June wasn’t meant to be a road trip. It wasn’t part of the plan at all. June was meant to be about delivering the training and workshops I hadn’t had time to deliver in April and May. Oh, and taking part in our annual work charity walk to raise money for Brain Tumour Research. There were neat, discrete trips across the UK and Switzerland planned to enable maximum work with minimal interference into my own time. This was all nicely settled when Robin from the Hyundai PR Office called, “I know you guys need a little more lead time than most, but try to keep the 20th to 23rd June free as I’m trying to plan a trip to the Nurburgring 24. There will be driving and posh camping and beer. It should be great. I’ll let you know when it’s official!”
The spanner had been thrown in the works, but this was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It sounded fun and I could do some diary massaging and a couple of late nights to make it work, but the logistics were still a nightmare. I’d be away from home for a week before the ‘Ring trip even began and I still had to work out how I’d swap from my own car to the planned Hyundai press car and back. There were a lot of emails, but eventually it was decided that the outbound press car would be delivered to my sister’s house, I’d leave my car there then the return press car would be collected from near Milton Keynes the following Friday. I could then get a lift back to my own car. In between, I’d split with the official Hyundai planning on Sunday afternoon and make my way south through Germany to Bern and then return via France on the following Thursday. The plan was good.
Thursday, 20th June arrived and I have no regrets in admitting that I was like a child on the night before Christmas. I hadn’t been to the Nürburgring for over a decade and I wanted to see it again. The training finished, the questions were answered and I was into the car park and away as quickly as possible. It had begun.
For the drive out to our meeting point and overnight stay north of Reims Hyundai had provided me with an i30 Fastback N-Line+ fitted with a 1.4 litre turbocharged petrol engine. It’s not a car that will win too many traffic light grand prix but it’s a good looking, comfortable, well-specified car that I found could easily hold French motorway speeds on the cruise control without complaint. That it returned about 42mpg on the trip computer for the 385 miles from Fareham to the hotel made it all the more impressive. No matter how many times I drive across the top of France I always forget just how far it is to Reims and, after what seemed 385 miles entirely on small, dark rural roads, it was a relief to flop on to my bed at the château just after 1am.
Thankfully, it was a late start the next morning and after the ceremonial hour of photography we set off for our camp site at the ‘Ring through the Ardennes and crossing Belgium and Luxembourg. Whilst my car for this stint looked similar to the night before’s N-Line, the i30 Fastback N is a very different beast. It’s only available with the 275PS specification and larger wheels/brakes found on the i30N Performance hatch. This wasn’t an issue after Belgium and once on the billiard-table smooth roads of Luxembourg and Germany, the non-Performance hatch certainly has better ride quality. I wouldn’t say that was much of a criticism nor held me back thought because even before I’d left Belgium I decided that I should take a “sanity stop”. The roads through the gullies of the Ardennes really are quite special and almost-completely overlooked.
Driving two similar model back-to-back, it was impossible to ignore how different the N and N-Line specifications feel as a driver. All “N” spec i30 have a completely different front under the skin. The engine, subframes, steering and braking systems are all different from non-N models and although the N-Line shares seats, gear knob and steering wheel with the N, as soon as you use either of the last two you know you’re in something much more serious thanks to the heavier feel and shorter travel. The mileage disappeared in a cloud of dust and the synth-pops of the exhaust in Sport and N-modes as I pulled into the Camping am Nürburgring.
48 hours later I was leaving one of the car parks right beside the track and the parking attendant summed up the entire weekend by spotting my British number plates and signalling me to wind down the window so he could thank me for coming so far, saying how he hoped I’d had a good weekend and wishing me a safe journey home. Remind me again about the “rude German” stereotype?
From here on home I had custody of a 1.4 litre i30 N-Line+ hatchback in Stellar Blue. As with the Fastback, the N-Line share its bumpers and lights with the N, has Michelin Pilot tyres and a twin-exit exhaust. Inside, the “+” part of the trim brings heated seats and a heated steering wheel. At the start of a heatwave I was more interested in the dual-zone climate which I can confirm keeps the cabin at a civilised 21C when its 35C outside.
I left the ‘Ring early, before the race was finished because I could sense that the atmosphere was gearing down and I really didn’t want to be stuck trying to access the autobahn at the same time as tens of thousands of other race-goers. Not when I had 221 miles to Sunday night’s hotel in Ringsheim ahead of me.
