By: Curt Dupriez @ caradvice.com.au
I credit Audi with the greatest driving road on Earth: the Grossglockner High Alpine Road. No, it’s not in the company’s home town of Ingolstadt. Nor did Audi build it. Instead, it was across Austria’s finest ribbon of hot-mix, during 2006’s launch of the gen-two TT sportscar, that I popped my European Alpine road cherry. I’ve lucked into sampling other big name passes since – San Bernardino, Fluela, Timmelsjoch, Gavia, Col de Turini, and of course Stelvio – and it’s possible to find grander, more dramatic, more terrifying and more picturesque locales. But none yet have managed to match the hard-revving, tyre-squealing, heart-racing joys the ‘Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse’, as it’s known in local lingo, doles out. I remain convinced that the ‘Glockner’ is the King Of The Roads. Today I’m back and so is Audi, courtesy of the new 2017 S4 sedan out of the company’s satellite Munich digs. It’s an easy, three-hour, 230-kay jaunt south to Glockner’s gates. You could squeeze a return trip for a quick lap in a day, as I once did solo in a BMW E92 M3, but it’s not recommended when The Better Half is riding shotgun and she doesn’t share my enthusiasm for such petrol-hedonistic flights of fancy.
It just so happens the Glockner is renowned amongst nature lovers for flora, fauna and something called “walking”. Serious walking, with poles, heart-rate monitors, North Faces and stuff. Compromise is struck and plans are hatched to camp up at the nearby lakeside town of Zell Am See which will serve as home base for some particularly forensic examination of the landscape around Austria’s highest mountain, both by foot and internal combustion. With low single-figure temperatures forecast, I’m betting the bulk of the tour will be the latter. Like all but the lowest European Alpine twisties, the Grossglockner High Pass offers seasonal access only as it spends half of the year, October through to May, closed due to an impenetrable layer of snow. Autumnal September is a crap shoot, if a gamble won in this instance – it’s blue skies all the way south from Munich along Autobahn’s ’93’, our route then taking a cross-country tour through west Austrian Tyrol before making a south-eastern beeline through picturesque valleys of a manicured countryside looked to be lifted from a children’s fairytale, right to the Zeller See lake. There’s no time to dump our luggage. The single-carriageway ‘Glocknerstrasse’ road runs south towards the high Alpine peaks beyond, seemingly splitting two looming mountains, passes through the village of Fusch before arriving at Ferleiten and the gates to Hohe Tauren, Austria’s largest national park, and the start of the Grossglockner High Pass. Here, you’re stung for a 35 euro day pass unless you happen to be driving an electric car, in which case entry is same as motorcycles at 25 euro.
Steep? Yes. (Stelvio Pass, by comparison, is free.) But that doesn’t deter the 900,000-odd visitors that pass through the gates annually. And if you’re here for a serious punt – or, in our case, ‘punt and walk’ – you’ll soon discover it’s euros well spent, especially if you’re packing handy machinery. I was initially skeptical about the S4‘s mettle for the task before it: too softly sprung, too softly spoken. Its polite styling, the ‘executive’ effect of mid-grey leather-dipped cabin treatment, wasn’t shouting ‘S for sport’ too confidently. But the response and energy of the unusual single-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 configuration had proven more than handy on Germany’s Autobahn: a strident 500Nm from just off idle thrusting it to fast-lane pace from a slow-lane dawdle; its 260kW amply piling on speed to 200km/h in the highway network’s increasingly scarce derestricted zones. At 4.7sec for the 0-100km/h, the S4 doesn’t hang about. There’s only a hint of float as the suspension wrestles with its 1675kg heft as it compresses and rebounds across undulations amplified by velocity north of 200km/h. It’s rock solid, if reasonably planted, at warp-speed, directionally responsive without any dartiness, and tracks true once you haul on the anchors for yet another meandering Polish camper van clueless to local lane discipline. It’s not the fizziest and fiercest device, but its unflappable confidence and unfatiguing nature translates to the Austrian by-roads where it, at once, attracts little unwanted attention yet can dispatch slow-moving trucks and coaches in the tightest of real estate. Long-distance hauling really is something of an S4 speciality.
Beyond the Glockner gates, though, the world’s greatest driving road is an altogether different challenge. In a complete one-way run, it’s technically 36 turns across 48 kilometres spearing deep into the Austrian wilderness towards the mighty 3798m Grossglockner mountain peak looming in the distance. But it’s a misnomer, as even the straights sway with their own lines and apexes. You’ll saw away at the steering wheel hundreds of times throughout the course as it rises and drops with a backdrop as diverse as green rolling hills to desolate, rocky wasteland to snow-capped mountain vistas and, finally, the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Hohe facility and its spectacular Pasterze glacier, effectively the route’s dead end. The temptation at the initial run out of Ferleiten up to the grandiose Fuscher Torl lookout is to stop and sandbag to clear the traffic ahead, but it’s narrow and mostly blind through to the first stack of switchbacks a few kays in. Beyond, the billiard smooth hot-mix opens up somewhat, clinging desperately to the left-hand mountain side yet providing ample line-of-sight along numerous ascending straights. The view across the fast disappearing valley to the increasingly ominous Wiesbachhorn mountain becomes more breathtaking the higher you climb, and there’s no Armco or guard rail to stop you falling into a drop so deep that you could ring to update your insurance policy before you hit the tiny Fuscher Ache river below. The corners are numbered in granite blocks, presumably, so that rescue teams can be easily dispatched to those who put a tyre or foot wrong at the edge of the abyss.
