quickly binned the idea of rear-wheel drive or V6 power, as we all know that (A) The Scottish Highlands are well known for crap weather in February, and (B) Petrol stations are far and few between.
To avoid any such range or crashing issues ensuring I would make the distance in one piece I chose this, the Mazda 6 Sport Nav with a furiously powerful 171bhp 2.2-litre turbocharged diesel engine. Because not having to stop for fuel is a very good thing.
Setting off for the North Coast 500 dash
After a quick fill-up at Inverness, I set out with virtually no planning whatsoever to my first stop at Applecross some 80-odd miles away.
Immediately it was apparent the roads out here are a massive departure from the norm. Gone was the luxury of two opposing lanes of traffic, being replaced by mostly single track roads with several thousand passing places. Most of the tarmac out here has an ambitious 60mph limit, which proved near-impossible in these early stages.
The stunning Bealach na Ba is not for the faint-hearted
After quickly composing myself from the terror that is the roads of the highlands, I reached this, the stunning Bealach na Ba.
DT’s resident Scotsman Michael Fernie said it was a must drive road, and boy was he right. It’s packed with tight hairpin bends, switchbacks and steep gradients meaning the best way forward was at a very slow speed allowing me to take in that stunning mountain view without any crashing related problems.
After completing the ascent to some 2,054ft above sea level, I quickly descended the mountain where I was greeted with this view to end all of the views:
In the middle of nowhere, literally......
Coastal roads and mountain views
After finally reaching Applecross, I promptly left by backtracking on where I’d just been to pick up the road to Gairloch some 60-miles away. Again a wealth of stunning scenery awaited me as I quickly found my feet with the Mazda 6 as carving my way further northwards.
One highlight on this part of the route was the A896 which circumnavigates Upper Loch Torridon, the view from this stunning piece of road is out and out glorious scenery with a twisting turning ribbon of a road to match the view.
The iconic Kylesku Bridge
Gairloch came and went as I followed the road inland making my way up the North-Western side of the UK. From here I followed the A835 from Corrieshalloch Gorge; this fantastic piece of road follows the coastline alongside Loch Broom providing an array of stunning terrain.
Finally, some four hours and 121 miles later, I made it to the iconic Kylesku Bridge. This place is familiar to petrolheads with the bridge and surrounding roads providing a backdrop for a number of car magazine road test features in recent years.
Onward to the North Coast
Departing Kylesku Bridge , I started the sprint to Durness located just 35 short miles away. This section was only supposed to be an hour long, but at Highland rates of speed, it took almost twice that as the roads varied from being terrible to being totally bloody awful. Regardless the Mazda took it all in its stride as it carved its way onward through the highlands.
After a quick stop in Durness, I set my GPS to fire me to the most northern point of the UK coastline just 90 short miles away at John O’ Groats.
With darkness looming due to the time lost earlier in the day I followed the coastline with a few cut-backs inland. All in this 90-mile cross-country section took me nearly 3 hours from start to finish.
The most Northern Mazda 6 in the UK
Having been beaten by the darkness, I arrived at John O’ Groats to be greeted by pretty much nothing at all. As it was early evening and many hours since starting out, I quickly jumped back into the Mazda 6 for the final push to the finish line some 120 miles south.
After so many miles and hours at the wheel, I’d hoped for a fast cruise back to the finish at Inverness. Instead, what I found was one of the genuinely great driving roads.
The A99/A9 followed the coastline southwards for around 70 miles and was brilliant in every single way. It's chock full of second and third gear corners that under the cover of darkness gave the Mazda (and the driver) a proper workout.
This final section is where the big Mazda 6 was at its best. It’s not a sports car by any means. But on this night, on this road it just all came together perfectly, answering any question I asked of it with ease.
15 Hours and 42 minutes later
A few brief highlights of the NC500 route.....
After some 15 hours and 42 minutes of driving, covering 521.2 miles in the process, I wearily crossed the finish line at Inverness. Throughout this epic journey, the Mazda 6 didn’t put a foot wrong. Proving that normal can be fun while being efficient and a comfortable place to be all at once.
Out in the wilderness, it earned its road-trip credentials as it took on a lap of the Scottish Highlands with absolute ease. This may well be a just a regular family saloon, but all the way North it proved itself to be a real mile-munching leviathan of a car.
What are your thoughts on this road-trip? Is it the most insane route to attempt in a single day? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.