Ringsheim is in the very South of Germany, in the corner between France and Switzerland and roughly beside Strasbourg. Getting there began as the antithesis of any Krafwerk-inspired visions you may have of the autobahn. Traffic was mostly stop-start and when I pulled into a service station for fuel I couldn’t pay for 20 minutes as there was only one cashier and an entire netball team trying to buy chocolate between me and him. Soon after that the road cleared and I began to make up time, the i30 sitting happily at a 95mph cruise. I even decided to leave the autobahn to visit Baden-Baden, simply because I think it has a funny name. It turns out that it’s a very pretty spa town and I’l like to return see what else it offers other than a silly Instagram caption.
I arrived at Ringsheim to find it consisted of a Holiday Inn Express, a truckstop and a building full of slot machines. I took advantage of my super-hero level hotel status and ate decent pizza accompanied by copious beer in the hotel. I slept the sleep of someone who’d spent the previous 2 nights in a tepee being woken by the occasional firework.
Monday morning and it was time to head for Bern via a stop in Basle for a coffee and and a couple of work calls. Basle was pretty, but the one-way system is complicated and there’s a dearth of street-parking, the combination of which meant that I ended up driving sheepishly through the pedestrianised old town enduring the tuts and head-shakes of many of the population as I tried to escape. Suitably put-off and not wanting to perform the set of contortions necessary to enter and exit a continental multi-storey car park solo in a right-hand drive car I decided that work could wait until the next motorway service area. It duly did and instead of being relieved of 15 Swiss Francs for coffee and a croque monsieur at a shady table with views of the Rhine I was relieved of the same with views of a crowded lorry park through unwashed windows. Work travel is so glamorous.
Bern, capital city of Switzerland, is extremely pretty and one way to keep it like that is to make it hard for cars to spend any time in the city centre by filling it with a comprehensive public transport system that’s free for visitors. I stayed in a hotel a little out of the centre and parked up the car for a couple of days. I’d planned on walking the Formula E course, but it was still closed off whilst disassembly of the stands took place and in 35C stickiness I confess I hadn’t fancied it much anyhow - the slopes on the track really were steep. As I left I took a detour down one of the nearly-cleared roads and up into the centre of the Old City for a quick photo with the astronomical clock in the background.
The return leg began by heading to an overnight at Besançon. The route was anonymous Euro-motorway past Yverdon-les-Bains until metres from the French border at Le Creux where we were suddenly on winding single-carriageway Route Nationale across the Jura, climbing through the forest towards Métabief with glimpses of the touristic Ligne Coni’fer, formerly the main rail link between France and Switzerland. We won’t discuss how the i30 got near the semi-derelict logging train, but it did give me 3 clear runs at the wide, open bends of the N57. I stopped briefly to refuel in Pontarlier, over 400 miles since I’d last topped up in Germany and headed straight for my modular hotel beside the autoroute.
There was only one aim for my final day, to complete the 520 miles from Besançon to Tring as swiftly as reasonable. I had Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds on Audible, a mid-sized Korean hatchback and I was wearing sunglasses. I blipped my autoroute Liber-T tag (vital if you regularly travel solo in France in a RHD car) at Besançon Nord and didn’t touch it again until I turned off at Reims for a refuel, early lunch and the obligatory photo in the pits at Reims-Gueux. I plipped it again leaving Reims and for the last time at the toll barrier just before Calais at around 3pm. Judicious use of the cruise control meant that I’d averaged over 70mph despite sitting at the 83mph speed limit. I’d done 400 miles and was still feeling fresh - N-Line spec is worth it for the seats alone.
Everything had been going so well, but congestion in the North Sea meant that my arrival in Calais was perfectly timed for a ferry that P&O had cancelled. I cross the channel a few times every year, but almost exclusively by Le Shuttle so I found taking a ferry to be a double edged sword. On one hand there seemed to be a lot of waiting around and it takes an interminably long time but on the other the ability to relax away from your car is quite pleasant. In total I was about 4 hours from arrival in Calais to arrival in Dover and it has to be a really bad day for that to happen with the tunnel.
Landing at Dover meant a return to British roads and driving on the correct side. The A2, M2 and M25 delivered me to Tring just before 8pm and a little tired from a long day.
There are a couple of things that this trip has reminded me. The first is that driving in continental Europe is generally a pleasure and the second is that what we now think of as “ordinary” cars really are far more capable than most of us will ever need. I could have done this trip in cars costing twice as much as the i30 N-Line pairing I drove for 3/4 of the mileage covered and I don’t know that I would have completed any portions of the trip any faster or in any more comfort than I did in these cars.
As driven, the i30 Fastback N Line+ 1.4 140PS 2wd manual in Polar White cost £23,760.00, the i30 Fastback N Performance 2.0 275PS 2wd manual in Phantom Black cost £30,580.00 and the i30 N Line+ 1.4 140PS 2wd manual in Stellar Blue cost £23,845.
Thanks to Hyundai for making so much of this trip happen.