In just 13 kilometres of length, the Glockner Pass rises 1.27 kilometres in altitude to the road’s first landmark and near its highest point, the Fuscher Torl lookout. Halfway up, during a quick ‘selfie stop,’ I rejoin the road right on the tail of a Skoda wagon that’s clearly an R&D prototype out testing, if having a bit of competitive ‘recreation’ chasing a Jaguar F-Type who’s clearly out to uphold British pride. They’re going for it. And it’s a proverbial red rag to an Audi bull… Half a dozen corners in, tiring of mirrors full of Skoda and Audi, Jagman pulls into a turnout, and it’s red mist and bouncing redlines as the curves slither up the steep plateau towards Fuscher Torl. Skoda bloke backs into a closing-radius corner a touch hot and holds an impressive powerslide he won’t back out of with a single-frame grille sniffing around the Octavia’s tailpipes. We ease off, pull into the Fuscher Torl carpark and the Skoda’s driver beams a sheepish smile after I bip the S4’s horn and give him the thumbs up. I doubt that particular run was part of the technician’s official R&D program this day… A two-kilometre-long, cobblestone side road climbs a hill to Edelweissspitze, a circular lookout that, at 2571m, is the high pass’s loftiest point, with spectacular views and where Skoda’s prototype test team is ginning about with another from Hyundai (testing a camouflaged hot hatch mule). Coffee, selfies, I buy ‘the t-shirt’, and we move on.
It’s a mixed bag at the Glockner: supercars, superbikes, buses, caravans, sports cars, gutless little hatchbacks and Alberto Contador wannabes, all vying for the same patch of blacktop nirvana. It really is a case of user beware, because every Cannondale rounded up by a Renault Twingo is dispatched by an S4 between the following hairpins, itself soon a victim to a Ducati which, in turn, will find its mirrors full of soon-to-overtake Huracan or R8 V10 Plus. ‘Pay your 35 euros, treat it like a racetrack’ is like some unwritten mantra here. In numerous trips, I’ve never seen speed enforced on Glockner, let alone anything like police presence to enforce it. Where the Glockner differs from other ‘world’s greatest roads’ it that its form utterly suits very spirited driving (and, for that matter, riding). Beyond Fuscher Torl, the route descends, the drop-offs are less death-defying, the hot mix is wider and line of sight between amply wide hairpins is generously long. Unlike the Stelvio Passes of the world, you can generate speed easily and carry a good rhythm everywhere, and the opportunities to pass slower vehicles is frequent. There’s room to move and margin for error. From here, the road switches back and forth on itself downhill before swinging past the Fuscher Lake, after which it’s a long, slithering, open-throttle blast up to the Mittertorl tunnel, perhaps the fastest section of the road. Beyond it, the Glockner snakes across reasonably flat landscape and the line of sight further up the road provides generous notice of any slow-moving traffic. At this mid-point of the route, you can attack hard.
A second short tunnel marks the location of the Hochtor, or ‘head of the pass’, a historical site that’s also the border of two Austrian provinces, Salzburg and Carinthia. At 2504m, it’s where the missus and I attempt our ‘walks’ midway through one of the many laps of the Glockner we’d do in the S4 over two days. I’ll spare the details, other than tackling the rocky landscape on foot is far more treacherous, foolhardy even, than blasting its hot mix with rubber… Beyond the Hochtor, the road and landscape changes complexion again, as it again drops through a technical succession of curves into lush colourful forest – at least, that is, in mid-Autumn – along what is one relentless roller coaster ride. The return trip up this section of road is among the Glockner’s most satisfying if driven with high-performance machinery. About 26 kays in you hit the Glockner road’s only roundabout: turn left and you’ll continue down the mountainside, past Heiligenblut and on to the park’s southern gateway. Instead, go straight on to what becomes the ‘glacier road’, where the road narrows as it again clings to the eastern side of the range, before swinging past Glocknerhaus and ascending dramatically up through an exposed tunnel chiselled into the mountainside that looks lifted straight out of a Bond movie. The Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Hohe visitors centre and its famed glacier lies just beyond.
Here you can grab a bite, buy a plush toy marmot, visit ‘the world’s highest automobile exhibition’ or catch the glacier train but, really, you’ll probably want to turn around and punt the whole road again in reverse direction. That’s the other key trait to the Glockner’s fun factor as a driver’s mecca: most ‘great roads’ are much more enjoyable uphill when you’re on the power, less fun downhill when you’re mostly on the brakes. Austria’s blacktop nirvana, though, can be attacked in either direction with equal vigour while returning equal joy. Better still, the complexion of the road is utterly different heading south than it is returning north. On this trip, I’d do the length of the Glockner pass four times over our two-day stay in the region. “Betcha wish you had an RS (something)?” I’ve been asked. And they would’ve lost that bet. Sure, an RS6 Avant might make tidier work of the road in shorter time, and afforded capabilities that’d allow it to keep the numerous 911 GT3s, 488 Italias and R8 V10 Pluses in sight. But the S4 is plenty quick and amply engaging enough to light a suitable fire when needed and rank as one of the swifter devices on this wonderful road.
And besides, with fuel at 1.50 euro, or $AU2.15 per litre, and with a 2300-kay Austrian-Italian-Slovenian-Croatian return road trip to tackle in the following two weeks, a deft blend of dynamics, punch, fuel economy and leather-dipped grand touring comfort is ideally the best big-picture solution. And the S4 fits the bill perfectly.