Some say the highway through northern Italy’s Stelvio Pass is the greatest driving road in the world.
Some of those same people say the 525-horsepower Audi R8 5.2 FSI V-10 Quattro is one of the greatest sports cars in the world.
But even hyperbolic television hosts like Jeremy Clarkson of BBC’s “Top Gear,” who was among the “some” who made those claims, can be forgiven their enthusiasm. Conquering the Stelvio Pass is a fantasy task that would be made all the more so, I assumed, at the helm of an R8.
The assault was attempted on Sept. 17, a fortuitous bit of planning, considering it snowed the next day. With few exceptions, the towering pass and its hair-raising road, the second highest paved route in the Alps, close to vehicular traffic until well into June, or even July.
“Why would anyone even think of building a road through this pass?” is an apt question for anyone visiting this alpine aerie for the first time.
The pass was, for centuries, where the borders of Italy, Austria and Switzerland converged. The route evolved as a steep but direct trading route between Venice and Switzerland. Control of the pass equated to a percentage of the lucrative trade; a road was built in 1825. Soldiers from the three countries were stationed close enough to regularly shoot at one another. The pass lost its strategic importance when, after two world wars, Austria lost its adjacent territories to Italy. Commerce now travels much more rapidly, and amicably, through modern tunnels.
Now, the road beckons late-summer hordes of thrill-seekers, who arrive on motorbikes, on bicycles and on foot. All manner of automobiles try to tackle it, but few cars are suited to its jack-knife turns.
The R8, as it turned out, was an especially poor choice for a Stelvio run.
The road climbs from around 3,000 feet in elevation at its base, near the town of Prato allo Stelvio, very sharply, through 48 zig-zag turns, to the 9,054-foot summit at Stilfersjoch. Conveniently, each zig and zag is numbered with a large sign. Descending the Stelvio’s back side to Bormio, there are another 34 hairpins.
Ascending, the car is on the outside of each turn; descending, it must take the tighter inside lane. On the way down, driving into the oncoming traffic’s lane was often the only way for the R8 to carve out a wide enough turning arc. The ideal arc was seldom available, thanks to the motley, almost comical array of other vehicles. The parade even included a 66-passenger regional bus.
The R8 needed every inch of its 38.7-foot turning radius to make the switchbacks. I have no idea how the bus did it.
The road featured grades of up to 16 percent, and the R8’s lusty V-10 produced plenty of torque to handle these, despite the car’s 3,650-pound curb weight. But its chassis was so taut, and its suspension so unforgiving, with almost no wheel-travel, that the R8 wheel-hopped out of many tight, bumpy corners, or bounced up on three (or fewer) wheels, on the irregular pavement. The R8’s standard all-wheel drive, however, instantaneously shifted traction to whatever wheels remained on the ground.
After completing the run, and despite plenty of stops for photos, a freshly grilled brat at the summit and a $180 fill-up, the R8 was ready for more, unlike its driver. I lost count of how many shifts were required of the 6-speed manual. I admit to stalling the engine on one botched take-off from a traffic-induced standstill.
Then again, the racecar driver Sir Stirling Moss once tried to get a sports car to the top and went off the road. Not even the motoring greats are guaranteed a trouble-free Stelvio ascent.
But what about the car? Though the R8 5.2, at 175,000 euros, or $236,000 as tested, is a superb sports car, mountain climbing is not its forte.
Is there another vehicle better suited to the Stelvio? The narrower Porsche 911 has a tighter turning radius, but is, like the R8, stronger on a track. Audi’s smaller TT would probably be an improvement, preferably the open-top roadster, not a claustrophobic, low-roof coupe (like the R8), all the better to admire the surrounding glacier-topped Ortler Alps.
Still better would be something light, tiny and zippy — a true Italian job — like an Abarth. A motorcycle (Moto Guzzi makes a Stelvio model) would be ideal in good weather; in bad, it would be a recipe for road rash.
What about the road? Does anything else compare? Racing up 14,110-foot Pikes Peak seems scarier, especially before much of the road was paved, because the drop-offs can be thousands of feet straight down. Yet the total climb is only about 5,000 feet. Driving Italy’s sinuous Amalfi Coast road is marvelously scenic and many miles longer, but the Stelvio, with its high altitude, is quite literally breathtaking. The old Nürburgring, ostensibly a public road, too, is longer at 14 miles, with more turns — 174 — but at prudent motoring speeds is not at all daunting, and the traffic flow is all one-way.
So I’d say the Passo dello Stelvio more than lived up to its hype. But is it truly the greatest driving road in this or any other world? Perhaps, but just in case it isn’t, I’m happy to keep looking.